From the Cold War and Hot Peace to the Long War and Beyond: What Are Our Armed Forces (Good) For?

Session 1. Strategic trends and the utility of force

Defining what a conflict is about, and deciding how to deal with it in a way that is in line with the way our alliances work and will produce desired outcomes is a major challenge. As Clausewitz observed, the first duty of a commander is to determine the nature of the war he is embarking upon. This is very difficult and challenging, since war always develops a relentless logic of its own and, no matter how much we would like to classify a conflict, this proves futile because this logic overruns our efforts to achieve clarity. We often find ourselves fighting the kind of war which we did not really anticipate. Indeed, surprise and uncertainty about future conflicts and the uses of military force are constant: we may face traditional wars, insurgencies, humanitarian crises, air campaigns, but we really do not know the scope of future operations. If one looks at the military actions the West has undertaken over the last 20 years, it is very difficult to classify them. All interventions were tailor-made, specifically designed for a very particular set of circumstances. They could even be called “designer wars”, which means that it is not always obvious what forces are going to be used, how, in combination with which other means, or for how long. Indeed, labels such as “frozen conflicts” are very misleading, because such conflicts can turn into wars very quickly – the line between war and peace is very thin in many cases.

Given this absence of certainty and clarity, there are significant difficulties in articulating what sort of outcomes should be pursued, or what constitutes success, and then achieving these outcomes through the use of armed force. Afghanistan illustrates this point very well: on the one hand, it can be claimed that the security situation is improving and that the Afghan authorities will be able to take over full responsibility from ISAF, which means our mission is a success; on the other hand, it is possible to claim that we only succeeded in finding an exit rather than achieving the original objectives of the campaign. Thus, even though the most-high tech capabilities have been deployed by the most successful alliance in history, the results are very mixed at best, or have come so agonizingly slowly as to defeat the very purpose of the intervention.

These difficulties also translate into difficulties of understanding and planning what sort of force is and will be needed. It could be argued that the old way of seeing a military organisation as a hierarchy of brigades and divisions, distinct from other security sector organisations, is outdated and ineffective. Therefore, we have to look at the general security capacity of a country as the starting point for organising ourselves for security and defence and for combining tailor-made capabilities like Lego bricks. However, it is equally true that the old divisional structures still provide a degree of flexibility to mix and match capabilities according to the needs of the moment. Whether in response to conventional threats and applications of force, or to asymmetric ones, the requirement to move large forces over long distances still requires drills, skills and organisational methods which can be described as traditional. What we need is a balanced force, but this is a very expensive goal.

Technological trends also make defence platforms and systems more and more expensive, meaning that not only small nations, but even big military powers are less and less able to afford many of the capabilities they see as necessary to manage the security environment. This underscores the importance of greater cooperation, pooling and sharing. It is obvious that, although there are cheaper ways of doing things, the Western way of war – implying particularly the need to maintain legitimacy by exercising restraint as well as precision in order to avoid unnecessary casualties and destruction – obliges us to invest in expensive capabilities such as ISR, and PGMs. At the same time, technology’s role in defence should not be overestimated: at the end of the day, while we focus so much on equipment, platforms and capabilities, it is people in uniform who conduct war. We ask them to do extraordinary things by putting themselves in danger, which means we are obliged not only to supply them well and in time, but also to educate them in the art of war as a way to deal with its uncertainties.

Our armed forces are products of our post-modern, post-military societies which feel threatened not so much by the use of military force, but rather by a range of societal, economic, and political issues. Such societies are inherently unwilling to foot a higher bill for defence and do not take defence very seriously, although, paradoxically, they are often very supportive of military interventions for liberal causes such as NATO’s intervention in Libya. However, not everyone is so post-modern, and dismissive of the role that military power plays, or feels bound by the constraints of legitimacy we impose upon ourselves when using force. To such players – states (e.g. Russia, China) and non-state entities – the use of force comes more cheaply and easily, and it is the language of force which they well understand. Although the possibility of the direct use of force against NATO and the EU is rather small, it is much higher against some countries of, for instance, the Eastern Neighbourhood. Thus, it is important that, although they should not lose sleep over the threat of conventional inter-state war, NATO and EU members should keep a watchful eye on such countries as Russia.

