Why NATO Should Adopt a Tactical Readiness Initiative

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In January 2018, the German news site Deutsche Welle released a bombshell report. It exposed, in excruciating detail, the degraded readiness of the German military. One year before assuming command of the NATO Very High Readiness Task Force, the alliance’s multinational immediate response force, the Bundeswehr was forced to admit it lacked basic equipment needed to fulfil its role: spare parts for armored vehicles, night-vision devices, body armor, and even winter clothes and tents. Subsequent investigations revealed similar readiness problems in the nation’s air and naval forces. In short, NATO’s most important European member was not ready for war.

In many ways, the NATO Readiness Initiative, first announced in June 2018 at a NATO defense ministers conference in Brussels, was a response to these issues of readiness across Europe’s national militaries. Often referred to as the “Four Thirties,” the initiative calls for NATO member states to collectively maintain 30 mechanized battalions, 30 naval ships, and 30 air squadrons ready for employment by NATO within 30 days of activation. This agreement was part of a package of U.S.-sponsored initiatives which aimed to further increase NATO’s ability to rapidly respond to crises by improving military mobility across Europe and expedite the organization’s political and military decision-making process. These changes signaled a much-needed realignment towards preparedness for high-intensity conflict against Russia.



Its adoption was hailed as a transformational moment in the alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg proposed that the initiative would create a “culture of readiness.” Others welcomed an initiative that measured readiness beyond spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, a metric that has become, at times, an unhelpful obsession in transatlantic defense.

However, two years after its adoption, it is still unclear if the NATO Readiness Initiative has had any effect. Despite its promise and potential, it may unfortunately remain more an expression of political will than an operational plan to rebuild readiness in the militaries of NATO member states.

To date, apart from a handful of nations announcing their contributions to the initiative, NATO has offered few additional details on this “transformative” effort. The alliance has not identified which nations are contributing forces — which it does for other high-readiness battlegroups — nor has it published any details on exactly how the readiness initiative works. Even the announcement of the “success” of the initiative, defined as contributing nations allocating all required forces to the initiative, was buried on an infographic in the 2019 NATO Secretary General’s report.

When first introduced two years ago, the readiness initiative lacked a clear definition of readiness, a means to evaluate individual units allocated to the initiative, and a routine mechanism to test the responsiveness of these forces. Since NATO defense ministers are still discussing the details of the initiative, it is likely that these fundamental gaps still exist. The initiative still has not been formally tested. Exercise Defender 2020, slated for June of this year, should have been an excellent opportunity to do so. However, the exercise was greatly reduced due to COVID-19, and it would have most likely been an inauspicious start for the alliance’s latest initiative. NATO’s next opportunity will be Exercise Steadfast Defender in 2021, which gives NATO and states contributing forces to the initiative a little under a year to address these deficiencies and ensure the success of this important initiative.

As a first step, NATO should establish oversight on the readiness of national forces allocated to the “Four Thirties.” Then, the alliance should adopt additional strategies that support tactical readiness for these forces by standardizing training methodologies and establishing their wartime task organization before a crisis starts, not after. Given the challenges associated with NATO’s land component, the alliance should start with member states’ armies rather than the other services.

Mind the Gaps

The NATO Readiness Initiative builds upon NATO’s previous efforts to prepare the alliance to defend Europe against threats from Russia to the east and instability and terrorism to the south. However, the initiative differs from previous efforts in two ways: First, the readiness initiative focuses on the readiness of national forces, not those controlled by NATO. In the event of a crisis, NATO will need these forces to reinforce high-readiness “spearhead” units, with deployment timelines of less than a week, prior to the arrival of the larger, but slower to deploy, NATO Response Force. This multinational formation of nearly 40,000 troops drawn from across NATO member states packs a punch, but could take as long as 90 days before it can be employed. National forces will fill the gap between the two. Second, while past initiatives focused on deterrence through a forward-deployed defense posture to reassure Baltic allies most threatened by Moscow, the readiness initiative complements NATO’s shift to a strategy of deterrence through military mobility. Investing in more mobile forces that can respond quickly to a crisis in Eastern Europe, rather than maintaining a large deployment of troops on NATO’s eastern flank, lowers costs for member states and creates flexibility to respond to other threats to the alliance (e.g., terrorism).

Since the 2018 Brussels Summit, NATO member states have made great strides towards improving military mobility. Likewise, military mobility has become an important political objective in the European Union. Moving NATO forces in a time of crisis from bases across Europe to potential hot-spots in the east and south is a monumental task that requires detailed planning, something NATO has learned from large-scale exercises such as Exercise Trident Juncture 2018. Since then, NATO and the EU have diligently put these lessons into practice, include reducing border controls and improving infrastructure such as ports, bridges and railways, often at significant cost to individual member states.

Mobility Is Important, but So Is Availability

However, NATO may be putting its proverbial cart before the horse. Military mobility is just one component to ensure collective defense. NATO should first ensure the availability of forces to mobilize. In a crisis, NATO’s member states may not be able to generate these forces in the first place. Regrettably, nearly two years after the adoption of the readiness initiative, NATO still lacks operational oversight of forces who, at this very moment, are ostensibly available to NATO within thirty days. Without oversight on the process of force generation within contributing nations, these forces might not uphold their standards of readiness and, as a result, fail to meet the mission assigned to them. In peacetime, failing to meet NATO’s readiness standards ends careers. In a crisis, it could make the difference between winning and losing a conflict with Russia. Just as NATO is addressing military mobility now, so too must it address in the lack of oversight and evaluation under the readiness initiative.

