The necessity of NATO

NATO has, over its 60 years, not always been the most efficient of organizations. Accused by many of being a bloated bureaucracy with no operational capability, NATO has had difficulty shedding its Cold War approach. But those who seek to minimize NATO’s accomplishments and call for its dismemberment forget the positives. What if there was no NATO?

At the highest level, of course, there would continue to be trans-Atlantic dialogue; but it would not be institutionalized, it would not be regularized, comprehensive or necessarily coherent. There would be no regular round table meetings of NATO nations from both sides of the Atlantic at the ambassadorial level and at the very senior military level.

If there were no NATO, we would end up creating it.

If there were no NATO, Russia would be forced to deal only bilaterally with the U.S. and other countries. Though not perfect, the NATO-Russia Council provides Russia regular access to a high-level forum that includes the U.S. NATO allows unprecedented outreach opportunities – to wit the Secretary-General traveling to China, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, the Partnership for Peace program, and the Mediterranean Dialogue.

But perhaps it is in the tactical realm that we often forget the utility of NATO over its long life. Just the standardization program is an incredible accomplishment that would have been impossible without NATO. Armaments, supplies and organizational structures are what we usually think of, of course. But there is also doctrine, and further down, techniques, tactics and procedures. These have evolved to the point where most militaries of the world are adopting them because they have been developed through a long process of finding those that work.

For all its challenges generating forces for operations, its convoluted operational chain of command and its confused lines of authority, there are many positive stories of “understanding” NATO procedures.

NATO capability
So what must NATO consider in terms of future capabilities generally, but also in light of the challenge of Russia’s incursion into Georgia? Its first and main effort must remain at the diplomatic level. NATO may concern Russia, but its regular institutional forum with the Russians can ensure diplomatic activity is pursued. We should have reinforced our dialogue with Russia in the NATO-Russia Council instead of suspending it. It is apparent that Russia wishes to engage further diplomatically throughout the world and especially in its “near abroad.” There is scope for collaboration and reinforcement of efforts that promote stability by Russia, even if its final intentions are sometimes questionable.

We are not talking of absolving Russia of its behaviour; but rather of keeping a strenuous dialogue open with an important and influential international partner to include regular meetings and even combined military exercises. This is the only way to answer the question: What does Russia want? In this, NATO-EU dialogue is also helpful to ensure the EU’s diplomatic efforts are at least understood if not totally coherent with those of NATO.

Secondly, there are the often-quoted renewal efforts required by NATO nations in the realm of common funding policies and improved decision-making. This latter issue includes questioning the requirement for consensus. Nations need to ask themselves whether NATO consensus is required at every level, in every committee, and for every decision the alliance must take. In my view, it is not, but at least the issue should be placed on the table and debated; there is no question the inertia-filled decision-making procedures currently used could be improved.

Third, as a required capability, one of NATO’s greatest future needs lies in the mise en oeuvre of what we at Allied Command Transformation used to call the effects-based approach to operations (EBAO) and what is now called the Comprehensive Approach.

In simplistic terms, the comprehensive approach entails ensuring the coherence of all means at the disposal of NATO to prevent or resolve a conflict. This includes military means, of course, but also the synchronized application of all other means – diplomatic, economic or other. This does not mean that NATO itself must possess all the levers to accomplish this synchronization; rather, NATO must be prepared to use its influence, its diplomatic clout, to ensure those organizations that do control those other levers synchronize their use in operations. There are currently applications being developed such as the NATO Strategic Overview that can help in this strategic-operational level challenge.

Nothing happens in NATO unless it is championed by nations. This, therefore, is my challenge to Canada. As we have ourselves struggled to operate in a comprehensive inter-departmental application of operational effort – and we are not there yet – we should take the lead with other similar-minded NATO nations, and pursue the implementation of the comprehensive approach in NATO’s operations.