Furthermore, military power is still a hard currency in international relations, and Western societies, states and alliances have to recognise that if they are to remain important players globally, they must be able to defend their values and interests by convincing – through the threat to use force, if necessary – others to accept our rules of the game. It is certainly possible to spend even less on defence, perhaps to reduce by as much as a half, and to become a huge Switzerland ready to defend only our own territory. But, if Europe is to become a serious player, able to influence the choices, policies and actions of others – especially of those who see military force as indispensable in pursuit of power – it has to invest in military force, show the political will necessary to employ it and make a better job of selling wars of interest to its own public. Intervention in the Libyan conflict, although highlighting Europe’s dependence on the U.S. for various critical enablers of military operations, was a step in that direction. It will be possible to trade its effect on the perceptions of the West in further influence-building for some time in the future.

Session 2. Defence reforms in Europe

The economic and financial crisis is taking its toll on defence. Nations are cutting defence spending: 16 NATO Allies spent less in 2010 compared to 2008; very few are meeting the benchmarks of 2% of GDP for defence and 20% of the defence budget for major equipment. Cuts fall disproportionately on major equipment procurement and modernisation, although, encouragingly, there is a determination to continue funding current operations. On the other hand, even large nations such as the UK or France are no longer able to fund in three directions – modernisation, readiness and operations - simultaneously. The focus on operations means that readiness is declining and that modernisation is being postponed. To some nations, the crisis represents an opportunity not to be wasted: they are looking to identify legacies, inefficiencies and waste which used to be politically difficult to eliminate but are now ripe for shedding. On the other hand, this opportunity might be just a myth since cuts are often being made without proper deep and meaningful reforms or in a solely national context, without any coordination between different Allies (with a very few exceptions). Narrow national interests, protectionism and short-termism hamper the proper use of this crisis as an opportunity.

“Smart defence” or more “pooling and sharing” and better burden sharing could provide a way to increase collective capabilities even while spending is declining. This is not an entirely new way of thinking if defined it as the sum of all cooperative efforts and initiatives within the EU and NATO, rather than just as common ownership of assets and capabilities. Initiatives such as cooperative capability, security cooperation, mutual development or multinational formations such as Eurocorps – all designed to increase the capacity of the military to work together – have existed for a long time. New initiatives such as NATO’s strategic airlift consortium further advance this thinking and practice. We are already witnessing the dividends of these approaches in operations in Afghanistan. Certainly, there are many areas where this must be taken further and produce more – all very well illustrated by capability gaps in operations in Libya: air-to-air refuelling, ISTAR, combat SAR, tactical airlift etc. It does not matter through what sort of arrangement or under which nation’s lead this is delivered, as long as it is actually delivered rather than producing the very modest results of many past initiatives (DCI, PCC etc.) or projects (e.g. helicopter initiative in NATO). Civilian capabilities will also have to be enhanced through cooperative efforts such as the Weimar initiative, since the management of many contemporary crises requires civilian inputs.

Prompted by the crisis, we often talk about spending on new capabilities such as cyber, but this cannot become a substitute for investing in real capabilities (cyber would have been of little use in Libya or against the Taliban) and doing it in a collective, coordinated manner. New approaches are needed to obtain those capabilities, especially doing away with many duplicate programmes in Europe. In the United States, despite the inherent waste of a large defence organisation, the military manage to derive a greater value from their investments than the Europeans. If Europeans continue in their current approach of just shrinking their “total war” force instead of reconfiguring it properly for the age of “limited wars”, the Americans will simply turn away and leave. Their executive branch and the military realise very well that even the United States cannot achieve everything alone and must cooperate with its allies and partners in Europe, but this may not arrest the growing sentiment of giving up on Europe felt in the legislative branch. On the other hand, some of the fault for the capability gaps and the steep decline in conventional heavy capabilities in Europe rests with the United States: many Europeans wanted to shine in the “coalitions of the willing” led by the Americans and therefore developed capabilities which bought influence instead of producing military effectiveness.

