NATO set to accept biggest defense overhaul since Cold War

NATO is expected next week to accept the biggest overhaul of its defenses since the Cold War, including a major expansion of a 40,000-man force on standby to respond in the event of a crisis.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – which is not in NATO – sparked a fundamental overhaul of how the alliance deters President Vladimir Putin from attacking any of its 30 member states, according to interviews and briefings with half a dozen military officers and diplomats.

Longstanding defense plans that hadn’t met with much success until February 24 – the day Moscow launched its all-out assault on Kyiv – are starting to become a reality as leaders gather for historic summit in Spain June 28-30.

“Overnight, the mentality changed,” said a NATO military officer. “NATO now feels electrified. You can feel the energy surging through the system.”

A diplomat has predicted that the Madrid summit will bring – or at least agree on the framework to bring – “a radical change of posture”.

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There is, however, a disappointment that the desire of historically neutral Sweden and Finland to join the alliance – in the ultimate snub to Mr Putin and victory for the allies – has not yet been activated in because of Turkey’s concerns. Ankara has accused Stockholm of harboring Kurdish militants. The United Kingdom is one of the allies trying to solve the problem in time for Madrid.

Among the steps that should be given the green light are:

• An expansion and overhaul of the 40,000 strong NATO Response Force, possibly up to six times, according to two military sources. But a NATO source said various formulas were being discussed and the final increase was likely to be lower.

• An increase in the size of a mission to deter Russia from targeting NATO’s eastern and southeastern flanks, with thousands more troops, although many are based in their home countries and will not deploy forward only when necessary.

• The designation of Russia as “the most significant and direct threat” to security.

• A new “comprehensive assistance package” for Ukraine, including equipment to counter Russian drones and ensure secure communication.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, said the meeting of heads of state and government in the Spanish capital will be a “transformative summit because we are at a pivotal time for our security”.

Evidence of the horror unleashed by Russian forces in places like the Ukrainian town of Bucha appears to have strengthened the resolve of all member states to agree to bolster their defenses in ways that would have been unthinkable just a year ago. .

A NATO defense minister reportedly told his counterparts during a meeting at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels last week that a Bucha-like atrocity could not happen on NATO soil.

If Russia tried to invade it, it would ‘be annihilated from the earth’

This new appreciation of the threat changes NATO policy on how to deter it.

The allies seem ready to move from relying solely on the threat of punishment enough to stop President Putin to act, to what some call “deterrence by denial.”

Kusti Salm, the top official in the Estonian Defense Ministry, explained that it would work by having more troops already on the ground to stop any invasion before it starts.

“You are able to put up adequate and sufficient forces and you indicate to your potential adversary that the force overrun is at a level that you [the adversary] would lose immediately,” he said in a briefing with reporters.

“This message should result in a loss of their will to invade…Russia can infer that even if they tried, they would be wiped out of the land within the first few hours.”

Forces mobilized in a few days

The new way of thinking demands that NATO allies have even more combat-capable soldiers, sailors, marines and aircrew ready to move in varying degrees of readiness. This can range from two days’ notice of mobilization to six months.

The NATO Response Force, or NRF, is already offering US General Tod Walters, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, the alliance’s top military commander, about 40,000 high-readiness men and women. Its size tripled following the first Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, when the Kremlin annexed Crimea and backed separatists in the east.

In the planned new framework, the size of the capability will increase further and the name should change to Allied Response Force (ARF).

Every member state, except Iceland because it has no army, is supposed to consider putting more of its own forces into a higher state of readiness.

They could be tasked with defending a specific area of ​​NATO territory under so-called “regional plans” which are still being developed and not expected to be finalized until the end of the year.

“The ARF will be about six times larger than the NRF – much larger,” said a military officer familiar with the thought. That would mean some 240,000 troops.

A second military officer said he too had heard the number six.

A NATO source, however, said no decision had yet been made and the final figure for the increase in high-readiness forces would likely be lower.

Hardening of defenses

NATO’s new plan also calls for further strengthening of its defenses in eight countries along its eastern and southeastern borders.

Mr Stoltenberg, in a public chat with the Politico news site, revealed on Tuesday that the allies would agree “to reinforce the battle groups in the east up to brigade level”. A battle group consists of around 1,000 men, while a brigade can have between 3,000 and 5,000.

Feedback indicates that a set of eight existing missions in the three Baltic states as well as Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania continues to grow.

Allies, including the UK, US, Canada and Germany, are already contributing forces to the battlegroups there.

Sending troops overseas is costly and, some allies say, unnecessary as NATO will likely have months of advance warning before Russia launches an invasion, which has happened over the past of the year preceding the assault on Ukraine.

The United Kingdom, which leads NATO’s mission in Estonia, has expanded its presence in the country to two battlegroups this year.

Ben Wallace, the defense secretary, said it was ‘very likely’ a third would be added, turning the force into a small brigade of around 3,000 men, but some of the new troops could be stationed at home .

Germany, which leads the battlegroup in Lithuania, is also expanding its commitment to a brigade, but said it would have “earmarked” troops on standby at home if needed.

By contrast, the Baltic states, with Russia in their backyard, want more boots physically on the pitch.

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They would also like NATO to strengthen its defenses even further, such as with an Israeli-style “iron dome” air defense capable of blasting Russian missiles from the sky.

Such a decision is unlikely to be accepted in the short term, but reinforced air defenses are being considered, according to military and diplomatic sources.

Away from the immediate crisis, the allies in Madrid will also unveil what is called a new “strategic concept” – effectively a blueprint for NATO on the threats and challenges it faces. This will include China, climate change, cyber warfare and evolving space capabilities.

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