How will NATO react militarily to ISIS

Working papers

It remains to be seen whether the meeting of NATO heads of state and government in Cardiff, Wales, was really - as is often said - "one of the most important NATO summits in the history of the Alliance". In any case, it was a significant event, especially since Russia acted as an anti-Western power, breaking agreements and violently changing borders in Europe. As a result, the alliance is forced, in addition to the broad spectrum of upcoming challenges (withdrawal from Afghanistan, financial crisis, Islamist threats), to focus more on the “classic” elements of deterrence and reinsurance.

That the Russia-Ukraine crisis was the dominant topic was also shown by the fact that around 70 percent of the duration of the summit was devoted to the discussion of this crisis and NATO's countermeasures. About 20 percent fell on the debate about defense budgets and the (weakened) voluntary commitment of the alliance states to spend two percent of their gross domestic product on defense in the future. In the remaining 10 percent of the summit time, all other topics were dealt with, from the threat posed by the “Islamic State” (IS) to the question of enlargement and the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The topics are likely to have assumed a similar weight in the preparations for the summit.

Now that the media attention associated with NATO summits has subsided and other problems such as the advance of Islamist fighters in Syria and Iraq have dominated the headlines, a more balanced assessment of the decisions made by Wales can be carried out. A classification with a time lag is also advisable because Wales differs from most of the other top-level meetings of the alliance: the summit does not mark the end of a process, a new strategy or a phase of discussion within the alliance, but rather marks the beginning. While after a meeting of the heads of state and government at the working level of the alliance bodies and the member states there is usually a certain calm down, the work is currently continuing at an almost unchanged pace. The next NATO summit, which will take place in Warsaw in 2016, is being prepared at full speed. Seven points are particularly important for the further development of the Euro-Atlantic security debate in the wake of Wales 2014.

1. Transatlantic Consensus

Judging by the explosive nature of the situation in Ukraine and the understandable concerns of NATO members in Eastern Europe, the summit was surprisingly consensual - also in comparison to other top-level meetings of the alliance. This was already evident from the drafts of the summit declaration, which contained far less substantial “brackets” - that is, controversial formulations that must be clarified by the top level immediately before or at the summit - than the communiqué proposals of other NATO meetings.

The decisive convergence of positions only came about in the last few weeks before the summit, although the shooting down of the Malaysian MH17 flight contributed to the disillusionment in many NATO countries. France, for example, jumped over its shadow, not least due to various pressures, and at least postponed the planned delivery of a “Mistral” -class helicopter carrier to Russia. At the same time there was a consensus on the German wish not to let the thread of the talks on Moscow break. The fact that some media spoke of the supposedly divided NATO during the summit is one of the peculiarities that characterize such major events.

It is also part of the picture that some NATO countries perceive the Russia-Ukraine problem as less threatening due to geographical or historical realities and see the real dangers more south of the Mediterranean. Some summit participants focused the discussions during the conference breaks exclusively on Russia, while other heads of state and government also exclusively debated the ISIS problem in Syria and Iraq. There was hardly any exchange between the two groups. These fundamentally different perspectives have an impact on the assessment of the summit results. Countries like Poland or the Baltic states will always regard NATO's military measures against a possible Russian threat as fundamentally in need of improvement, while for others the upper limit of what is feasible and affordable has already been reached. The willingness to provide additional funds for defense tends to decrease with increasing distance from the Russian border.

2. Renaissance of Article 5

In the opinion of many Eastern European NATO members in particular, the alliance has long behaved inconsistently with regard to the significance of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. On the one hand, the solidarity obligation in this article in the case of defense has always been placed at the top of NATO's tasks and as raison d‘être designated by the alliance. It is not for nothing that the 2010 Strategic Concept named collective defense as the first of three core functions, alongside crisis management and cooperative security through partnerships. In the past, however, NATO had in fact dealt more with crisis management beyond the alliance's territory (Afghanistan, the Balkans, North Africa) and precisely neglected military planning for the alliance's defense.

Article 5 operations had also fallen behind in terms of planning. The alliance had shelved almost all of its contingency plans except for four more general plans for certain regions. This was also based on political motives, should it be signaled to Russia that it did not intend to defend itself against a “strategic partner”.

