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Is the NATO rapid-reaction force fiction?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg holds a news conference prior to a meeting of NATO foreign ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Dec. 2. (JULIEN WARNAND/European Pressphoto Agency)

The following is a guest post by political scientist Heidi Hardt of the University of California at Irvine.


Earlier this month, NATO representatives recommitted the organization to a plan revealed in September to create a new rapid-reaction force capable of deploying 5,000 troops within a matter of days. The announcement of the spearhead force offered reassurances to member states along Russia’s border that remain concerned about the organization’s ability and willingness to defend them from further expansionism. This expansionism has included Russia’s military, financial and personnel support for separatist movements in Ukraine and, most recently, the expansion of its air activity in Europe.

With defense budgets at an all-time low, the European NATO states have sought out a low-cost solution that would prevent their territories from becoming the next Crimea. Yet the experiences of other international organizations indicate that both developing and deploying rapid-reaction forces are fraught with problems. The success of the spearhead force will depend on NATO’s ability to overcome political and logistical challenges.

In the context of international organizations, a rapid-reaction force consists of joint multinational military troops that are on standby and ready to deploy within a short amount of time (days or weeks) to a crisis. Member states contribute troops who rotate regularly to “guarantee military effectiveness and equitable burden-sharing.” Interoperability is critical. NATO’s spearhead force represents an update to the preexisting NATO Response Force (NRF), which was created in 2002 and designed to be sustainable for at least 30 days. Unlike past initiatives, the spearhead force is different because it is designed to deploy “particularly at the periphery of NATO’s territory.”

My research on rapid-reaction forces across other international organizations engaged in crisis management indicates that NATO’s primary hurdle will be a political one. Time and again, policymakers have debated the idea of rapid-reaction forces. Practitioners recognize that delays cost lives. Yet of those international organizations that have invested in rapid-reaction forces, none have followed through with deployment. Political will has both prevented the deployment of rapid-reaction forces and slowed the establishment of broader peacekeeping operations. After decades of attempts, the United Nations failed to establish a rapid-reaction force.

The African Union organized an African Standby Force (ASF), but nationalism and aid dependence have hindered implementation. Despite aspirations to become a rapid-reaction force, the ASF currently comprises only “a dozen or so” infantry battalions. This may change since the United States recently pledged $550 million toward developing the force. The strengthening of the ASF fits with a broader expansion of the African Union’s peace and security architecture in the past decade.

Of the various initiatives, the European Union’s has come the farthest in terms of readiness. Today, 18 E.U. battlegroups consist of 1,500 soldiers on standby and can be deployed within 10 days of an E.U. mandate. Yet despite being at full operational capability for more than seven years, the battlegroups have never seen action. In 2008 and 2012, the United Nations requested the E.U. deploy them to the Congo to protect civilians and stop sexual violence. An ambassador to the E.U. offered an analogy to explain this continued political resistance to deploying the battlegroups. “It is like having a fantastic Ferrari in the garage. It is there but you just don’t know how to drive it.” In the same study, numerous E.U. ambassadors expressed concerns over a failure. If the Ferrari crashes and burns, the lead state would pay the political costs.

Another study on the E.U. decision not to deploy to the Congo found that the two states whose troops happened to be in rotation at the time simply did not want to see their troops deployed to sub-Saharan Africa for reasons related to their respective domestic politics. Security scholar Gowan notes that the rotation system guaranteed that at “any given moment the distribution of risk was uneven.” Similarly, the NATO Response Force is based on the same principle of rotation.

If the spearhead force is similarly designed, it could face the same paralysis. One alternative design would be a group of states with both the capacity and willingness to be part of a permanent rapid-reaction force. Another design could include rotations of specific groups of like-minded states that only rotate together.

Beyond political disagreements, logistical problems could equally pose a problem for the spearhead force to become operational. A recent Wall Street Journal article reported on diplomats’ concerns that declining defense budgets would make coordination and capacity-building an extreme but feasible challenge. NATO requests states to contribute at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product to military expenditures, but 2013 data shows that 24 out of 28 member states have not reached that threshold. That said, despite the continuing decline in defense budgets, NATO has not only survived but maintained troops in its operation in Afghanistan for more than a decade. This suggests the organization has the ability to will the Spearhead force into existence – even if it would mean rehatting troops from other existing operations around the globe. NATO has already identified the first set of contributing countries for the force: Germany, Norway and the Netherlands.

Finally, there are diplomatic costs associated with the decision to publicly announce that the purpose of the force is to protect the borders of NATO member states. The establishment of a rapid-reaction force may not permanently line any borders with NATO troops, which would violate a 1997 Russia-NATO agreement, but it does provoke. In classic scholarship, Jervis argued that leaders’ misperceptions lead to war. The new NATO secretary general is now offering tougher rhetoric than his predecessor. Whereas former secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen only condemned the “illegal and illegitimate ‘annexation’ of Crimea,” current Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has stated that the new force is being created because of Russia’s actions. The Russian government’s response has been to blame NATO for instability in Ukraine. Are Russia and NATO on the cusp of a new arms race? In the post-Cold War period, this is the first case whereby an international organization has established rapid-reaction forces in response to the threat of a state rather than the threat of instability within states (e.g. 1990s conflicts in former Yugoslavia). The specificity of the threat as a unitary actor is what should evoke debates on brinksmanship. In some ways, it may be easier for NATO member states to react to a state threat rather than intrastate threats. European and North American states can reopen formal channels of diplomacy, ramp up informal negotiations and dampen accusatory rhetoric to offset the consequences of the Spearhead force for NATO-Russia relations.

A rapid reaction force cannot prevent further conflict along NATO’s borders with Russia. Given the historical experience of such forces across other military organizations, it most likely will never be deployed. Nevertheless, the development of the force represents a concrete and tangible means for NATO to remain relevant. It provides security assurances to its Baltic and Eastern European states in a way that neither requires the adoption of new technologies or capabilities. It also represents an alternative to granting Ukraine NATO membership, which would be perceived as an even more confrontational move. The question remains whether NATO will draw on the experiences of other organizations as it moves forward with establishing the force before the end of next year.