A lucky few may have seen some of the 89 U.S. helicopters flying over Belgium on Tuesday on their way to the Baltic States and Poland as part of NATO’s Operation Atlantic Resolve. But behind this deployment lie serious organisational and logistical gaps unveiled on October 20 by the German weekly Der Spiegel.
According to the document entitled “Progress report on the Alliance’s Enhanced Deterrence and Defence Disposition,”, “the ability for NATO to logistically support rapid reinforcement in the expanded territory covering the area of operation of SACEUR [Supreme Allied Commander Europe] has shrunk since the end of the Cold War.” In other words: NATO’s current logistical structure is identical to the one set up during the Cold War, despite a theatre of operations which has grown considerably since 1999 because of the gradual integration of 13 new countries.
As for the Alliance’s command structures, they are “at best, only partially adapted to their purpose […] and would fail quickly if they were faced with NATO’s highest level of ambition,” the report says. Of the 23,000 soldiers deployed in NATO command centres before the fall of the Berlin Wall, only 6,800 remain in the headquarters at Brunssum (Netherlands) and Casteau (Belgium).
In addition to inadequate command structures, the Alliance faces a glaring lack of logistical equipment, such as low loaders or bridges capable of supporting modern military vehicles. “What is the use of investing in the most expensive weapons if they cannot be transported ?” asks Der Spiegel. Not to mention the bureaucratic obstacles sometimes faced by troops wishing to cross the border between two member states. All these obstacles are theoretically removed or ignored in times of war, but they jeopardize preventive manoeuvres in times of peace.
NATO, however, is not standing idle. On 8 and 9 November, the Alliance’s 29 defence ministers will meet in Brussels to discuss a series of urgent measures. These involve, first, the creation of two new headquarters, one in the United States dedicated to the management of shipping routes, and another, probably based in Germany or Poland, intended to ensure the sustainability of shipping lines. In addition, Allies will work to adapt national legislation to allow military equipment to transit faster across borders. And the machine seems to be in motion, because the helicopters seen in the Belgian sky also had the mission to “test new routes,” said Lieutenant-Colonel John Hotek, commander of the 839th transport battalion of the U.S. Army, on Tuesday.
The reflection undertaken by NATO is all the more urgent as it must now focus on tensions appearing even within its own borders. The latest example is Turkey’s purchase of S-400 air defence systems from Russia. Yesterday, General Petr Pavel, current director of the NATO Military Committee, recalled that while nations are sovereign over military procurement, “they are also sovereign to deal with the consequences of their decisions.” In other words, if Turkey signs the purchase of the S-400s, it exposes itself to the total exclusion of any integrated air defence structure with the Allies, as well as to other technical restrictions, threatened Pavel.