In 2005, some members even proposed ending all Article 5 planning, which the Eastern Europeans protested against. After Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were admitted to NATO in 2004, they pointed out that their region was not even included in the Contingency Plan. However, it was not until years later, in connection with the Georgian War of 2008, that NATO managed to expand one of the four existing regional plans to include the Baltic States. Many Eastern European governments have been accused of a certain paranoia towards Moscow behind closed doors. After Russia's actions in Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states felt their fears confirmed and urged measures to improve their defense capabilities. The summit resolutions on a rapid military reaction in Europe under the heading “Readiness Action Plan” are now bringing the realities of the alliance closer to declaratory politics. Greater importance is also attached to Article 5 in its military implementation.

3. Readiness Action Plan

With the decisions on the Readiness Action Plan (RAP), the establishment of a rapid reaction force, the strengthening of military activities at sea and in the air, the forward storage of military equipment, the upgrading of headquarters and the increase in exercise activity, NATO has become a classic instrument the deterrent against Russia has returned. Improved military capabilities are not just a reassurance signal to the Eastern European allies. They also change the cost-benefit calculation of a potential attacker and thus prevent conflict. However, the measures to improve the ability to react in the event of attacks against the Alliance territory are framework decisions that now have to be specified. Details about the overall scope and individual contributions will be negotiated in these weeks. The entire Readiness Action Plan is therefore subject to what the alliance members can and want to achieve in the future.

However, the resolutions of Wales are by no means completely arbitrary, but follow an alliance-wide shared assessment of the situation. NATO had agreed relatively early that there would have to be one form or another of military deployments in Eastern Europe in response to Russia's actions, which is why there was complete criticism of Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen in Germany, who made this point public was unfounded. The decisive factor was that the relocation of troops to Eastern Europe was no longer viewed as a political question, whether it would have an escalating effect or not, but above all as a financial one. A permanent or rotating stationing of armed forces is very expensive. The same applies to the rapid reaction force, the “Very High Readiness Joint Task Force” (VJTF), which is supposed to be significantly more flexible than the existing “NATO Response Force” (NRF).

The NATO commander in chief, General Philip M. Breedlove, had stated early on that the alliance would need a military response capability of two days on its eastern borders in order to be able to cope with the rapid deployment of troops shown by Russia in the Ukraine crisis. So far, the NRF has had a response time, known as a “notice to move”, of 30 days. The required rapid growth and, above all, the necessary military efficiency of the VJTF suggest that it should not be populated by many and not by the “smaller” alliance members. Instead, two or three large NATO countries will have to share the task, which will entail considerable costs for these countries. The Pentagon is now questioning whether such a short response time can even be achieved.

In addition to increased patrol flights, increased naval activities and increased numbers of maneuvers, from the point of view of Eastern Europeans, the storage of military equipment is of great importance. Such “prepositioning” not only shortens the military response time of the alliance, it is also politically significant. Maneuvers or ship activities can be reduced again if signs of relaxation should come from Moscow. Since NATO has announced that it will adapt its reactions to the actions of Russia, there are fears in Eastern Europe that some of the Western NATO allies will react too readily to supposedly positive signals from the Putin regime and reduce their military engagement again. Material stored once, however, could not be reduced so quickly in line with the prevailing political mood. The deterrent signal would be longer lasting.

An important declaratory and comparatively inexpensive means of deterrence and reinsurance is the development of new defense plans for Article 5 scenarios. This is not just about conventional military attacks against the alliance area, but also about so-called "hybrid warfare", aggression from local riot situations, with the riot itself being fueled by the attacker. Such actions by undercover fighters, agents or soldiers without a national badge (like the “little green men” in Crimea) are not a new phenomenon. During the Cold War, NATO had a wide range of contingency plans for possible unconventional Warsaw Pact actions. Especially in the context of the “BERCON” planning (Berlin Contingencies) there were options against a hybrid approach by the enemy or in the event that entire cities were taken hostage by the Warsaw Pact on the inner-German border. These certainly cannot be applied congruently to today, but they show that one can fall back on considerations relating to unconventional threats. New defense plans should now be drawn up by the end of 2014. The most important elements of the RAP should be ready by the meeting of the Alliance's defense ministers in February 2015.

