Reflecting on NATO 2030

May 13th, 2020

This Analysis is the guidance I am about to give to the Secretary-General’s NATO Reflection Group concerning my vision of NATO 2030.

“Power is as power does”.

J.K. Galbraith

Ladies and Gentlemen, good afternoon. Let me begin by quoting J.K. Galbraith, “power is as power does”.

This briefing has five elements germane to your mission: 1. a strategic appreciation; 2. the worst defence-strategic consequence of COVID-19 for NATO; 3. NATO’s strategic paradoxes and dilemma; 4, NATO’s critical needs; and 5. (and finally) my vision for NATO 2030. Given the importance of your mission I will choose my words carefully. You have the text of my remarks to assist you and all the arguments herein are much more deeply-developed in my forthcoming Oxford book Future War and the Defence of Europe, co-written with Generals Allen and Hodges.

Core messages

  1. Far from adding more tasks to NATO’s already wide but shallow capabilities and capacities, the Alliance should be ditching tasks that do not conform to its core mission of the defence and deterrence of the Euro-Atlantic area. Indeed, adding new tasks shorn of significantly increased resources would profoundly undermine the credibility of the Alliance.
  1. Even as NATO re-focuses on its core mission it must also properly consider the changing nature of that mission in the face of the revolution in military technology underway and how the future hybrid, cyber, hyper war mosaic will affect the Alliance’s ability to defend and deter.
  1. If the Alliance adapts together NATO could continue to be organised around a North American and a European political pillar. If not, function and capability will become the new organising Alliance principle, with NATO divided between a high-end, hi-tech, digital future pillar, and a low-tech, analogue, legacy force ‘pillar’.
  1. Or, in an emergency, NATO’s stronger members will simply step outside of the Alliance framework and function as a coalition of the willing and able.

Strategic Appreciation

Europeans are in denial about the nature, scope and speed of strategic change. COVID-19 could be the tipping point towards conflict for an increasingly precarious global balance of military power. However, whilst COVID-19 will doubtless accelerate change, it is unlikely to radically transform the nature of change itself. Indeed, if the strategic consequences of COVID-19 conform to past pandemics far from ending the threat of war, it could well accelerate it.

2030? Europeans are locked in a virtual Ten Year Rule. They do not believe a major war could happen in the next decade. COVID-19 could further detach Europe’s virtual world from strategic reality by creating a profound tension between human (health security) and national defence.

Critically, few Europeans understand the revolution in warfare underway, nor the implications of the growing over-stretch of US forces for the Alliance and European defence. Europeans, I fear, have also lost the political capacity to consider the geopolitical worst case. Specifically, the danger that the Alliance could face a simultaneous multi-theatre crisis in the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and North Africa, as well as on the Alliance’s Eastern and Northern flanks across the conventional and nuclear, and the analogue and digital spectrum.

At the very least, Europeans must begin to grip the implications of fast-shifting military power purchasing parity. First, by 2030, on current trajectories, the relative military power of China and Russia could have surpassed the Western democracies unless Europeans drastically improve their future war, future defence effort. Second, China and Russia will be able to exert pressure on the US and its allies at the weakest seams of the Alliance. Third, such power could well do what it can. Beijing and Moscow are not European liberal democrats.

Worst defence-strategic consequence of COVID-19 for NATO

If Europeans effectively abandon the modernisation of national defence for health security in the face of a changing military balance of power they will force the Americans into a dangerous choice: defend Europe by offsetting European military weaknesses, and thus make their own armed forces relatively weaker, or effectively abandon Europe for the Indo-Pacific. As COVID-19 has demonstrated: shock happens!

NATO’s Strategic Paradoxes and dilemma

NATO suffers from a series of strategic paradoxes and a strategic dilemma that the NATO Reflection Group should consider:

NATO’s strategic paradoxes:

–   – European defence under-investment will likely deepen post-COVID-19, but the scope of NATO missions will likely expand;

–      –  China’s military rise will exacerbate US military over-stretch, but European military capability and capacity will be unable to meet the challenge of a European worst-case military emergency;

–         -Deterring Future War should be the centre of gravity of Alliance Adaptation, with a specific mandate to consider the impact of new technologies in the battlespace, such as artificial intelligence, machine-learning, super-computing etc and et al. However, too many Europeans either want to fight past campaigns better, or adapt NATO to managing crises for which it is ill-suited (such as terrorism and assistance to civil authorities);

–      – Future war will demand an Alliance deterrence and defence posture that stretches across complex strategic coercion and 5D warfare from deception to disinformation, from disruption to destabilisation, and destruction. That, in turn, will require a deep strategic partnership with the EU and the nations. Such synergy simply does not exist;

–       –  Real Adaptation would see a new and critical balance struck between the digitalised military power projection upon which all credible 2030 Allied defence and deterrence will depend, and far more assured people protection via a more secure home base. There is no such ambition apparent.

NATO’s Strategic Dilemma:

Crises will not come in single packages. The specific dilemma is thus: how to ensure NATO has the tailored mass and high-end manoeuvre to simultaneously defend and deter on its Eastern and Northern Flanks and support Allies on its Southern Flank in the event of chaos across the Middle East and North Africa?

NATO’s Critical Needs

Given the defence and deterrence challenge NATO’s critical needs now are thus:

–          Drastically improved European force interoperability with their US counterparts;

–          Far faster political consultations over what constitutes an attack;

–          Far faster and more nuanced indicators, better shared analysis, much faster responsiveness, with forces and resources constantly at a higher state of readiness and able to seamlessly rotate during a crisis; and

–          Above all, much greater devolved command authority to SACEUR and SHAPE from the earliest stages of a crisis and throughout the conflict cycle.

My vision for NATO 2030?

  1. A new strategic concept that prioritises future-proofed Allied defence focused on a new system of deterrence across the hybrid-cyber-hyper war mosaic which intelligently adapts existing conventional and nuclear counterforce deterrence with digital counterforce.
  2. A Euro-centric twenty-first century Allied Command Operations heavy mobile force that closes the posture gap from which Alliance forces suffer and which could assure defence and deterrence in an emergency and when US forces are engaged across multiple theatres and multiple domains.
  3. Allied Command Transformation is charged with properly developing such a European high-end, first response digital-centric future force that can also act as a development platform for a future AI, big data, and increasingly robotic-enabled defence, via such programmes as the NATO Unmanned Systems Initiative.
  4. That such a force can also meet the interoperability challenge with the US future force.The European future force must, therefore, also be able to operate with US forces or autonomously across air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge, and critically able to gain comparative advantage in contact.
  5. A NATO-EU strategic partnership worthy of the name that can project power and protect people by moving forces and resources quickly in and around Europe in an emergency to underpin deterrence, mount a defence, and respond to consequence.

Conclusion

The tendency since the end of the Cold War, and indeed for much of it, has been to place political compromise before defence and deterrent effect. The 2019 NATO Military Strategy was reflective of such a tradition. However, NATO and its nations will soon face hard choices and it is those choices the NATO Reflection Group should address.

NATO is ultimately strategic insurance against war in an unstable world in which strategy, technology, capability and affordability are combining for allies and adversaries alike.  NATO must thus be a high-end, warfighting military deterrent.  It is NOT a military EU.

Above all, Europeans must realise that in the coming decade a hard-pressed US will only be able to ‘guarantee’ Europe’s future defence if Europeans do far more for their own defence. COVID-19 or no! For once, the future of NATO really is at stake. If we fail to modernise our Alliance one day power really could do to some of us, what malicious and malevolent power can, indeed, do if not deterred.

Julian Lindley-French