NATO is set to reinvent itself for the 21st century, making the military alliance more prepared to respond quickly to threats posed by Russia and by the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq and Syria.
This “readiness action plan” will feature a spearhead reaction force of 4,000 to 5,000 troops, designed to make the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s presence felt in a hot spot even before hostilities explode. It will also include permanent supply hubs – forward operating bases that could stretch across Eastern Europe. The alliance would like to place one such supply base in Turkey, but as of Thursday night it wasn’t clear the Turks would agree.
NATO will also ramp up existing surveillance and intelligence-gathering towards Russia, and, to a lesser extent, the Islamic State.
Leaders of member countries, including Canada’s Stephen Harper, conclude two days of meetings Friday at a resort near Cardiff in Wales. U.K. officials say they expect leaders to give the alliance political guidance to proceed with what they call a “huge strategic shift in the way NATO conducts its business.”
Anders Fogh Rasmussen has called Russia’s seizure of Crimea last spring a wakeup call for Europe, but the event was also a spur for NATO to change with the times.
“This is the first time since the end of World War Two that one European country has tried to grab another’s territory by force,” Mr. Rasmussen said of Moscow’s efforts to break up Ukraine. Responding to the threat posed by Russia, he said, “is vital for peace and security in the world.”
The 65-year-old alliance, born in an era of nuclear deterrence and conventional battles, looked on as Russia prepared the ground for its annexation of Crimea through a new style of subversive warfare that relied on non-military tactics of coercion and stealth – sometimes called ambiguous or hybrid warfare.
The methods Russian agents used to ready the peninsula for takeover include mounting disinformation campaigns, computer hacking, undermining of local government, intimidating and seizing control of the media, as well as stirring hatred among locals toward Kiev, NATO officials say. The final move was placing tens of thousands of combat troops on the border between Russia and Ukraine as a threat of violence if Russian President Vladimir Putin met resistance.
“He used this hybrid warfare to annex a part of Europe and no one was ready for it,” a NATO official.
The alliance is vowing not to let this happen again.
There are 12 items in NATO’s action plan, including revamping intelligence and surveillance. The data-gathering future envisioned by NATO would see member countries working in concert to recognize subversive warfare techniques in their early stages, from inflaming ethnic pride to undermining local authorities as Russia is doing in eastern Ukraine. NATO countries will be asked to retrain intelligence-gathering staff to be ready for this.
In addition, the new rapid-reaction force could be deployed to hot spots within two days, giving the 28-member military alliance a valuable presence in whatever region is the target of destabilization efforts.
A Canadian government official said Canada supports the new spearhead force proposal but couldn’t say whether Ottawa would contribute troops or assets to it.
The U.K. has also proposed creating an expeditionary force numbering as many as 10,000 troops that would be separate from NATO’s new rapid reaction force but be designed to augment it in future conflicts. Alliance officials say about six countries have signalled their willingness to participate. The list doesn’t include Canada, NATO officials say, adding that Ottawa had indicated interest but later bowed out.
NATO also plans to overhaul alliance training exercises to shift the focus to collective defence scenarios instead of ones oriented toward crisis management, officials say.
The alliance’s readiness plan also proposes to boost the number of naval vessels in its standing force that can respond when needed.
Another element is enhancing NATO’s monitoring of cyber-attacks by enemy forces and increasing the alliance’s capacity to fight computer hacking and electronic warfare. Alliance officials say Russians or agents working for the Russians frequently attack Ukraine.
The spearhead force will train in Europe on a regular basis and will be part of NATO’s existing response force but will be on a much higher state of alert. NATO officials say the lead time needed to create this unit will depend on how quickly countries sign up to dedicate troops and equipment.