Alliance Assignments: Defense Priorities for Key NATO States
The shocking brutality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has galvanized allied governments to address long-standing shortcomings in NATO’s defense preparations. After decades of engagement in out-of-area contingency operations, NATO is once again committed to collectively defending “every inch of allied territory and every inch of allied airspace.” The problem is that current allied defense capabilities and posture are not adequate to do so.
At their July Vilnius Summit, NATO leaders endorsed significant improvements in allied military strategy, plans, and posture. They also pledged to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense and to devote 20 percent of their military budgets to the modernization of capabilities. Allies will have an opportunity to review and accelerate these commitments at NATO’s 75th Anniversary Summit in Washington next July. While public support for NATO remains very high on both sides of the Atlantic, growing fatigue in allied countries with providing military assistance to Ukraine, coupled with the rise of populist politicians who are skeptical of NATO, or even sympathetic to Russia, could undermine support for allied defense enhancements. Robust public education efforts, close transatlantic coordination, and, most importantly, continued U.S. leadership will be essential to sustain these endeavors.
Russia has been weakened militarily and economically by its war in Ukraine. But it is expected to reconstitute its ground forces over the next several years. Coupled with its less-scathed air and naval capabilities, this will enable Moscow to continue threatening peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic region. Until then, the next five years provide a window of opportunity to build a defense posture that can counter this threat.
Realizing the more robust deterrence and defense posture NATO allies are seeking will require not only sustained investments over the next five years, but also a number of other steps: developing innovative concepts to defeat aggression, exploiting new technologies, augmenting defense industrial capabilities, and better integrating national efforts. As we argue in a new RAND Corporation report, Inflection Point, each individual NATO member should focus on specific priorities as part of this collective effort. Washington, for its part, can better leverage security cooperation and adapt key NATO mechanisms to achieve greater unity of effort.
Priorities for NATO Members
France, Germany, and the United Kingdom will, along with the United States, continue to occupy centerstage in NATO force planning. Each of these countries has full-spectrum military capabilities and is committed to significant defense improvements. Poland and Romania are playing critical roles as anchors of forward defense in Central and Southeastern Europe. The integration of Finland, and eventually Sweden, into NATO defense plans will bolster security in the Nordic-Baltic region. With the right steps, each of these advantages can be enhanced.
France brings substantial experience in joint operations as well as heavy ground forces, artillery, short- and medium-range air defenses, and advanced combat aviation to a future conflict in Eastern Europe. But it lacks mass and sustainment capabilities. Increased U.S.-French collaboration in electronic warfare, countering massed precision fires, air mobility, and air defenses would bolster France’s contributions and collective defense. The U.S. and French armies and navies have also deepened their cooperation in recent years to improve interoperability to undertake combined, high-end operations. Building on its role as the lead nation of the NATO Battlegroup in Romania, its growing defense cooperation with Bucharest, and its naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, France could help galvanize the integrated defense of Southeastern Europe.
Germany, after decades of underspending that left the Bundeswehr in a dire state, is embracing Zeitenwende. Chancellor Olaf Scholz is gradually taking steps to strengthen the Bundeswehr and enhance Germany’s wider contributions to collective defense. If Germany realizes the proposed investments in equipment and training, and maintains its enlarged NATO Battlegroup in Lithuania, it could build on its role in NATO’s Multinational Corps Northeast and play an even larger role in defense of Northeastern Europe. Germany could also leverage its position as host nation for NATO’s Joint Support and Enabling Command and Air Command to play a leading role in allied theater enablement and sustainment. By building on the European Sky Shield Initiative as well, it could also help lead the integration of European air defense capabilities.
The United Kingdom retains formidable ground, air, and naval forces, and has committed in recent defense reviews to improving their readiness, sustainability, technological edge, and capacity for high-intensity warfighting. However, available resources may be insufficient to realize all the capabilities planned for development over the next decade. Smaller forces are also likely to be strained to meet the United Kingdom’s ambitions to maintain leadership of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, NATO battlegroup in Estonia, and European Joint Expeditionary Force, while also expanding its military operations in the Indo-Pacific. Focusing on capabilities for defense of the Northern Europe and the North Atlantic would be more strategically advantageous for Britain and allies, even as the United Kingdom seeks to retain the capability to undertake periodic naval deployments to the Indo-Pacific in cooperation with the United States, France, Australia, and other countries.
Poland has emerged as a lynchpin of NATO’s eastern flank defenses. Warsaw’s strategic resolve, rapid mobilization plans, ambitious modernization programs, and increasing readiness levels will make the Polish Armed Forces one of the best equipped and trained in NATO for countering Russia in the next five years. Poland also serves as the main transmission belt for Western security assistance to Ukraine and an important locus of training for Ukrainian forces. Poland could become a training, exercising, interoperability, and logistics hub for the alliance, enabling rapid force rotation and reinforcement of allies throughout the region. Given the deepening military integration between Belarus and Russia, allied plans and exercises in Poland should focus on defending two strategic points. First is the Suwałki gap, a 40-mile stretch of Polish territory between Belarus and Kaliningrad, which serves as a critical corridor to Lithuania and the other Baltic states. Second is the Brest gap, a stretch of open terrain along Poland’s southern border with Belarus close to Warsaw.
