Time to get Serious about Deterrence
NATO has been one of, if not the most successful alliances because it has remained focused on deterring and defending against the meaningful and real threats from Russia and terrorism. Each of these actors have taken advantage of opportunities to aggressively advance their respective interests. The Russian Federation’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its exploitation of the security vacuum springing from the failing state of Syria are but two recent examples.
The global pandemic presents another geostrategic opportunity for potential adversaries for which the Alliance must be ready to discern, deter, and if necessary, defend. To do this, NATO needs to consider deterrence from the lens of today and not the past, to evolve its role as an international actor, and to reassess the capabilities required to deter potential adversary actions across the spectrum of conflict, which includes hostile measures short of war.
Managing the Bear
The Russian Federation is both a rational actor and a dangerous adversary at the same time. Russia will rationally assess cost and benefits before making a decision – Putin is not crazy, but he is conniving and calculating. That said, Russian actions over the past 15 years have employed a freeze / thaw strategy and a willingness to engage in hostile measures in support of its national interests, which poses a significant threat to European security.
The continued growth of the Alliance membership – from the original 12 in 1949, to today’s 30 (11 nations have joined in just the last 17 years) – has all but eliminated Russia’s historical sphere of influence and is gravely concerning to them.
As Canada’s representative to the NATO military committee, I observed NATO Russia Council discussions first-hand, and believe there can be no reasonable expectation that Alliance assurances of good intentions will assuage Russia’s concerns or preclude any opportunistic and reactive hostile measures to maintain its influence.
Alliance members recognize this and need to get serious about deterrence.
Watching the Dragon
Choosing a more subtle path, the Chinese dragon is focused on increased global influence, investments in European critical infrastructure, increasing military buildup in the South China Sea, and a pattern of industrial espionage that undermines western global competitiveness. NATO must double down on its efforts to better understand, productively engage, and deter such threats from China.
With the Bear and Dragon in mind, if a renewal of the Alliance’s approach to deterrence is required, what should a powerful consensus-based political military alliance do about it?
I suggest three main areas to focus on, namely re-frame its military approach to deterrence, learn how to act as a global diplomatic persona similar to a state, and meaningfully advance the integration of its force development activities to be as robust and flexible as necessary to face these modern challenges.
Deterrence Theory in Application
NATO has the capability, but it does not exercise and operate in a way that deters. The Alliance plans its exercises years in advance, devotes itself somewhat slavishly to transparency, and frets (politically) about the potential for provocation – so much so that its exercises and activities have no meaningful deterrent effect.
To put that into perspective: if I were to telegraph a bully with details of how I would respond to provocation, explain that I would be slow to respond because I would need to think about it for a bit, and advise that I would generally look to deescalate in every situation when confronted, I should not be surprised that the bully’s behaviour does not change over time (if not become worse...).
In this post-Cold War and grey zone era of strategic competition, the basics of deterrence theory – raise costs of success or impose costs of action – continue to apply.
NATO’s significant exercise program provides excellent conventional training for NATO allies, but it does more to inform Russia on how we operate than have a deterrent effect. Most NATO exercises look like a ponderous and predictable sledgehammer.
History informs that Russia will be opportunistic in pursuing limited objectives for which a large conventional force (sledgehammer) would be an ill-suited response. When thinking about deterring Russia, NATO needs more carpentry and fewer construction tools in its toolbox.
To be more effective, future NATO activities would be designed to reshape Russia’s understanding of the operational environment – much as a fine set of chisels over time can create a statue from a block of wood. The objective should not be to scare Russia, because it takes a lot to scare a bear. NATO would see better results by shaking Russian operational assumptions and campaign models, as could be done by complementing the traditional Alliance exercise program with more small rapid responses and tailored activities in a snap exercises platform.
The idea is to cause them to pause and wonder (not believe they know) how we will respond.
NATO also needs to be able to command and control a wider range of force structure capabilities than it is currently used to, such as special force elements, and operations in the information and cyber domain.
To position, leverage and employ more nuanced and discreet force packages will be a challenge for an alliance practiced in consensus-based crisis-response and process-laden decision-making (that is a lot of hyphens…).
Together, a wider range of military capabilities, and a refined ability to command and control them, will enable the Alliance to exercise and conduct activities that pose meaningful operational dilemmas to Russia, who will then assess a higher real cost of success and greater risk, serving to deter.
The Politics of the Matter
Potential adversary tactics have continued to evolve. Terror groups, proxies, and other non-state actors – alongside powerful state actors like Russia and China – are now impacting the Alliance via hybrid tactics that are increasingly hard to attribute, let alone address, via traditional diplomatic, economic, and conventional military means.