Not everyone agrees that NATO should have more oversight of national forces. After all, the alliance’s strategic framework states that tactical readiness is the purview of individual member states, not NATO. While true, this framework was a result of post-Cold War force generation policies that focused on making global stability operations sustainable for member states. While it functioned well for counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan or the Balkans, it is insufficient for maintaining readiness for high-intensity conflict.

In a way, NATO has needed to repurpose defense concepts that guided the alliance from the past. Under the Cold War strategy of “flexible response,” national forces held in a high state of readiness were essential to the security of the European continent. Because the threat of Soviet invasion was ever-present, these forces were closely monitored and evaluated frequently to ensure their preparedness. While individual member states were still responsible for the training of their national militaries, NATO ensured compliance through formal exercises and no-notice readiness evaluations, ensuring each nation was accountable for their contributions to the collective defense of Europe.

A Tactical Readiness Initiative for NATO’s Ground Forces

To support the NATO Readiness Initiative, the alliance should establish a tactical readiness initiative for European ground forces that supports the alliance’s broader goal of strategic readiness. There are several reasons to begin with armies. In addition to the sheer size of the land component allocated under the NATO Readiness Initiative — potentially up to 15,000 troops — ground force readiness presents a unique challenge for NATO. First, while years of insufficient defense spending has affected all of Europe’s military components, cuts in funding for personnel, equipment acquisition, and maintenance have hit ground forces especially hard. Despite pressure from the United States to increase defense spending and modernization efforts, many European armies still face significant gaps in their conventional capabilities. These problems could limit the quality of forces assigned to the NATO Readiness Initiative. Second, there are issues of interoperability at the tactical level that challenge the ability of these forces to quickly integrate into a single fighting force during a crisis. Member states use different command and control systems, communications devices, and specialty equipment. Workarounds can be found, typically from ground-level soldier ingenuity, but it takes time.

European ground forces each employ their own individual tactics and techniques. Sometimes they are synchronized with their NATO allies, and sometimes they are not. While this may be a minor detail from a strategic perspective, interoperable procedures (e.g., how to mark friendly vehicles during conditions of low visibility) are incredibly important for a multinational forces, especially when a portion of the alliance still employs Russian-made vehicles.

A tactical readiness initiative for NATO’s land forces can address these issues of readiness and interoperability by doing two things: First, it needs to establish a standardized system of training and evaluation for each battalion allocated by contributing nations to the NATO Readiness Initiative. NATO should require that they train to NATO standards and use NATO procedures during their nationally mandated training cycle. Similarly, the readiness of these battalions should be evaluated using NATO Land Forces Command’s long-standing readiness criteria. This assures that all battalions are better prepared to integrate into multinational formations once their readiness is validated. National land forces already synchronize their major training events at the annual NATO Land Forces Command Combined Training Conference. Were NATO to adopt a tactical readiness initiative for land forces, this venue could be easily adapted to integrate discussions of fully standardizing training and evaluation for battalions allocated to the NATO Readiness Initiative.

Second, NATO should establish the wartime task organization for NATO Readiness Initiative forces in peacetime — in other words, before a crisis starts — assigning battalions to existing multinational headquarters under the NATO Command Structure. Though divisions will be largely administrative until they are activated, the early integration of these forces provide them the time to form important relationships and address challenges to technical and procedural interoperability. This can take the form of collaborative planning events, or even combined training exercises. Many of the national land force training centers used by NATO member states benefit from advancements in live-virtual training, so even geographically dispersed battalions and NATO division headquarters can train together without expensive deployments to a shared training area. These combined events have the added benefit of serving as routine “touchpoints” to ensure that battalions are maintaining their readiness.

Looking Ahead

NATO should establish a clear definition of readiness for forces allocated under the NATO Readiness Initiative and adopt organizational structures that allow these units to plan and train together regularly in peacetime — doing this during a crisis would be too late. In doing so, NATO can ensure that when needed, the alliance has an interoperable force capable of unified action instead of thirty individual battalions struggling to integrate into the NATO Command Structure under fire.

The alliance should also consider what needs to be added to the NATO Readiness Initiative to fully address tactical readiness in the air and maritime domains. Similarly, additional initiatives may also be required for space and cyber, and for individual warfighting functions like intelligence. NATO’s many centers of excellence could be an important asset in determining the details of these domain-specific tactical readiness initiatives before disseminating these standards across national militaries.

Steadfast Defender 2021, a continent-spanning exercise scheduled for next summer featuring tens of thousands of thousands of troops deploying to several different training areas, will be a critical moment for the NATO Readiness Initiative . It will provide the alliance an opportunity to properly test its strategic readiness. But NATO should first ensure a solid foundation of tactical readiness is in place.

Former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Tom Goffus put it, NATO’s strategic readiness requires, “two things together, on the front end is having NATO command and control capability to move the chess pieces around the board, the second is having chess pieces that are ready to be moved.” The alliance’s efforts towards improving military mobility have largely achieved the first objective; now NATO should focus on the second. Adopting a supporting initiative to the NATO Readiness Initiative that directly address the tactical readiness of national forces is the best way to ensure that, if the time comes, NATO will have all of its pieces on the board.



Josh Campbell is an active-duty U.S. Army officer currently enrolled at the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.