“Pooling and sharing” will work best if it comes in a “bottom up”, pragmatic fashion – much in the way of the recent UK-France defence cooperation agreements – and if they are linked with U.S. capabilities. Indeed, it is likely that most of the workable arrangements will be bilateral and multi-bilateral rather than genuinely multilateral. “Pooling and sharing” has its limits, some of which arise from the difficulties encountered in agreeing upon and then implementing decisions in a consensus-based decision-making culture in organisations such as NATO and the EU. More fundamentally, however, diverging strategic cultures in Europe mean that there is no common threat perception and no common understanding of why and in what circumstances the use of military force is necessary and appropriate, which may render “pooled and shared” assets and capabilities unusable. There are interventionist countries keen on using force to advance interests and values, and those who exercise extreme caution and would reserve the use of force for the defence of the Alliance‘s territory. (This was illustrated by the challenges of reaching a common position with regard to NATO’s intervention in Libya.)

It might thus make sense to pursue a division of labour whereby the latter maintain heavy conventional forces (and the associated know-how) needed to re-assure some Allies and deter countries such as Russia, while the former focus on developing lighter expeditionary forces for the “wars of choice”, maintaining an ability to reconstitute their heavy forces when necessary. Thereby NATO would increasingly become just a pool of capabilities for ad hoc coalitions. This would undermine the Alliance’s cohesion, but political unity is critical only when it comes to Article 5. In other contingencies and conflicts, it is better that only the countries which are willing to use force deploy their troops: in Afghanistan and in counterinsurgencies in general, deploying, but not acting due to various national caveats, is worse than not deploying at all. At the same time, it is becoming obvious that the European public lives in a delusion that the world is free of threats which may require military responses. Politicians are all too eager to follow this sentiment instead of communicating that we have to be prepare for all sorts of surprises (nobody anticipated Kosovo, 9/11 or Libya). Political leadership and will are absolutely essential, but no amount of defence spending increases, “pooling and sharing” or defence reforms will ever produce this.

Session 3. Strategic options for small allies

The main question is whether small allies have options or, actually, whether they have a set of dilemmas. First, while NATO and the EU have global ambitions, the interests of small allies usually are concentrated regionally, posing the question of how they can make an effective contribution to these organisations. Second, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, the capability requirements and operational priorities of NATO and the EU are increasingly diverging, confronting small countries with very difficult choices. Third, small allies more than larger states feel the tension between satisfying urgent operational requirements (e.g. force protection) and long-term capability development and modernisation. The fourth set of dilemmas concerns choosing with whom, in what, and how far to pursue “pooling and sharing”. Last, but not least, there is a tension between national and NATO requirements, stemming from the Washington Treaty which speaks about both collective and individual response. NATO often requires capabilities which are not attractive in a national context (e.g. in CSS) while declining the contribution of capabilities of which the Alliance has more than enough collectively, but which are seen as an attractive national investment (e.g. special forces).

Small states would be the first victims of the renationalisation of security and defence policy in NATO, therefore they have to work hard to maintain the credibility of multinational solutions and the transatlantic alliance. What matters most is whether the Alliance is able and willing to act rapidly in a crisis situation. If it faces a serious security policy crisis, this will be a dilemma for national parliaments and governments, as every nation has an obligation to act independently of what happens at the NAC. But, since the end of the Cold War, we have done very little to increase our ability to handle Article 5 situations, as all efforts have been concentrated on deployed operations. This, in turn, has started to erode public support for NATO at home. The skills in the art of deterrence in the officer corps have also declined, while the importance of deterring new emerging powers from challenging our values has been increasing, and the certainty about further U.S. involvement in Europe has diminished.