4. The two percent commitment

In view of the new challenges posed by Russia or Islamist terror, as well as the ongoing tasks of NATO in Afghanistan or in the Balkans, the heads of state and government could not ignore the financial question. Washington in particular had vehemently pointed out that the gap between the security policy requirements on the one hand and the funds provided by the majority of European allies on the other is widening. After heated debates, the alliance agreed on a rather softly worded voluntary commitment to gradually increase the defense budgets of the member states to two percent of their gross domestic product. Skeptics point out that this promise has already been made and broken just as often, including by Germany. Likewise, the dramatic over-indebtedness of some European NATO members or the desire of others not to take on new debts do not make matters any easier.

However, such a voluntary commitment in a summit document exerts a certain political pressure that is higher than what can be expected from “normal” NATO documents. In addition, Russian President Vladimir Putin, by saying that he could take the Baltic States within a few days, emphasizes the need for military capabilities, as does the videos of randomly murdering Islamists in Iraq or Syria. The increased violations of the airspace by Russian fighter planes are grist to the mill of those who are demanding more funds for NATO's defense capability. Finally, Poland and the Baltic states are setting a good example and making more financial resources available - which, conversely, makes the inadequate defense spending in Hungary or Slovakia appear even more embarrassing. Even if short-term budget jumps are not to be expected everywhere, the defense spending of the allies is likely to increase overall in the long term.

5. The relationship to the MENA crisis region

The challenge posed by the “Islamic State” was discussed in Wales, but is currently not yet a direct alliance matter - unless Article 5 of the Washington Treaty would be affected by an attack by IS fighters on Turkey. US President Barack Obama forged his anti-IS coalition with NATO members, but outside the alliance structures. The summit consequently confirmed that NATO's primary role was to coordinate national support measures.

But NATO has long been an indirect player in the region through its cooperation programs “Mediterranean Dialogue” (MD) and “Istanbul Cooperation Initiative” (ICI). In addition, in 2011, when NATO intervened in Libya, it carried out military crisis management under a mandate from the United Nations. However, the dramatic upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region indicate that the role of NATO is also changing and that the alliance is likely to lose considerable influence in the region. Apparently, the region is not just going through a crisis that would sooner or later be followed by a new order. Instead one sees the murderous competition of religious groups, the erosion of statehood and the dissolution of partly still colonial borders. But if states collapse, there are no longer any contact persons for partnerships. It is also becoming more difficult to determine for whom or against whom military intervention should take place.

After all, Russia is likely to be even less prepared to vote in the UN Security Council for a NATO intervention, making military intervention by the Alliance increasingly unlikely. Obviously, two of NATO's essential tools, partnership and military crisis management, are becoming increasingly blunted in the MENA region.

6. Partnerships

Although NATO has dealt again with the organization of its diverse and worldwide partnerships, it was unable to bring about a real restructuring and an answer to the pressing questions. The problems with thoroughly successful, but less and less conclusive partnership models are becoming obvious.

  • The “classic” forum “Partnership for Peace” (PfP) can hardly be taken seriously if two major founding members - Ukraine and Russia - are currently at war with one another.
  • At the summit, a “platform for interoperability”, a discussion forum for the partner countries that supported NATO in Afghanistan, was created. This seems to ensure that one can continue to work with these countries even after the end of the joint combat mission. However, this forum includes very different members (e.g. Australia, Mongolia, Sweden or Morocco) with different abilities and willingness to cooperate. The connecting element cannot be seen.
  • A sub-group of supposedly particularly advanced partner states was met separately, although the composition (Australia, Sweden, Finland, Georgia, Jordan) is not really conclusive.There were similar peculiarities at the last NATO summit in Chicago, at which a group of 13 partner countries met separately for dinner without it becoming clear what a meeting with this combination of states would lead to. The then Austrian ambassador to NATO therefore also asked whether this meeting should be viewed as a “one night stand”.
  • The Republic of Moldova was involved in another special meeting on building military capabilities. There may be reasons for this, given Russia's current policy; Moldova is certainly not a mainstay of the NATO partnership concept.

