Revamping the NATO Response Force
From Prague to Brussels, Brasov to Wales, NATO has haphazardly stumbled through political obstacles to create and fitfully modify the various layers of the NATO Response Force (NRF). To deal with burgeoning threats and shore up NATO's ability to uphold its Article 5 obligations, the NATO Defense Planning Process needs to prioritize and expedite restructuring and revamping the NRF to reach its full potential as a nimble, effective response force.
Eastern NATO members are nervous. A RAND wargame estimated that Russian forces could reach Tallinn, Estonia and Riga, Latvia between 36 and 60 hours after initiating an invasion. To handle this type of threat NATO has a 40,000-strong "rapid deployment" Response Force (NRF). The NRF consists of a brigade-sized "spearhead;" the 5,000-strong Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) theoretically ready to react to threats at a moment's notice; two brigades of the Initial Follow-on Forces Group (IFFG) designed to reinforce the VJTF; and other maritime, air, and special operations components. Member states' militaries pledge 12-month commitments to the NRF, during which time the troops remain at their home station until activated by the North Atlantic Council.
From Prague to Brussels, Brasov to Wales, NATO has stumbled through political obstacles and resistance to create these various layers of the NRF. These haphazard origins have resulted in a patchwork of various readiness levels across member militaries. The decentralized nature of the NRF leads to legitimate concerns of a paper-tiger VJTF composed of under-equipped and ill-prepared troops. Unprepared troops, in turn, severely hamper the VJTF's ability to quickly respond to crises. By NATO's own admission, the tip of the VJTF spear will not be ready to move for two or three days and the majority of the task force will not be ready for up to a week. This means that by the time the first NATO battalions are even ready to move, Russia will likely have swept across two-thirds of Latvia and three-quarters of Estonia; when the rest of the VJTF brigade finally gets ready, Tallinn and Riga will likely already be playing host to entrenched Russian forces.
To deal with these burgeoning threats and shore up NATO's ability to uphold its Article 5 obligations, the NATO Defense Planning Process (NDPP) needs to prioritize and expedite restructuring and revamping of the NRF to reach its full potential as a nimble, effective response force. This restructuring should focus in two main areas: readiness and capabilities.
- Implement permanent stations. In order to have a truly nimble force, the ground component of the VJTF should be permanently stationed in central Europe. This will certainly present a major political obstacle both to potential host countries and to contributing members, but it is one of the most essential changes to the current NRF structure. According to Richard Shirreff, the former Deputy SACEUR, any NRF without a standing force "will be useless." By getting units away from home-station duties and distractions, the VJTF will be able to focus on its primary purpose: quick reaction deployments. In addition to upgrading its response time to 36 or 48 hours, this setup will give the NRF better assurance and quality control over the training and equipping of the VJTF.
The central European location of this base is also important. Installing the VJTF on NATO's eastern flank makes little political or operational sense. Russia would perceive and treat such a move as a provocative violation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. Further, in the event of an actual invasion, an eastern-stationed VJTF would surely represent a priority first-strike target for invading forces. In such a situation, the VJTF would become fixed or neutralized in the early stages of an invasion, defeating their purpose as a manoeuvrable reaction force. Finally, a central location would allow the VJTF to quickly respond to threats emanating from NATO's eastern, southeastern, or southern borders as well as natural disasters throughout NATO member states.
- Revamp rotations. Instead of difficult year-long commitments, the NRF should revamp its rotations. First, units committed to the VJTF will be expected to conduct a year-long train-up (similar to pre-deployment training) in their home countries. They will then go to the VJTF base for a three-month integrated training program with their fellow VJTF units. This will culminate with a full-scale rehearsal deployment, similar to Anakonda or Trident Juncture, to certify the VJTF's readiness. Once certified, this multinational brigade will then assume readiness posture for three months with their equipment staged and prepared to deploy within 18 hours. Once their three-month rotation is complete, they will return to their home station as the next newly certified VJTF takes over.
The IFFG would function similarly to how the VJTF currently operates; NATO members would designate a unit or capability as being in the "ready pool" for six months. During this time on IFFG status, committed units must be ready to deploy within 3-7 days to reinforce the VJTF.
- Anti-tank capabilities are perhaps the easiest, but most important to strengthen in the VJTF and NATO member militaries as a whole. Every VJTF battalion should have a mounted TOW capability and every dismounted unit should have serious Javelin or AT-4 armaments in order to credibly engage what would surely be heavy armoured forces on the red side.
- Improve armor. Though it would not be cheap, NATO should seek to purchase a brigade's worth of the US's mothballed M1 Abrams tanks to stage with the VJTF or further East. These could be permanently manned like the VJTF or – perhaps the most palatable political solution – stationed with a skeleton crew responsible for maintenance and preparation. When the VJTF is activated, the responsible member states would need to arrive and be ready to deploy the tanks within 72 hours of activation.
- Funding for airlifts. Finally, NATO members need to approve funding for much-needed additional airlift capabilities. Whether these airframes would bolster the pre-existing Strategic Airlift Capability or would be permanently assigned to the VJTF, access to more airlift capacity is integral to the VJTF conducting airborne operations, supporting logistical requirements, or enabling disaster response missions.
Though these choices will not be easy, it is essential that the NDPP prioritizes streamlining the VJTF and NRF. Only then will NATO finally have a truly nimble force capable of quickly responding to emergencies and threats throughout the Alliance's member states.
Micah Ables is currently an MA candidate studying government-diplomacy and conflict studies at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.
This article has been submitted for category C "Getting Defense Planning on Track" of the competition "Shaping Our NATO: Young Voices on the NATO Summit". Comments are most appreciated. You can also read the other articles in this category. Learn more about this competition and how you can submit your own text or video for category D.
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