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Can NATO countries succeed in a war against Russia?

13th June 2024 - 16:23 GMT | by Flavia Camargos Pereira in Kansas City

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A US Army Green Beret adjusting a laser sight during Trojan Footprint 2024 near Sofia, Bulgaria. (Photo: US Army)

Member states have been preparing personnel and inventory for a high-intensity conflict but many challenges remain.

NATO countries have been working on diverse lines-of-action to prepare troops and equipment for a high-intensity conflict as the possibility of Russia's war in Ukraine spreading throughout Europe cannot be ruled out.

“NATO is ready to fight tonight in a way that it hasn't been in the last two years,” Sean Monaghan, visiting fellow with the CSIS Europe, Russia and Eurasia Programme, claimed. “But NATO is maybe not ready for a protracted war.”

In a recent webinar conducted by the CSIS, Monaghan pointed out that the alliance “still has a lot of work to do on that front”, with member states needing to overcome certain obstacles to jointly succeed on the battlefield.

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In this sense, the interoperability between the alliance’s states has become a pressing concern. Although NATO countries share standards for the acquisition and operation of military systems, and have been trying to increase the commonality of their systems, the diversity of equipment in their inventories threatens collaborative deployments.

It also hampers efforts to connect systems in a network and enable them to both communicate with each other and share information. Additionally, the operation of several types of equipment puts strain on logistics and the supply chain as platforms require different ammunition and spare parts.

Another problem facing the alliance is related to the recruitment and retention of skilled professionals. In the US, the army, navy and air force failed to meet their recruitment goals in 2023. The UK’s military, in turn, has been facing issues in hiring science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professionals, while the Netherlands faces a 20–25% personnel shortage.

On the other hand, according to data from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the alliance’s total amount of active-duty personnel in 2024 (1,891,635) exceeds the Kremlin’s (1,100,000).

NATO’s cumulative capabilities also surpass Moscow’s since the member states currently operate 2,429 combat-capable aircraft and 6,652 MBTs, compared to Russia’s 1,377-strong aeroplane fleet and its 2,000 tanks.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has succeeded in putting its troops and inventory close to pre-war levels despite the losses recorded since it invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

US and Greece soldiers jumping out of a USAF MC-130J during exercise Trojan Footprint 24 in Greece. (Photo: US Air Force)

International sanctions have not prevented Moscow from accessing essential components and electronics, as well as maintaining high levels of production of defence solutions.

Along with the support of China, Iran and North Korea, Russia has been circumventing export control measures and using Western-made components.

Cynthia Cook, director of the CSIS Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group and senior fellow with the International Security Program, stressed that despite having “more modern equipment” than Russia, the alliance “has capability gaps and readiness challenges which undermine the conventional deterrence”.

“NATO’s number of combat vehicles in service, main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armoured reconnaissance vehicles and self-propelled artillery have remained static or fallen since 2014,” Cook noted. “And European nations have gaps in naval forces, air enablers, air defence and battle decisive munitions.”

Some of its issues were addressed during the 2022 Madrid Summit and a task force on the resilience of critical infrastructure was established to improve energy, transportation, digital infrastructure and space.

It also resulted in a rise in defence funds. In February, the alliance released its military spending figures showing that the US’s European allies and Canada had increased their investments by 11% in the last 10 years, which represented more than $600 billion. Moreover, NATO has projected that 18 out of 32 allies would spend 2% of GDP on defence in 2024.

In order to strengthen its defence industrial bases, members stated endorsed a Defence Production Action Plan in 2023. Initially focused on land munitions, it intends to improve interoperability and materiel standardisation.

From Cook’s perspective, “policymakers are finally giving the defence industrial base the attention that it deserves”.

NATO countries’ capabilities in formation during the Exercise Nordic Response 24 in the Norwegian Sea. (Photo: Royal Navy/Belinda Alker)

Moreover, countries increased their stockpiles and inventories by procuring new systems, solutions and platforms across all domains.

The entry of Finland and Sweden also strengthened the alliance by adding advanced defence equipment to the collective inventory. In Monaghan’s opinion, it was “arguably the biggest thing that happened to NATO in the past two years”.

In terms of structure, member states created four more Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) multinational battlegroups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. With the new groups, the alliance has a total of eight multinational forces. The other EFPs are hosted in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.

NATO described those improvements as “the biggest reinforcement of alliance collective defence in a generation”.

In 2022, it established its Standing Naval Forces, marking the first time the Supreme Allied Commander Europe’s command had these type of troops under its leadership.

Another line of action was enhancing joint multi-domain training and operations. In 2023, NATO countries intercepted more than 300 Russian aircraft in Baltic airspace and raised their contributions to air and missile defence. It also conducted in May 2024 to its largest exercise since the Cold War. Steadfast Defender involved more than 90,000 personnel, 50 ships, 80 aircraft and 1,100 combat vehicles.

“Over the last two years, NATO has really increased the scale and intensity of its high level, high-end collective defence exercising,” Monaghan stated.

Flavia Camargos Pereira

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Flavia Camargos Pereira


Flavia Camargos Pereira is a North America editor at Shephard Media. She joined the company …

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