A Confidence-Building Defense for NATO
NATO knows what it needs to do at the upcoming Madrid Summit, but it still does not know how. The alliance is determined to strengthen conventional deterrence on its eastern front and soon its northern flank. Some allies argue that this requires abandoning NATO’s “tripwire” approach and adopting a strategy of “forward defense.” Instead of maintaining small, multi-national contingents in the Baltic States and Poland, NATO would deploy sufficient forces to defeat a potential Russian attack and even be able to conduct counter-offensives. This would involve permanently stationing large contingents as close as possible to Russia and Russian-controlled territory.
The problem with forward defense, however, is that while it sounds good, it is not clear what it would mean in practice, or how it would play out against the many divergences and disagreements between NATO members. Instead, allies should embrace a strategy of confidence-building defense. To revive this late Cold War concept, NATO’s eastern members would create a highly mobile net of dispersed artillery, while more powerful European allies would build and supply heavy weapons depots in those countries, then prepare to rapidly deploy significant forces in case of a crisis. This approach would enable European allies to contribute to their own security, lessen first-strike pressures, and avoid deepening a dangerous new security dilemma with Russia.
Uncertainties Loom Large
No matter how confident allies seem to be about NATO’s current unity, there are a number of key uncertainties that could make forward defense difficult to implement effectively. If Russia’s military continues to struggle in Ukraine, or if America’s commitment to European security falters again, NATO would benefit from a more flexible, less forward strategy.
The success of forward defense hinges first and foremost on the true strength of the Russian military, and here considerable uncertainty remains. On the one hand, Russia’s rather poor military performance in Ukraine seems to support the argument that the West has simply overestimated Russian military power. On the other hand, some defense experts infer that it is too early to judge and that a Russian campaign against NATO would not be comparable to the war in Ukraine.
A forward defense strategy is also contingent on the quality of the adversary’s capabilities. Right now, there is considerable disagreement over how fast Russia could recover from its current losses and replenish its depleted forces. Some allied officials argue that the sanctions targeting Russia’s military-industrial sector will deny the Kremlin the ability to refill its arsenals with high-tech weaponry for years to come. This could provide European allies with a window of opportunity to streamline and harmonize their national defense procurement processes in order to gain the upper hand. But Russia could also bounce back rather quickly, given its massive trade surplus from rising energy prices and ability to buy high-tech products like semiconductors from China.
Third is the question of where NATO’s future front line with Russian-controlled territory will be. A prolonged stalemate in Ukraine’s east could lift some of the most imminent pressure on Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, making large-scale formations under a forward defense scheme in those countries redundant. This picture would change were Russia to make significant territorial gains in southern and western Ukraine or, in the worst case, further west into Moldova.
Fourth, NATO’s expanded front line will soon include countries with divergent defense preferences, making the coordination of a large forward troop presence difficult. Finland, for example, is confident about its military capabilities and not interested in permanent NATO bases. Populist-ruled Hungary is walking a tightrope between preserving its economic and ideological ties to the Kremlin and hosting NATO troops. Meanwhile, the Baltics, Poland, Slovakia, and Romania seem to be more or less on the same page in calling for as much material reassurance as possible.
Finally, no one knows how ironclad America’s defense commitment to Europe would look under a possible second presidential term of Donald Trump or some other hyper-unilateralist American leader. Right now, NATO is united to a degree not foreseeable when Emmanuel Macron called the alliance “braindead.” That could change with a return of “America first.” European hopes for increased and permanent U.S. force deployments are still running counter to Washington’s oft-repeated long-term interest in containing a rising China. In an extreme scenario, European allies could be forced to quickly fill the gaps of a retreating U.S. hegemon in a high-inflation environment. Without America, a forward defense strategy might not be sustainable for the Europeans — at least not in the short to medium term.
Given these uncertainties, the window of opportunity to act before Russia bounces back might only be open for a very short period. “Confidence-building defense,” a forgotten concept from the latter half of the Cold War, could provide NATO with an alternative approach. It could help to buy European allies time while balancing what is militarily necessary with what could be sufficient and doable in the short term.
The origins of the concept lie in the early 1980s. After the end of détente, some analysts were looking for new ways to ensure European security and create greater stability with the Warsaw Pact. At the same time, these analysts were concerned about the direction of NATO’s strategy during this crisis-ridden period. Proponents of concepts such as “AirLand Battle” and “Follow-on-Forces-Attack” argued that the introduction of “smart” weapons might enable “deterrence by denial” through conventional means. Accordingly, NATO’s heavy armored forces in Germany could first thwart the advance of the Warsaw Pact using maneuver warfare. Then, deep strikes with new high-precision weapons would neutralize the second echelon of Soviet forces while it was still concentrated in bases and staging areas in the western Soviet Union.
