At this moment, NATO countries are deciding how to strengthen military presence in Central Europe. Since the 2014 invasion of Ukraine many allies have deployed forces to the region – but mostly in limited numbers, on short-term rotations and without much coordination. That is due to change at the NATO summit in Warsaw in July. There, the 28 heads of state and government are to pledge to contribute forces to a new ‘enhanced’ forward presence. Its purpose will no longer be to reassure anxious allies in the East but to deter, and if necessary defend against, external aggression. To this end, the new forces in Central Europe are supposed to be beefier and more combat ready. The US has announced the deployment of a brigade, on rotational basis, to NATO’s eastern frontiers.
But beyond these decisions the outline of the Alliance’s future force posture in the region remains unclear. Allies are still searching for – if not debating – the right scale and scope for the enhanced forces. This will be tricky: in order to deter, they must be able to present a credible defense without seeming unnecessarily aggressive, they must be sufficiently robust yet affordable, and they must clearly signal NATO’s resolve without encouraging individual Allies to freeride. The right balance between a quick and robust reinforcement capability and forward presence also needs to be struck. And these are just the most obvious tensions in the future design.
There will be a number of possible solutions. But NATO can come closest to an optimal outcome by following these few simple principles:
- Forward presence should be designed in a way that clearly signals to any adversary, that an incursion, whether conventional or hybrid, into a NATO member-state, will from the very beginning engage all Allies. Therefore, multinationality of forward deployed troops will be essential, as will a fair division of the responsibility among all Allies;
- Because a limited incursion, including in the special operations spheres, could test Art. V as much as an all-out attack – and might also be harder to recognize in advance and to counter – forward presence must be designed to deter this possibility too. The location – where in the frontline states NATO deploys its forces – will matter greatly. It must be chosen in such way so as to maximize the probability that the transgressing force encounters NATO presence in the very early stages of incursion. There are significant differences amongst the frontline states that also need to be taken into account, as geography remains a cornerstone of strategy;
- Interruptions in forward presence, particularly if happening on a predictable schedule and long-lasting, undermine deterrence by encouraging the potential adversary to calculate an absence of NATO resolve and that a limited conflict exploiting a gap in the presence might be possible. It is therefore important that forces and capabilities be deployed in the right places, at all times – or to use a NATO term, the force should be “persistent” and force rotations must be “heel-to-toe” with no gaps between rotations. Predictability is also important so as not to confuse the adversary into thinking that NATO is escalating when this may not be the Allies’ intention. Because continuous presence creates the most predictability, the Allies should agree on a long-term rotational schedule, as they do with the Baltic air policing mission or NATO Response Forces, for example;
- The purpose of forward presence should go beyond guaranteeing the multinationality of response. It also ought to be designed in such way so as to increase the costs imposed on any advancing enemy force. An adversary cannot be allowed to conclude that his aggression would be easy, even if the core purpose of NATO’s limited forward presence will be primarily to present a militarily credible tripwire. To further complicate the adversary’s calculus, the force should also enhance territorial defense. To this end, it should contain the right kind of forces and capabilities with the right equipment; including intelligence, cyber and special operations forces;
- NATO forces deployed to Central European frontline states have to include – or be backed up by – capabilities necessary for them to survive and operate in a high-intensity battlefield (this also applies to earmarked reinforcements – the basic assumption should be that there will be a contested air and sea environment). They will be operating in a realm where the risk of little to no warning aggression is real. In such cases, and together with local territorial defense forces, the forward forces should have or be backed up by forces with the means to defend themselves, such as ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), air defense, theatre missile defense and counter-battery capacities;
- Lastly, the forward deployed Allied forces should in peacetime help the home defense forces hone the skills required to deny the adversary a quick success. Therefore, the ability to train must be built into the design of forward presence.
If built correctly, enhanced forward presence can greatly boost NATO’s capacity to deter. But by itself it will not suffice; it must be fully integrated in a broader defense and deterrence posture encompassing both conventional and nuclear elements. So as NATO member states proceed with sending more troops to the East, it is also useful to keep in mind what additional steps may be required:
- The enhancement of NATO’s forward presence does not reduce the need for robust and capable home defense forces. Under Art. III of the Washington Treaty, defense remains the core responsibility of the member-states, who have to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack”. In parallel to strengthening forward presence, the Allies should also propose at the Warsaw summit ways to boost resilience, in military as well as non-military domains, of the most exposed countries;
- Because the forward deployed force will require reinforcement in times of crisis, the Allies also urgently need to improve their means to counter adversary’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability, and demonstrate through credible exercises in the near term the Alliance’s readiness to reinforce its forward deployed forces across the entire spectrum of the conflict environment;
- The political and military credibility of forward presence will be greatly enhanced if the Allies deliver in Warsaw a clear message about their resolve by credibly moving towards meeting the 2% pledge.
Tomáš Valášek is Permanent Representative of Slovakia to NATO; he writes in his capacity as Honorary Chairman of the Central European Policy Institute; Ian Brzezinski is Senior Fellow at the International Security Program of the Atlantic Council; and Camille Grand is Director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.