Defense Planning of NATO: The Art of Flexible Deterrence

When NATO defense ministers meet in Brussels this Thursday, they have a bunch of strategy papers to adopt – twenty in number. As usual, they are classified and will not be published. Everything related to nuclear deterrence is top secret. At the last meeting of the heads of state and government in June, a new concept was adopted: “Defense and deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic area”, or DDA for short, after the English acronym.

Thomas Gutschker

Political correspondent for the European Union, NATO and the Benelux countries based in Brussels.

Its basic idea: Nowadays it is no longer enough to arm yourself against purely military threats. Rather, the alliance and its members are exposed to low-threshold attacks on the Internet almost every day. Conflicts are “not only carried out with cartridges and bombs, but also with bytes and big data,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday. NATO has therefore declared cyberspace to be its own defense domain, alongside air, land, sea and, also new, space. It wants to react early to attacks and thereby remain as unpredictable as possible. Also in June, the alliance decided that a series of cyber attacks could trigger the alliance case, even if each of them stayed below its threshold. It depends on the “cumulative effect”.

It’s a graduated response

All of this now has to be translated into a new defense plan. The first step is called “Saceur’s AOR Strategic Plan”. This is military gibberish, meaning a plan that restructures the area of ​​responsibility (AOR) of the Commander-in-Chief for Europe (Saceur). So far, the alliance has had several regional headquarters, but their responsibilities will be determined on an ad hoc basis in the event of a conflict. A classic military confrontation with Russia is assumed.

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On the one hand, the alliance is now returning to an organizational structure that already existed during the Cold War: each corps is given a precisely assigned operational area. On the other hand, it is about other threats and the ability to react flexibly to them. A cyber attack on a Baltic country does not have to be responded to from there. But the areas of responsibility should be clear.

On this basis, the next step will be to develop new defense plans for the entire Euro-Atlantic area. The alliance builds on the “Graduated Response Plans” that were written for the Baltic states after the Russian invasion of Crimea. The name says what it’s about: a graduated reaction that does justice to hybrid warfare, where the opponent also uses unconventional means.

Moscow threatens nuclear weapons

A classic example of this are the “green men” who brought the Crimea under their control in no time at all – Russian special troops that were traveling without a national badge, accompanied by propaganda and false reports. A modern operation plan determines how early and how effectively it can be responded to. So far, however, this has been developed in a regionally limited way, in future the alliance wants to include all of its headquarters in the defense. This of course also applies to the rapid mobilization and relocation of combat units. Ultimately, it is a matter of regaining the dominance of escalation that is currently clearly held by Russia.

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The trickiest part of it concerns nuclear strategy. Moscow compensates for its conventional inferiority by threatening nuclear weapons at an early stage in a military confrontation. The conquest of Crimea was secured with flights of strategic, nuclear-capable bombers on NATO’s eastern flank. The alliance must be able to counter this with its own “nuclear messaging”, as the military say. That could mean, for example, that armed forces tornadoes equipped with atomic bombs are relocated to the eastern flank when a certain conflict threshold is reached. This is not discussed in public, but it is part of the strategic considerations when the so-called Nuclear Planning Group, to which all Member States except France belong, gives advice. She meets on Friday morning.

“Enablers” are missing

The annual nuclear weapons exercise “Steadfast Noon” is currently taking place in Italy at the same time as the ministerial meeting. The pilots of the alliance train the use of tactical American atomic bombs – of course with dummies. A dozen German, Belgian, Dutch and Italian fighter bombers are involved; these states practice what is known as nuclear participation. Other members, including Poles and Czechs, provide escort protection for the aircraft. While these exercises used to be top secret, the alliance itself now provides information about them, admittedly only in general terms and with the indication that they are “not related to current world events”.

The troops required in the future are derived from the defense planning. The defense ministers will decide on ability targets for this, they should be ambitious, as we have heard. This begins a new cycle in which it is then determined what each member country has to contribute in order to achieve the goals. This process is crucial for the Bundeswehr because it defines future priorities and investments, and thus also defense spending. In general, NATO says there is no shortage of infantry battalions, but rather “enablers”.

What is meant are military capabilities that make it possible to really deploy troops: reconnaissance, strategic air transport, digital operations management, missile defense. As usual, the planning cycle is set for four years, which is important for the new federal government. Diplomats assert that you will not be faced with a fait accompli.


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