Fourth, NATO must re-energize its involvement with new nations to ensure they meet their obligations as full members – the obligations of nations do not stop after they join as full members. This applies to Georgia as well, should it join NATO in the future. The NATO defence planning process has been revamped and should prove useful to that end. As NATO encourages nations to modernize and acquire useful capabilities, the impact is felt across all member-states. The development of these new capabilities must include those useable and necessary to intervene in out-of-area operations – deployable, employable capabilities. It is easy to deplore the lack of employable and deployable forces in NATO, but we must always remember that NATO’s capabilities are those of the nations; if national assets are not useable or deployable, those of NATO will not be.

Canada’s footprint
Assessing Canada’s capability requirements does not lend itself to a short discussion, so I will address a few areas without delving into the details of re-equipping our naval, land and air elements. Strategically, improved capabilities will be required to deal with the challenges of today and the future: failing and failed states, terrorism, non-state belligerents, nuclear weapons proliferation, population growth and migration, energy and water security, trade security, and the economic rise of the Asia-Pacific region, to name a few.

For me, the main current capability issue remains the ability of Canada to undertake limited general-purpose operations after 2011 – after our transition in Afghanistan. I believe we must now seriously plan for that moment and decide how we will proceed from all perspectives. We must retain our current counterinsurgency capabilities honed through serious operational engagement in Afghanistan. However, we should also look at improving our general-purpose combat capabilities.

In NATO, for example, there may be useful new ideas. The current thinking is to develop a concept called “hybrid warfare” – enabling small units to synchronize their actions on the ground as we usually do with large units. This would enable the synchronized conduct of conventional as well as irregular warfare. Canada would do well to examine such cutting-edge concepts and apply its brain trust to fleshing them out, thereby helping NATO in the process.

In terms of joint combat capability, original transformation plans for the CF included the stand-up of a Standing Contingency Task Force (SCTF). Unfortunately, current operations have precluded the full implementation of this organization. As my colleague Col (ret’d) Gary Rice has pointed out, this capability is still required and should be an item of first priority in the aftermath of the Afghanistan mission in 2011.

Essentially, the concept of an SCTF centres around the grouping of naval, army and air assets plus special operations forces under a single commander with sufficient resources to deploy to an expeditionary theatre and engage therein. The implications of this organization and its potential missions are clear: mobility requirements are first and foremost. While the air mobility requirement is on the way to being met, current plans do not call for the acquisition of an amphibious capability. This is an essential operational requirement. The SCTF is a reasonable commitment for Canada to undertake; it would reinforce the joint aspect of the CF (a battle not yet won), and it would provide the Canadian government a superb political tool for expeditionary response in light of our engagement in this globalized world.

Another important capability improvement in Canada centres around personnel issues. Thus far, the CF has not managed to attract sufficient numbers to counter attrition, so announced personnel increases have not been met. This trend must be reversed as the training system is under tremendous pressure. The second most important job of the regular force after operations ought to be support of the reserves to enable them to reinforce operations; this would further help in reducing the pressure on regular forces.

Finally, the CF must ensure a coherent training and education system is in place for its personnel. The CF of today has not been this operationally experienced since Korea; we must supplement this experience by continuing our efforts to create a well-educated, well-trained force. On the educational side, this includes inter alia, production of a sufficient number of officers from its military colleges, the availability of scholarly study programs in sociology, anthropology, religion and culture, and health sciences, for example, as well as the most efficient use of our scarce resources towards the effective delivery of training and education.

There are other specific capabilities such as cyber-defence to which Canada must orient some of its future resources, but here again, NATO has been enhancing the development of these capabilities through its Centre-of-Excellence network.

In summary, NATO has become a leader in the standardization of doctrine, equipment and practice, and an important forum in which to engage Russia and other hemispheric organizations. We need a NATO with the ability to continue its traditional role of deterrence as well as the capability to intervene. While the need for new capacity is huge, a NATO that is visionary, flexible, and expeditionary can be a force for stability and security.

Lieutenant-General (ret’d) J.O. Michel Maisonneuve is Academic Director, Royal Military College Saint-Jean. This article is adapted from a presentation to the Atlantic Council of Canada.

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