End of ISAF, End of NATO?


Editor’s Note: This op-ed is based on the author’s article entitled, “Maintaining transatlantic strategic, operational and tactical interoperability in an era of austerity,” International Affairs 90: 3 (2014) 583–600, May 2014.


It is no accident that forces from NATO member states can actually operate alongside or embedded with one another. Interoperability is, in large part, the product of a war, one that is soon ending: the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)’s campaign in Afghanistan.  Later this year, though, NATO’s extensive involvement in operations in Afghanistan will come to an end, and with it, the alliance’s workshop for building and maintaining an unprecedented level of interoperability.

The end of NATO’s involvement in this war is, of course, not something to be mourned. Between the loss of blood and treasure over the last decade – including nearly 3,500 coalition deaths – and the defense austerity most allies are navigating, the expiration of the ISAF mandate is something to be thankful for. However, it will mean that NATO, and specifically the ground forces of alliance member states, will face greater difficulty in maintaining this unprecedented level of operational and tactical interoperability.

Just as ISAF is coming to an end, one of the most important tools for maintaining interoperability among allied militaries during peacetime – the forward-based presence of U.S. troops in Europe – has shrunk significantly, perhaps even to dangerous levels when considering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  Such cuts by Washington policymakers over the last 20 years have led to a reduced American ability to partner, exercise, and train with allied forces across the continent and beyond.  Ultimately, a reduced American military presence in Europe will make coalition operations with NATO allies both harder and riskier by increasing friction at the operational and tactical levels, leading to inequitable burden- and risk-sharing, higher casualty rates, and increased delays in achieving mission objectives.  In such circumstances, American and European military forces risk gradually losing their ability to work as closely together as they have in ISAF.

If this happens – and European and American defense gradually decouple – the risks go beyond the tactical and operational levels.  Transatlantic defense decoupling could lead to a gradual but steady re-nationalization of European defenses, as European militaries turn away from collective defense under NATO.  Some European states may choose to develop military capabilities that ignore and hence undermine NATO standards, while others may seek greater reliance on bilateral arrangements with the United States. Paradoxically, this would increase the burden on American national security and defense policy, not reduce it.

The second great risk of military decoupling  is the loss of strategic interoperability. When the United States and Europe agree on strategic objectives as well as the means to achieve those objectives, the transatlantic partners are usually the core of any effective global coalition.  However, if the United States and Europe disagree on goals and policies to achieve those goals – for example, as a result of diverging interests, values, and outlooks that would come with diminished strategic interoperability – progress toward those disparate goals is unlikely to be achieved easily, if at all, and global stability will be in greater jeopardy. The political implications of a loss of strategic interoperability could be fairly significant. not simply for the West, but also for broader global stability.

To mitigate these risks, in February 2012 the United States announced that it would, for the first time, make a U.S. Army unit available on an as-needed basis to the NATO Response Force (NRF), which had previously relied solely on European contributions.  Additionally, the U.S. Army has developed the so-called Regionally Aligned Forces initiative, whereby some Army units will be tasked with focusing on particular regions of the world, allowing them to develop more regional expertise and to focus on engaging with specific countries on a regular, habitual basis.  The U.S. Defense Department has also begun to turn most (if not all) of its existing exercises in Europe from bilateral to multilateral events.  And there are more of these eventswith more capable allies such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy and fewer with less capable allies.  Finally, at the intergovernmental level, the United States is also an active proponent of the Connected Forces Initiative (CFI), a NATO-led effort focused on more effective use of education, training, exercises, and technology in the pursuit of interoperability across the alliance.  While these initiatives are steps in the right direction, they may be insufficient to achieve broader U.S. goals given the challenges some of them face, including only intermittent and inconsistent engagement, a lack of programmatic focus, and/or significantly limited funding for readiness, training, and exercises.

To more effectively deal with the risks posed by diminished interoperability, there are both immediate and longer-term steps that the United States and NATO ought to consider taking.  First, the United States should aim to retain its existing force structure in Europe, particularly in terms of general purpose ground forces. Earlier this year, the Department of Defense announced that the Army will shrink to roughly 440,000 active duty Soldiers over the next several years, which will be achieved through both unit deactivations and attrition. With regard to deactivating units, the Army and the Pentagon find it far more palatable politically to deactivate overseas-based units, since of course such units are not based in states or territories with Congressional representation. Nevertheless, the current mix of ground combat arms forces based in Europe – including a light brigade based in Vicenza, Italy (the 173rd Airborne); a Stryker regiment (the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment) based in Vilseck, Germany; a combat aviation brigade (the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade) based in Ansbach, Germany; and a missile defense command (the 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command) based in Kaiserslautern, Germany – represents a versatile, first-class mix of technologically advanced forces that can partner well with military formations of highly capable allies.

Second, the United States ought to consider increasing the numbers of special operations forces (SOF) based in Europe.  Trying to maintain a high degree of SOF operational and tactical interoperability with rotational deployments is likely to prove both inefficient and ineffective.   Maintaining and building interoperability in the advanced capabilities of SOF requires regular, routine contact.

Third, if the United States is going to rely on rotational deployments of general purpose ground forces to augment what remains of its permanent forward based units in Europe, longer deployments are far better than shorter ones.  Shorter, more frequent deployments are more expensive and less effective at developing and maintaining high-end interoperability.

Fourth, the U.S. military should more closely embrace the need for operational and tactical interoperability with America’s most capable, most likely future coalition partners in terms of doctrine and training. Existing doctrine all too often conceptualizes military-to-military engagement in terms of teaching foreign counterparts something they did not already know, rather than building and maintaining interoperability across the range of military operations with already capable allies.  Subsequently, most military-to-military training events in recent years as well as those on the calendar reflect this as well.  Fifth, the United States and its NATO allies might consider requiring all collective training events at the battalion level and above to include participation by units – not simply ‘response cells’ or observers – from highly capable allies.

Finally, NATO needs to continue with practical steps toward achieving Secretary General Rasmussen’s vision for the Connected Forces Initiative.  To achieve this, it will be critical to earmark funding for education, training, and exercises.  By taking these steps, the United States and NATO will be better prepared for military operations of any sort, within Europe and beyond.


Dr. John R. Deni is a Research Professor of Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational (JIIM) Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute. He previously worked for eight years as a political advisor for senior U.S. military commanders in Europe and as an adjunct lecturer at Heidelberg University’s Institute for Political Science. Follow him at @JohnRDeni. The views expressed here are his own.


Photo credit: Medien Bundeswehr