DN - Defence Notes

Analysis: NATO, the return of the alliance

24th March 2017 - 04:03 GMT | by Grant Turnbull in London

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Nearly three decades ago when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union ended, the world breathed a sigh of relief as 40 years of great power rivalry came to an end.

At the same time, one of the core tenets of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a military alliance created in 1949 specifically to counter the threat on the eastern flank, evaporated.

Instead, NATO looked to justify its existence tackling organised crime, terrorism and taking part in 'out of area operations', most notably sending forces to Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission.

NATO countries also used the so-called 'peace dividend' to cut defence budgets and drastically reduce personnel and equipment numbers. So with no external threat and defence taking less priority in individual member countries, many questioned why NATO still existed.

Fast forward to 2017 and that assumption has drastically changed. Russia, weakened after the Cold War, has built itself up again and is flexing its military muscle with interventions in Georgia and more recently Ukraine, with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 using so-called 'hybrid' tactics.

Now, the eastern front doesn't look so secure and that has European states, and the NATO alliance, worried. So worried, in fact, that the region is going through an unprecedented period of military build-up, with forces from several countries pouring into the Baltic and Eastern European states.

Two efforts are currently under way to increase deterrence against Russian aggression, one being the NATO-led Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) mission, which has seen four multinational battalion-sized battlegroups deployed to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

The UK is leading the Estonian battlegroup and is sending a heavyweight mix of kit, including Challenger 2 tanks, AS90 self-propelled howitzers and Warrior IFVs. According to Meelis Oidsalu, the Estonian MoD's Under Secretary for Defence Planning, the EFP commitment is of 'immense importance'.

'Obviously as a small nation... we are not able to fulfil all the capability needs that we have,' said Oidsalu, speaking to Shephard in Tallinn. 'Therefore any presence, not only demonstrating solidarity by our allies when they come here to train with us, but now also in the form of EFP is of immense importance.'

Obviously as a small nation... we are not able to fulfil all the capability needs that we have.

Meelis Oidsalu, Estonian MoD Under Secretary

Responsible for military defence development and planning for Estonia, Oidsalu said that 'the list of opportunities' for Russian forces had been shortened by a bolstered NATO presence. 'Because we have a real fighting force here, not only a unit with training gear and no ammunition, this is a hardcore thing and the opponent is aware of that.'

A complementary deterrence mission is also under way by the US, known as Operation Atlantic Resolve. This mission, funded by the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) has seen a return to rotational deployments of armoured brigade combat teams (ABCT) in Europe. In 2013, the US withdrew the last of its tanks from Germany and left behind just two heavy brigades as focus shifted on the pivot to Asia.

Today, however, M1A2 Abrams tanks, M2 Bradley IFVs and a myriad of other equipment, including Apache attack helicopters, are back in action across the eastern flank. Earlier this month, Shephard saw first-hand US Army troops going through live-fire exercises in Adazi, Latvia, with crews practising squad-level armoured tactics and working up to platoon and company-level manoeuvres.

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Members of the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team are spread throughout the Baltics, with the 1st Battalion 68th Armored Regiment (1-68 AR) using the deployment to train alongside local Baltic forces.

'We are the first heel-to-toe armoured brigade that our nation has provided to the NATO alliance,' said Lt Col Stephen Capehart, commander of 1-68 AR. 'Not only just in the Baltics but as well as in Poland and Romania, the importance of this is interoperability and the focus on exercises leads to deterrence of any threat against the alliance.'

Capehart said the use of local training areas in the Baltics, such as Adazi in Latvia, during the deployment allows for 'fantastic manoeuvre training'.

'It is the terrain that you would conduct operations on in support of the alliance so being able to take that and learn how to manoeuvre has been what's valuable,' he explained. 'Whether that is in Latvia, or Lithuania or Estonia, there is the same level of opportunity.'

It is the terrain that you would conduct operations on in support of the alliance so being able to take that and learn how to manoeuvre has been what's valuable.

Lt Col Stephen Capehart, Commander 1st Battalion, 68th Armored Regiment

Over the coming weeks, the 1-68th will go from section-level exercises – involving just two tanks – all the way up to full battalion-strength exercises that integrate local Baltic forces. This interoperability training is particularly important for the Baltic nations themselves, which have been members of the alliance since 2004.

'We have developed a high degree of interoperability,' said Jānis Garisons, the state secretary of the Latvian MoD. 'Now it's very important to train in [the local] environment because previously we put too much attention on outside area operations… and neglected our own national defence.'

For the small Baltic state the deployment of well-equipped US and NATO forces in the region has been crucial to deterring Russia. 'What is important is to have those troops and to actually have troops that are able to fight with military meaning… I have to say we are quite satisfied with what is going on,' said Garisons.

'The Russian side actually noted that there is significant changes in not only the deployment of troops but the general attitude,' he added.

A US Army HMMWV in Latvia, supporting armoured training exercises. (Photo: author)

Despite this bolstering of NATO's presence, Oidsalu stated that Russia still has several advantages that NATO has to address. One is Russia's military modernisation, which when complete will mean the armed forces are 'so strong that they don't even need to wait for opportunities'. Their training and exercises also indicate they would be able to run an extremely broad front across NATO's eastern flank, which the alliance would struggle to match.

For Oidsalu, Russia also has a 'sense of victory' as a result of its successful post-Cold War military campaigns, minus the first Chechan War. He added that psychologically the nation is also 'willing to fight a war' and it lacks political restraints that are inherent in Western liberal democracies.

On top of this, Russia has also used the conflict in Syria as 'a testing ground' for new weapons and in Ukraine it has shown it can create a new army from scratch using the local population. 'If the alliance won't address [these challenges] within the next five to seven years we are in deep [trouble] actually,' he warned.

The threat has not receded, but NATO and the US contribution to European security and deterrence will have certainly made Russia think twice before launching any kind of action, whether hybrid or conventional.

NATO has once again found its purpose and reason for being, although that could mean continued insecurity for Europe into the foreseeable future.

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