Furthermore, the Alliance’s knowledge about various regions in its neighbourhood has all but disappeared (as illustrated by the crisis in Libya), meaning that small nations on the periphery of the Alliance may be valuable contributors to rebuilding this knowledge. Given that Europe’s neighbourhood is full of simmering unresolved conflicts which can heat up very quickly, this knowledge is vital in exercising preventive diplomacy – a tool we often neglect, concentrating instead on military capabilities. As Europeans, we have to pay more attention to our own backyard, instead of ignoring it or delegating responsibility to other allies. Small allies close to those regions have memories and experiences which are often relevant to conflict prevention and resolution, and larger allies must pay attention, listen, consult and understand those experiences.

There is a lot which can be done to restore and further increase NATO’s visibility and credibility along its periphery. There are many large military exercises in, for instance, the Nordic-Baltic area (15-20 each year), but these are usually “coalitions of the willing” rather than NATO exercises. We should conduct them under the NATO flag, even if the link is only reporting the results to SACEUR and allowing free access to lessons learned. Contingency planning should be conducted on a regular basis as a way to maintain the habit and fitness, even if there are no threats of aggression. Cooperation and dialogue with Russia should be advanced much more, and for the small allies in the Nordic-Baltic region NATO is a very good conduit to do so. Small states should also be doing more to revive comprehensive security planning domestically, so that security sector organisations can cooperate effectively between themselves and with the private sector in cases of security emergencies such as terrorist attacks. And they still need to contribute niche capabilities (e.g. as Estonia does with the cyber defence centre of excellence) and participate in out-of-area operations, because solidarity and unity are essential.

Regional security and defence cooperation (e.g. through the Nordic-Baltic Eight, NB8) and more “pooling and sharing” are also ways towards more capability and credibility, or staying on the radar screen by punching above their weight. It is not new in essence: the Nordics have been cooperating for decades, although NORDEFCO is a relatively fresh arrangement focused primarily on training which is yet to be deepened and expanded (even though the dominant perception outside the region is that this is a very advanced and deep cooperation); the Baltics have their common projects (BALTNET, BALTRON, BALTDEFCOL) running successfully. But this cooperation does not necessarily mean that only fixed configurations should exist: countries should establish cooperative arrangements with various partners, depending on the aims, geopolitical outlook, profiles of their capabilities, similarities of used military platforms, etc. Poland in particular should become part of Nordic-Baltic configurations due to its growing geopolitical importance and military weight, and ways should be found to keep the United States and other major countries involved, not least because we need access to their knowledge and technology. All this can be quite expensive given, for instance, the need for basing and training abroad, but often there is no other way to getting more “bang for the buck”.

Politically, we might not want to be seen as a single entity (i.e. the Baltic states), but security and defence-wise this is not a problem as long as it does not lead to regionalisation – or taking greater responsibility for our own greater security in the region. Regionalisation in some non-military issues such as energy security, sea surveillance or cyber security might be beneficial, but more research is needed in this respect. In military security, it may also look an attractive option for the Nordic-Baltic region, at least on paper: the region’s countries have enough assets and capabilities to handle most of the possible contingencies. However, there are issues of insufficient trust, diverging threat perceptions, equal weight (which means there is no clear leader), the unaffordability of certain systems even through regional solutions (e.g. missile defence) and the need to rely on nuclear deterrence which all limit the extent of possible regionalisation. Furthermore, although more regional solutions by countries with diverging EU and NATO memberships may inspire better cooperation between the two organisations, it might not be wise to rely on non-NATO members (Sweden, Finland) for firm security guarantees. Most of all, if the region came to be seen to be strong enough militarily, it would provide an excuse for other allies further away to disengage. While more defence cooperation must be sought, regionalisation in defence in the Nordic-Baltic region should be avoided for the sake of greater Alliance-wide unity and solidarity.

Prepared by Tomas Jermalavičius and Anthony Lawrence, ICDS