To critics in Western Europe and especially in West Germany, this strategy risked exacerbating instability in a potential crisis. They argued that NATO’s armored forces, concentrated in West Germany, invited early nuclear strikes in a potential war while using them to carry out maneuver warfare could very well require crossing into East German territory. This in turn could be misinterpreted by Moscow as the start of a strategic counteroffensive, further increasing the risk of nuclear war. Moreover, conventional deep strikes would have had to be executed preemptively or at least right at the outbreak of war before Soviet forces moved west.
Today, in the Baltics, many of these same risks are present. Maneuver warfare in an even more confined theater might again require crossing borders, while the concentration of large armored forces under a “forward defense” scheme could again invite preemptive strikes.
Responding to the risks posed by concepts such as AirLand Battle, proponents of confidence-building defense proposed a force structure which did not present any obvious targets for tactical nuclear strikes, thereby lessening the incentive for preemption. They also envisioned a force that was able to thwart a conventional attack without being able to go on the offensive itself, thereby addressing the security dilemma.
The result was the “spider in the web” approach. The web would be made up of a network of dispersed infantry units, equipped with modern weaponry like light artillery and shoulder-mounted anti-armor rockets capable of delaying and progressively wearing down invading forces. The spider would be composed of mobile combined-arms armored units, providing the strike and shock to destroy the enemy’s momentum and confidence while preventing them from achieving strategic objectives. Yet, the armored component would not be large enough, nor would it have the logistical capabilities, to conduct offensive operations outside the web.
Such a force structure would have three political benefits. It would reassure allies that defense was feasible, reduce the risk of nuclear escalation, and diminish the security dilemma, thereby opening up possible avenues for confidence-building with the adversary.
A Modern Spider in the Web
The logic behind confidence-building defense has not changed. Instead of permanently deploying large-scale armored units directly on NATO’s eastern front, allies should instead aim for an updated spider in the web defense.
Steps are already being taken that would facilitate this approach in the Baltics. In February, allies agreed to beef up the “enhanced forward presence” in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland, which, since 2017, has consisted of four battalion-sized, multinational battlegroups. Germany recently announced the establishment of a permanent headquarters in Lithuania for an additional German brigade manned by 50 to 60 staff. The rest of the brigade would be stationed in Germany and regularly rotate into the country for training. To further enhance Germany’s ability to play the spider, Berlin could pre-position supplies in dispersed, protected locations, mostly for rapid resupply of Lithuanian national forces in times of war.
Providing the web, the Lithuanian military could store a significant arsenal of shoulder-fired anti-tank munitions, portable drones, and towed artillery platforms for the newest guided artillery shells. In a conflict, these would be moved quickly between redundant, camouflaged, and fortified firing positions, and complemented by guided anti-ship missile batteries, which are less expensive than naval surface ships.
Strategically, such a spider and web approach would need to be tailored specifically to the needs of NATO’s front-line states. Multinational NATO battlegroups, similar to the enhanced forward presence, are already being established in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. With improved readiness and sufficient follow-on forces, they could be quickly scaled up in case of aggression. Powerful European allies such as France, Britain, and Poland could fulfill a spider role for these countries, which would meanwhile be freed to focus on their web responsibilities. Key to confidence-building defense would be the ability to rapidly redeploy capabilities, which would require European allies to invest in logistics, airlift capacity, air defenses, and advance planning for follow-on forces.
Adopting confidence-building defense today would enable European allies to shoulder the main responsibility for defending NATO’s eastern front without having to commit forces that they currently do not have or cannot afford to deploy. This would buy Europeans time to reinvest in their national forces where necessary and to do so under a common European defense scheme. It would also lift some of the burden that President Vladimir Putin’s war has put on America for European defense. A spider and web approach would not make U.S. forces in Europe entirely redundant or reduce Europe’s need for U.S. targeting intelligence. It could help, however, to ease accusations from Washington that Europeans are not doing enough for their own defense — something that will be particularly important if Trump or someone like him returns to power.
Confidence-building defense could also, in the long term, help to build confidence with Moscow. Permanently staging large-scale heavy-armored formations in the immediate vicinity of the NATO-Russia contact zone could be misperceived by Moscow as threatening an offensive operation against Russian territory. Avoiding this would reduce the risk that Russia feels pressured to launch a first strike. If NATO is not dependent on maintaining large forces on Russia’s borders, discussing strictly reciprocal and verifiable conventional arms control limits with Russia might eventually become possible. Given the manifold uncertainties that NATO is facing, confidence-building defense remains the best way to simultaneously reassure allies in a realistic and feasible way while avoiding further escalation with Moscow.
Lukas Mengelkamp is a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Marburg where he studies the history of the critique of nuclear deterrence.
Alexander Graef is a researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg and is a member of the Younger Generation Leaders Network on Euro-Atlantic Security.
Ulrich Kühn is the director of the Arms Control and Emerging Technologies program at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg and is a non-resident scholar with the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The authors would like to thank Charles Knight, one of the original members of the Project on Defense Alternatives and the Study Group on Alternative Security Policy, for his advice on this article.