With Finland, and eventually Sweden, joining Norway in NATO, the alliance will be able to mount a more robust and coherent defense of the Nordic, Baltic, and Arctic regions, backed by new regional defense plans. This effort will build on longstanding regional defense cooperation among all the Nordic states and with U.S., U.K., and other NATO forces. All three countries, and allied sea lanes, remain under threat from surface ships, aircraft with long-range missiles, and attack submarines in Russia’s Northern and Baltic fleets. Norway is taking steps utilizing their advanced F-35 fighters and P-8 maritime patrol aircraft to address these threats, and Norwegian and Swedish aircraft have jointly conducted operations with U.S. heavy bombers to demonstrate the integration of NATO’s high-end conventional and strategic deterrence capabilities. Continuing these operations with Finland and other allies in the region would demonstrate the ability to hold Russian military assets at risk. Access to Finnish and Swedish airbases and airspace, and the integration of both nations’ maritime domain awareness and sea control capabilities into allied structures, will strengthen NATO’s ability to defend the Baltic Sea region.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have made significant strides in bolstering the capabilities and readiness of their comparatively small armed forces. NATO’s three enhanced forward presence battlegroups, coupled with other deployments and exercises, have also strengthened deterrence and the capacity for reinforcement. However, the Baltics remain highly exposed to direct threats of Russia’s aggression and intimidation, and therefore seek a larger NATO presence. While Germany and Canada have committed to bring their battlegroups in Lithuania and Latvia, respectively, up to brigade strength, more should be done. U.S. and allied security assistance can help fill gaps in Baltic air and missile defense, while also addressing shortcomings in artillery, anti-tank weapons, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems. Innovative operational concepts combined with new technologies could rebuff a Russian attack. For example, employing a multi-domain sensing and targeting grid comprising distributed, networked ground-based and airborne sensors could allow the allies to quickly erect robust sensing zones along the border at times of heightened tensions with Russia.
Romania is emerging as the center of gravity for NATO’s defense posture in Southeastern Europe. Bucharest is making significant strides in its plans for modernizing its armed forces. Allied access to the country’s airfields, bases, and port facilities are essential to projecting power into the Black Sea and supporting Ukraine. The augmented NATO battlegroup in Romania — led by France and supported by deployments of U.S. and Polish units — as well as a rotational U.S. brigade, provide scope for leveraging Romania’s leadership of the NATO Multinational Division Headquarters Southeast and Multinational Brigade South-East to enhance the integration of regional defenses. This effort should be supported by the articulation of a long-term transatlantic strategy for the Black Sea region.
Turkey’s geostrategic importance — coupled with the contributions of its large and capable land, air, and naval forces — have sustained military cooperation with Ankara despite strained political relations with most NATO allies. Following President Erdogan’s reelection to a five-year term in May 2023, Turkey will likely continue to balance relations with Moscow and its allies and be reticent to support more robust NATO military operations to deter further Russian aggression in the Black Sea. However, the Turkish defense industry is a leader in development of low-cost, leading-edge technologies, particularly remotely piloted vehicles that have been sold to Ukraine and Poland. Turkey could become a major supplier of affordable, effective systems to allies in Central and Eastern Europe.
Collective NATO Priorities
Under its new deterrence and defense strategy, NATO stepped up both exercises and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance measures in response to Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s border in 2021. This enabled the alliance to rapidly deploy elements of its Very High Readiness Joint Task Force following the Kremlin’s invasion and increase the number of battlegroups in Eastern Europe from four to eight. Today, 150,000 NATO land forces — together with substantial air, air and missile defense, and maritime forces — are conducting deterrence tasks on the alliance’s eastern flank.
At their July Summit, NATO leaders endorsed the new defense strategy as well as a “family of plans” and the command and control arrangements needed to implement it. These include an overarching strategic framework for the entire North Atlantic area, operational plans for each military domain, and three regional defense plans for the North Atlantic and High North, Central Europe, and the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. This strategy aims to shape force structure, readiness requirements, and national defense investments.
NATO leaders also established a new “Allied Reaction Force” and cited progress on the Force Model, whereby allies commit to making 300,000 personnel available to NATO military commanders in 30 days. In addition to their commitments to spending and modernization, allies also pledged continued investments in emerging and disruptive technologies under two new initiatives: the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic and the NATO Innovation Fund.
While these are all positive steps, allies need to enhance plans to ensure readiness and rapid reinforcement of any ally on short notice, improve combat capabilities to conduct large-scale operations, and strengthen enablement of NATO forces. Another top priority should be procuring weapons that can engage hostile forces from standoff ranges including anti-ship cruise missiles, mobile missile launchers, and small killer drones that have been used with great effect in Ukraine. NATO governments have learned from the war in Ukraine that any conflict with Russia will compel them to expend munitions at rates and quantities far beyond what current stocks could support. At Vilnius, they established a new Defence Production Action Plan to accelerate joint procurement, boost production capacity, and enhance interoperability. As part of this effort, they should commit to build robust stocks of anti-armor, anti-personnel, anti-air, and surface-to-air suppression weapons over the next five years.
Finally, lessons that the Ukrainian military is learning in operations against Russian forces should be applied to NATO defense plans and training. The establishment of a NATO-Ukraine Joint Analysis, Training, and Education Center in Poland is already underway. Prioritizing its work would benefit both NATO and Ukraine.
Stephen J. Flanagan is an adjunct senior fellow and Anna M. Dowd is an adjunct international/defense researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.