war on the rocks

NATO at the Tactical Level

September 15, 2015

Amid ongoing debate and anxiety over the future of NATO and the defense spending of its member states, one aspect of the alliance is rarely mentioned: How does NATO work in practice? Commentators often write of NATO’s strategic position vis-à-vis Russia, but we hear little of how cooperation between the allies takes shape on the ground. During my recent deployment to Afghanistan — the only conflict zone where NATO’s Article V has been invoked — I had the chance to see exactly that: a view of NATO at the tactical level.

I was privileged to work closely with Czech and Polish forces co-deployed at my base. I worked as an intelligence officer for a task force that oversaw force protection for Bagram Airfield and the train, advise and assist mission supporting Afghan security forces in Parwan Province. Although NATO and partner forces were deeply integrated into force protection and patrol operations within the ground defense area, the intelligence sections did not typically enjoy the same level of cooperation. This stemmed in part from the inherent “close-hold” nature of military intelligence, as well as from some preconceived notions of language barriers (as it turned out, nearly all the Czech and Polish soldiers I worked with spoke fluent English). But I was fortunate to have been part of an effort to strengthen working relationships between allied intelligence personnel, and there are a few valuable lessons I learned in the process.

A Little Effort Goes a Long Way

What started as a directive to engage NATO forces in order to make them feel more included turned into enduring partnerships between U.S., Czech and Polish forces. We established weekly exchanges between our intelligence sections, discussing how we saw the situation in our area of operations. These sessions were deliberately informal, taking place either around a table or on couches, and usually accompanied by comfort food from our respective countries. The casual environment allowed for a free flow of ideas, regardless of rank, and offered an escape from the echo chamber associated with brigade- and division-level staff environments.

Don’t Underestimate Potential

U.S. Army officers are inculcated with the mindset that they are part of the greatest and most powerful land force in the world. As such, there is a tendency to accept U.S. doctrine and practice as the right (and sometimes only) way. Compounded by the 14 years of persistent conflict our military has endured, it is at times difficult to shake the mindset of “this is how we did things in (insert GWOT operation here), so if it worked then, it will work now.”

It is also easy to dismiss NATO partner units simply based on their troop strength. The Polish intelligence team that I worked with consisted of a colonel, first lieutenant, and civilian linguist. Based on numbers alone, it wouldn’t be difficult to discount the value of collaborating with such a small section, especially given that I worked in a 70-person-strong intelligence support element. But this three-person shop offered capabilities that U.S. forces couldn’t replicate.

Despite its size, the Polish intelligence cell was able to maintain a robust source network that provided information on insurgent activity in neighboring districts and provinces where NATO forces had since retrograded. This intelligence helped to plug some of the “black holes” we received from traditional collection methods, and extended the reach of reporting to areas with no U.S. or NATO presence. The Poles also used their small size to their advantage, running source meets and atmospheric patrols off base by simply walking out of the gate with four or five personnel and getting to work. For the majority of NATO forces on post, this wasn’t even an option, with ground movements outside the base usually being highly scripted affairs with platoon-sized elements and vehicle support.

The Czechs had a larger intelligence shop, staffed by six personnel. They were part of Lion Company, which provided patrol elements for half of the ground defense area. Lion Company, in turn, fell under a U.S. battalion headquarters, which had its own intelligence shop. Because of the dual intelligence structure, it was apparent that the Czech shop was sometimes marginalized by its U.S. higher headquarters. Once our informal exchanges started, it was clear how much the Czechs were able to offer, particularly with developing warrants for Afghan-led operations.

Following the transition from the International Security Assistance Force to the Resolute Support Mission, the Afghan National Security Forces took primacy on kill and capture operations. In order to get a warrant approved, a case needed to be developed on the targeted individual with intelligence releasable to Afghan officials. This proved difficult at times, especially because U.S. forces tended to apply a default classification level, in many cases FVEY (releasable only to the “Five Eyes” community — the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) or higher, to all reporting for ease of production, which meant too many reports were over-classified.

The Czechs approached this problem head-on by taking our top targeted individuals, tasking their collection teams to gain additional information on them, and developing serialized reporting already written for release to Afghan officials. This information enhanced the warrant process, and led to operations resulting in the capture of several mid- and senior-level insurgents within the ground defense area.

Continuing the Partnership

Without a doubt, the greatest lasting impact of working with the Czechs and Poles was learning firsthand that the brotherhood of arms is not confined to those who wear the American flag on their shoulder. The professionalism and work ethic of my Czech and Polish counterparts has solidified a positive impression of their military forces, something I will have with me for the rest of my career. Not only were our weekly exchanges important to conducting our mission, they presented an opportunity to get away from the grind of 12–18-hour days, if only for a little while. Most of my counterparts were company grade officers, meaning that there is potential for our paths to cross again as our careers progress. With the likelihood of combined operations increasing in the future, along with the uncertain security situation in Europe, having these relationships is a tactical and operational investment in future NATO deployments.

While U.S. Army personnel can and should seek to establish exchanges and capabilities briefings with their NATO partners during the initial phases of a deployment, it is far more prudent to develop and foster these relationships before operating in a combat environment. Institutionally, the Army has a range of options to bring to bear toward this end. It can, for instance, bolster pre-existing programs such as the Total Army’s (Active, Guard and Reserve) Regionally Aligned Forces concept and the National Guard’s State Partnership Program to better integrate U.S. and NATO forces before real world operations are conducted. Greater interface and lasting relationships built through such programs allow Army soldiers and officers to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of their NATO peers, and serves to dispel the notion that reduced capacity means diminished capability. But whatever mechanisms are used, in an era of uncertain defense budgets, leveraging our allies’ tactical capabilities is increasingly a strategic imperative.

 

Adam Maisel is a military intelligence officer in the Army National Guard and veteran of Operations Enduring Freedom and Freedom’s Sentinel. Previously, Adam served as a legislative assistant for the National Guard Association of the United States. The opinions expressed are his and his alone.

 

Photo credit: ResoluteSupportMedia