To be able to respond, NATO needs to act more like an international state actor than an alliance of 30 member states in a consensus-based decision model. That is not to say that decisions should not be consensus based, but rather that the decision-making processes must be reinvented to enable coherent and responsive decisions (such as meaningful consensus of agreed upon pre-authorized military, strategic communications, and diplomatic decisions and authorities).
By thinking more like a state, the Alliance can develop a longer-term strategy to achieve its principle strategic objective of deterrence.
In this strategic competition, potential adversaries take a longer-term view, even if their actions on a given day appear opportunistic – when do you think Russia actually began the very detailed planning cycle necessary to design, train, equip, and execute the Feb 2014 operations in the Ukraine? I would be very willing to bet the operational planning was ready before 2013 in anticipation of the right conditions.
Time to Refresh
The year 2020 is going to be recognized as one that initiated a global refresh of our most traditional sectors, and NATO is one of those needing to examine old practices.
So how to start? NATO needs to have a serious dialogue regarding the extent to which it should emulate an international actor or state. What type of foreign policy elements would that require? How best can it leverage all aspects of Diplomacy, Information, Military, and Economic (DIME) power in support of agreed Alliance interests? How far can the Alliance go as a diplomatic actor when responding to measures short of war where attribution, economic, and diplomatic tools are effective deterrent and response measures? What should the NATO defence industrial base strategy be?
To be clear, there is room for both NATO and the European Union in this equation. Protectionist efforts to preserve EU gravitas by NATO Allies who are also EU members only serve their own domestic image and potential adversaries.
Following the United Kingdom’s Brexit, approximately 70% of Alliance military and economic force resides outside of dual EU/NATO members. If able to be fully leveraged, the diplomatic, information, military, and economic clout of NATO would be a significant complement to what the EU brings to table.
In practical terms, dual EU/NATO members need to stop blocking NATO from using its diplomatic voice and economic muscle in true collaboration with the EU in the shared pursuit of deterring potential adversaries.
Re-stocking the Toolbox
NATO doesn’t need more forces, just different force mixes that create political and military options capable of giving potential adversaries reason to pause.
This all said, understanding modern deterrence and having the political will to tackle the challenge is not enough – not if NATO doesn’t have the right military capability mix and readiness options.
To ensure it does, the Alliance needs to redirect the monolithic NATO Defense Planning Process (NDPP) from its current focus on conventional capabilities (sledgehammers) in support of legacy deterrence objectives. Instead, it would be more effective for the NDPP to identify and inform the development of a wider range of conventional and asymmetric capabilities that the alliance requires.
Of course, Allied Command Transformation (ACT) needs to be adequately resourced to deliver a renewed NDPP.
Finally, the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) and NATO Communications and Information Agency (NCIA) roles in capability design and delivery need to be reframed. Common capability development and acquisition of C17s by a number of Allies is one example that can be emulated in other areas such as sea lift, EW capabilities, ammunition, small tactical helicopters, small arms, radio, and so on. Beyond stretching the value of limited defence dollars for smaller nations, it will foster interoperability and enhance the Alliance Defence Industrial Base.
I do not wish away the challenges of EU versus American industrial complex interests, nor the sovereign obligations related to indigenous defence capabilities and the broader development of its national industrial complex. Rather, I recognize that an NDPP-informed, NATO-wide, order book of small-to-large capability requirements provides significant opportunities for Allies to partner in acquisitions of various complexities and sizes in a way that is not currently possible.
Bringing it Home
NATO has a fundamental understanding of deterrence, but it has lost – if it ever really had – the ability to act nimbly as a coherent political military actor, which is necessary to effectively deter potential adversaries such as the Russian Federation, and to shape NATO’s relationship with and the behaviour of global powers such as China.
NATO asserts that it is in a strategic competition. If this is truly the case, then it is doubly important to adapt its approach to deter hostile measures short of war, and to create the type of relationship with these two global powers that are in the Alliance’s interests.
As Canada continues to inform ongoing Alliance adaptation discussions, we should reflect now on how to prepare for and engage the next United States Administration on future pending decisions related to continental defence and NORAD modernization as identified in the government’s defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged.
Darren Hawco is a retired Vice-Admiral from the Canadian Armed Forces. He is an Executive Advisor with Deloitte Canada, and prior to his retirement was Canada’s Military Representative to NATO, and before that was the Chief of Force Development and lead military official for the development of Canada’s Defence policy Strong, Secure, Engaged (SSE).