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Politics of Deployment Pose Challenge for NATO's New Spearhead Force

Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove

When NATO granted new powers to its top military commander last week, enabling Gen. Philip Breedlove to mobilize quick-reaction troops for deployment against a gathering threat, it marked a step forward in the alliance’s attempt to transform itself into a more fleet-footed fighting force.

Breedlove’s new powers essentially mean that when he sees an unfolding crisis, he is authorized to mobilize NATO’s new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force and to send troops to the nearest flight line to await final orders for takeoff. But he still must get the OK from the alliance’s highest decision-making body — the North Atlantic Council — before actually deploying the troops, and it’s unclear if the alliance can take the next step to simplify that political process.

Reaching a quick political consensus is no small task in a 28-nation alliance, said Jonathan Eyal, an expert on NATO with the London-based Royal United Services Institute, especially when dealing with an adversary as cunning as Russia.

“The way Russia hopes to paralyze NATO’s decision making is to create a threat to an alliance country that is big enough to be seen as serious, but not serious enough to trigger a unified response from the NATO member states,” Eyal said.

At the conclusion of NATO’s defense ministers meeting in Brussels last week, Breedlove lauded the decision to help him more quickly mobilize forces while acknowledging there was more work to do at the political level.

“In order to have a very high readiness force, you need to have a very high readiness decision-making system,” he told reporters. “And 28 nations have empowered the military commanders to do the things they do and now they will work on their decision speed to match.”

While NATO continues to work on its internal process for making rapid bureaucratic decisions, there are a range of complicated matters that could challenge NATO should Breedlove ever decide he needs to call on the 5,000-member spearhead force. The quick deployment of a relatively small response unit would amount to more of a show of force in a crisis than a commitment to any formal intervention, but any such move would still be politically charged.

Divergent threat perceptions among member states is one area that will likely be a source of tension if NATO wants to send troops to a possible hot spot.

Germany, a main contributor to NATO’s crisis-response forces, has been leery of escalating tensions with Russia, standing in opposition to arming Ukrainian forces against separatist fighters. German media have also reported that Chancellor Angela Merkel is uneasy about the U.S. decision to pre-position some 250 armored vehicles in six countries along NATO’s eastern flank.

In the eastern part of NATO, however, allies such as those in the Baltics and Poland view Russia as major threat and have hungered for a larger alliance presence in the region. When Russia intervened in Ukraine last year, deploying a range of unconventional tactics such as troops without national uniforms and support of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s east, some of those NATO countries questioned whether the alliance was ready to deal with such a threat.

While security analysts see little chance of a direct Russian intervention in NATO territory, Baltic states have warned that Moscow could meddle in unconventional ways, with disguised aggression such as stirring up unrest among disenfranchised ethnic Russian populations in those countries.

It isn’t yet clear whether such an effort would be enough to trigger a unified response from NATO to deploy its forces into an alliance country as part of an effort to establish control.

Eyal says in such instances NATO’s supreme allied commander should have the authority to decide whether a rapid deployment of alliance forces within NATO territory is required. Short of that, NATO will likely need to create a more flexible approval process for rapid deployments, perhaps something requiring less than support from all 28 nations, Eyal said.

“If the Russians are persuaded a deployment could be fast, and will not be stopped by a lack of consensus among politicians in Europe, then I think we can avoid a deeper crisis,” Eyal said. “But if the Russians can create a wedge, I think they could be tempted to try. The real purpose of Russia is not to have a direct military confrontation with NATO, which they cannot win, but to show NATO is a paper tiger that can’t get its act together in a moment of crisis.”

NATO’s spearhead force is typically ready to respond to a crisis within about five days, but its state of readiness can be heightened to 48 hours when there are signs of trouble. But if a crisis emerged unexpectedly, Breedlove’s new powers could potentially shorten response times by a couple days. Instead of standing by, troops and aircraft can now be mobilized while the Security Council holds simultaneous meetings on whether to approve the deployment.

Without that quicker political decision making, Breedlove’s new authorities would be rendered meaningless, Eyal said.

Within NATO nations, there are already indications that the alliance’s bedrock Article 5 — the principle that an attack on one member requires a response from all — enjoys shaky support.

In June, the Pew Research Center released a survey that found majorities in several major alliance countries, including Germany, Italy and France, were unwilling to come to another NATO state’s defense in a conflict. Such sentiments could give political leaders pause about deploying forces.

But if some populations have reservations about a more muscular NATO posture, the past year has still been marked by steady progress as the alliance attempts to become more nimble. Already, allies have established the new brigade-sized spearhead force and could plan to triple its larger NATO Response Force, which is set to grow from 13,000 to as many as 40,000 troops.

In addition, the U.S. has agreed to provide a host of enabling forces, such as strategic aircraft and combat helicopters, to help NATO crisis response troops move out when called upon. Also, the U.S. Army decision to pre-position tanks and other armor in the Baltics, Romania, Poland and Bulgaria is expected to boost with NATO readiness.

Breedlove, speaking in Brussels last week, said his new authorities to alert, mobilize and stage troops for deployment is another tangible sign that NATO is adapting.

“I think what we have done is make a logical step in the way to allow the military forces to get in a position to be able to rapidly execute a political decision,” Breedlove said. “I think we are in a very good place. I think what we have done sets us for success.”

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