The developments in the MENA region call into question the role of the two partnership forums “Mediterranean Dialogue” and “Istanbul Cooperation Initiative”.

The Atlantic Alliance continues to avoid the question of how it can forge a concept that meets today's requirements from the multitude of partnerships, cooperations and groupings that have grown over two decades from NATO's supposedly closely related states. Partner countries are not all the same and cannot be treated equally. Especially in view of Russia defining itself as “anti-Western”, the rise of China in the Asia-Pacific region and a possibly looming “meltdown” in the Arab world, NATO as a community of Western values ​​must pay particular attention to those partners who share these values can contribute to joint action. These democratic, “western” top performers among the partners (Australia, Sweden, Finland, Japan, New Zealand, etc.) must be more closely involved in NATO's decision-making. Corresponding signals from these countries have been around for a long time - for example, at the summit Australia and Finland asked to be involved in the development of new contingency plans. A forum for continuous and, above all, privileged dialogue with these countries still does not exist.

7. The outlook for the next summit

It will be crucial for the future of the alliance to implement the decisions made in Wales to improve NATO's military capabilities. There is already some initial hesitation on the part of member states, for example with a view to financial promises or the target dates set for individual projects. Not least because of this, Poland has offered to host the next summit in 2016. Warsaw would like to use the current momentum and actively contribute to ensuring that the alliance does not move away from its projects.

The upcoming NATO summit in the Polish capital will not only have to evaluate the implementation of the decisions made in Wales. He will also have to face the questions that were neglected in 2014. The partnership concept already mentioned is only one of several open problems.

Poland will certainly place greater emphasis on the question of NATO enlargement. The alliance wants to decide on the possible admission of Montenegro by the end of 2015 and it is difficult to imagine that this decision will be negative. Ukraine should take this opportunity to remind that NATO made a firm promise in Sofia in 2008 to accept Ukraine and Georgia. Even if the promise was not linked to a time commitment and the membership question regarding Ukraine does not arise urgently, the alliance will have to deal with the urging of Kiev. The question of a clear accession perspective for Georgia will also not be easily brushed off the table. Fewer and fewer allies can understand the German position of refusing Georgia admission to the Membership Action Plan (the preparation program for joining NATO).

Another issue postponed in Wales is the direction of NATO missile defense. Before the Ukraine crisis, when Moscow was still considered a “strategic partner”, NATO always emphasized that the missile defense that was being set up was not directed against Russia. Instead, the justification for missile defense was rather vague about the dangers from the Near and Middle East. Also vague because Turkey prevented Iran from being named with its missile and nuclear programs as the main threat from the region. Accordingly, NATO is building protection against missile attacks and is also building plants in Poland and Romania without explicitly defining who it has to protect itself from.

At the Welsh summit, the countries that still refused to pose a threat in this regard were able to prevail once again. Since Moscow is increasingly defining NATO as an opponent and strengthening its military capabilities, the question of "against whom" will also determine the missile defense debates in Warsaw. One topic that was completely ignored in Wales was developments in the Asia-Pacific region and the US intention to pay more attention to the region. Even if Washington's announced “rebalancing” of political and military attention away from Europe and towards Asia does not happen to the extent announced, NATO can no longer ignore the Asia-Pacific region.

For the European NATO countries in particular, the question arises of how to deal with a region that is increasingly of vital importance, but in which only the USA has the capacity to be perceived as a security actor. How can NATO signal its security and military policy interest in the Asia-Pacific region without being able to be present with armed forces? Limiting itself to economic activities will no longer be possible with an America that is increasingly pushing for fair burden-sharing in the alliance.

In Wales, NATO has shown a level of consistency and capacity to act that may have surprised Russian observers. Above all, there was a consensus that the Russia crisis is not a bad weather area, but a fundamental climate change. It follows, however, that Wales 2014 marks the beginning of a fundamental debate about the future tasks of NATO. This debate is unlikely to end with the follow-up summit in Warsaw in 2016, but will go far beyond that.

Dr. Karl-Heinz Kamp is Director of Development at the Federal Academy for Security Policy in Berlin. Here he gives his personal opinion.