October 20, 2017  06:02 PM

The 2nd Cavalry Regiment is one of the oldest units in the U.S. Army. As early as 1846, soldiers from the unit fought against Mexico and in the American Indian Wars two decades later, elements of the unit stumbled into an ambush and were scalped. In 1905, the cavalry members put down a rebellion on the Philippines before going on to take part in two world wars. More recently, the 2nd Cavalry Regiment made several tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But on July 18, 2017, the 1st Squadron of the proud regiment came up against an opponent that it couldn’t handle. At the Romanian-Bulgarian border, the unit’s convoy found itself stopped by a simple border crossing. “We sat in our Strykers for an hour and a half in the sun just waiting for guys to manually stamp some paperwork,” Colonel Patrick Ellis, the unit’s commander, told the American website Defense One.

In times of peace, such a situation seems little more than burlesque. But in more serious circumstances, such a thing could limit NATO’s ability to defend itself. Ever since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the Western alliance has been preparing to defend its territory against an aggressor, should it become necessary. But the bureaucracy associated with the international borders among the alliance’s 29 member states likely slows troop convoys more effectively than any Russian tank trap ever could. And the problem isn’t one of bureaucracy alone.

Since the end of June, a report marked “NATO SECRET” has been circulating in headquarters in Brussels that unsparingly lists the alliance’s weaknesses. Under the innocuous title “Progress Report on the Alliance’s Strengthened Deterrence and Defense Posture,” the authors arrive at the shocking conclusion that “NATO’s ability to logistically support rapid reinforcement in the much-expanded territory covering SACEUR’s (Supreme Allied Commander Europe) area of operation has been atrophied since the end of the Cold War.”

Atrophy is a word used by doctors to describe the wasting away of bodily tissue, often the result of disuse due to injury. And it takes quite some time before strength is rebuilt. Twenty-seven years after the end of the Cold War, NATO’s logistical infrastructure is apparently in a similar situation: Its functionality is limited.

There are shortages of almost everything: things like low-loaders for tanks, train cars for heavy equipment and modern bridges that can bear the weight of a 64-ton giant like the Leopard 2 battle tank. What good are the most expensive weapons systems when they can’t be transported to where they are needed most? “The overall risk to rapid reinforcement is substantial,” the report reads.

A Vexing Situation

Not even the alliance’s rapid-response unit can be relied upon. “The current status of enablement of SACEUR’s AOR does not give sufficient confidence that even the NATO Response Force is able to respond rapidly and be sustained, as required.”

The secret report from Brussels paints a picture of an alliance that wouldn’t be in a position to defend against an attack from Russia. It would be unable to position its troops quickly enough, it lacks sufficient officers on staff and supplies from across the Atlantic are insufficient.

Graphic: NATO's Eastern Border


Graphic: NATO’s Eastern Border

It is a vexing situation given that the Western alliance is (likely) militarily superior to, and (certainly) in much better shape economically than, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s autocratic regime. Ultimately, though, as thousands of years of military history have shown, it is often unspectacular factors such as supply lines, provisions and logistics that determine victory or defeat. To be sure, hardly anyone really thinks that Russia might attack a NATO member state, but many in the alliance are convinced that only a credible military deterrence will prevent Putin from exerting political pressure on the alliance’s easternmost countries like Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.

As such, three years after the Crimea annexation, the alliance’s military architecture is facing far-reaching restructuring. The period of the so-called “peace dividend” – a term referring to the years following 1989 when Western countries felt they no longer needed to spend as much money on their defensive capabilities – is over and Cold War command structures have returned. Once again, NATO should be prepared for a large military conflict, for a “MJO+,” as it is called in military jargon. The invocation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, whereby an attack on one member is seen as an attack on all, would constitute such a “Major Joint Operation Plus.”

The alliance “must be able to rapidly reinforce a threatened ally or allies, to underpin deterrence in peacetime and crises, and to reinforce an ally or allies for defense in case of attack,” the report reads. It must also be able to quickly mobilize and sustain troops, “whatever the nature, demand, destination or duration of the operation, mission or activity.” To ensure that capability, “a robust civil/military logistics structure and enabling capabilities” are required, including lines of communication from North America to the eastern and southern borders of NATO territory and “intra-European routes.”

Defense ministers from the 29 NATO member states assigned the task of reforming the alliance’s command structures back in February. In the future, the alliance must be able to carry out several operations concurrently at the maximum “level of ambition,” they said at the time.

‘Relevant and Robust’

Hitherto existing NATO command structures is “at best, only partially fit for purpose and, while it has not been tested, would quickly fail if confronted with the full NATO Level of Ambition,” the secret NATO paper notes. This “level of ambition” is designed as “MJO+.” In other words, NATO is preparing for a possible war with Russia.

NATO military leaders have long known that the alliance’s command structures are no longer up to the task of a major conflict with Russia. A week ago Friday, they presented the NATO Military Committee with their suggestions for augmenting the officer staff. Now, all member states have the opportunity to comment on the plans and in early November, defense ministers will likely approve it.

“We recognize the need to adapt and modernize the alliance and its command structure,” says Norwegian Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide. “Norway is committed to ensuring that NATO’s command structure remains relevant and robust.” Her Danish counterpart Claus Hjort Frederiksen says: “Russia has broken international law,” making it necessary for the alliance to review its structures. “NATO is the strongest defensive alliance in the world because for the last 70 years, it has constantly adapted to new challenges.”

Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis likewise demands improved structures for “NATO’s deterrence and military reinforcement measures” in Eastern Europe. The new structure should “support NATO’s posture in vulnerable areas, such as the Baltic region.”

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