The NATO of 2015 is a new NATO. And it is more like us than before.
There have been several near breaking points in the history of NATO. Analysts and commentators have repeatedly banished the organisation to the dustbin of history. Yet the Alliance has always managed to renew itself and prove its necessity. In the 1990s, NATO started to develop and expand partnerships, and the first military operations in the organisation’s history were undertaken. After the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 NATO focused on improving its expeditionary war capabilities—due to the greatest military operation in the history of the Alliance in Afghanistan. This drew attention away from NATO’s primary role—collective defence.
The essence of NATO’s role has been discussed numerous times since the end of the Cold War. Why is it necessary? For us, the answer is clear and obvious: naturally, NATO’s primary and main task is collective defence. For states at the other geographical extremity of NATO, however, this answer is not necessarily quite as obvious. The NATO discourse that seemed to be fraying at the edges was successfully patched up with a new strategic concept at the 2010 Lisbon summit. This stated that NATO’s foremost task was to protect the security and freedom of its members, a task that would be achieved through three core elements: collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security.1Of these three equal core tasks, the first is naturally the most equal and most central for us. The recent NATO summit in Wales confirmed this.
For the past two years Estonia has claimed that NATO must return to its roots after the end of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan, i.e. focus on the most important issue of collective defence. Similarly to when Estonia attempted to convince NATO to address the issue of cyber security more seriously, Estonia’s arguments were proved to be right and timely by Russia, this time by the latter’s aggression against Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has a talent for presenting our arguments more convincingly than we ourselves ever could.
In the past six months, NATO has changed significantly. To be more precise, NATO was changed by the serious effort of Estonia and other allies with a similar viewpoint. The NATO of 2015 is a new NATO. And it is more like us than before. It will most probably stay like this for a long time. We should not delude ourselves that Russian aggression against Ukraine and the issues related to it will somehow disappear and the security skies over Europe will clear. In the words of Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas in Wales: “This isn’t just a period of bad weather, it is climate change”.
Achieving the efficient functioning of collective defence in Estonia is, naturally, not easy. We are on the periphery of NATO. That is why functioning deterrence and expedient collective defence are extremely important to us. To be more specific, Estonia went to the summit in Wales with five requests:
- Perpetuating the presence of allied forces in Estonia
- Reinforcing allied presence in Estonia
- Improving the response time of NATO forces
- Ensuring that the three aforementioned core tasks are covered by both specific plans and relevant exercises
- Financing all the aforementioned points, i.e. all allies moving towards the famous 2 percent. [According to recommendations, the defence expenditure of NATO member states should amount to at least to 2 percent of their GDP—Ed.)
Without doubt, Estonia returned from the summit with a shield, even several shields. Let us view them in the same order as our requests:
1. Perpetuating presence. Allied fighters will remain in the Ämari airbase. Right now, our skies are guaranteed to be clear of unwanted aircraft thanks to German Eurofighters. In January, the task will be handed over to Spanish fighters. Companies of the U.S. Army will continue to rotate to Estonia. Thus far, the units have been from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, but as of October they will be replaced by units from the 1st Cavalry Brigade, which is heavily armoured. To use a musical analogy, rock ‘n’ roll will be replaced with heavy metal.
2. Further reinforcement of allied presence. During his press conference in Tallinn U.S. President Barack Obama revealed the plan to create a regional training centre based at the Ämari airbase. This will guarantee the periodical presence of the U.S. Air Force as well as allies’ and partner countries’ air forces in Estonia, in addition to the existing regular air policing.
3. Improving the response time of NATO forces. During the Wales summit, allies confirmed the plan to create a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, comprising all the armed services and ready to react at two days’ notice. In addition, ministers of defence from seven states including Estonia signed a letter of intent to develop a Joint Expeditionary Force. This initiative, started by the UK, is based on the understanding that it would be reasonable to prepare for future joint military operations with partners with whom one has previously cooperated in the military field and who one trusts and knows as a result. That is why it is no coincidence that Estonia and Denmark, who participated in the Helmand campaign and were the UK’s closest partners, take part in JEF. In addition to the creation of high-readiness units, the allies’ reaction time is also improved by the pre-positioning of heavy equipment to the locations where it is most needed in a crisis. In his historic speech in Tallinn, President Obama announced the intention of bringing equipment and arms to the Baltic States. Additionally, the Readiness Action Plan (RAP) approved in Wales will also direct the Alliance towards improving the infrastructure of its easternmost states, with the same aim of speeding up the deployment of allied forces. Likewise, our so-called home corps, i.e. the Multinational Corps North-East (MNCNE) located in Poland, will become a high-readiness corps following the decision in Wales. Of course, reaction time is also improved by perfecting intelligence and early warning systems. Plans for this have been also included in RAP.
4. Defence plans and exercises. It was decided in Wales that NATO will focus more on preventive planning (read: defence plans) and increase the number as well as widen the scope of NATO exercises intended for practising collective defence. While this journal is not the place to look at the first topic, I can note that the number of exercises is clearly increasing, and an ever larger part of them is intended for practising collective defence.
5. 2 percent. For the first time in the history of NATO, the heads of state and government of member states endorsed the decision, which has been repeatedly approved by defence ministers, that all allies shall adopt the goal of investing 2 percent of their GDP in defence. The fact that presidents and prime ministers are now bound by that undertaking gives more hope than existed before that NATO members’ defence budgets will no longer decrease and will instead start to increase. We’ll see. If one looks at our eastern neighbour, which is growing more aggressive by the month, I am not convinced that investing one-fiftieth of the gross domestic product into ensuring that the other 49 fiftieths will survive is quite enough any longer. In addition to the 2 percent promise, allies are striving towards allocating at least a fifth of their defence budget to the purchase of new arms systems, as well as to research and development. The purpose is to guarantee that the armed forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation will still be the most modern in the world in future.
Is this all too much, or too little? Six months ago there were no allied fighters for air policing or army units in Estonia. Let us forget the adjectives “permanent”, “ongoing” and “long-term” for a moment. It is important that allied forces are present in Estonia. To borrow the words of the NATO Secretary General: “The point is that any potential aggressor should know that if they were to even think of an attack against a NATO ally they will meet not only soldiers from that specific country but they will meet NATO troops. This is what is important.”2 Several studies have convincingly shown that it is characteristic of humans to become rapidly accustomed to welcome developments and good things. The sense of well-being following a pay rise disappears after a while, and a person will still be a few hundred euros short at the end of the month, just as before the rise. This is why it is beneficial to take oneself back to February 2014 and, for once, rejoice over what we have and what we have achieved.
There is still a lot work to be done. It suffices to ask a single question to understand this: how many tanks does NATO have? The correct answer is: none. The tanks belong to member states. RAP, the readiness action plan, provides us with a framework, a so-called honeycomb structure. We need to fill the combs with honey on our own with our allies. An example of this is the confirmation provided in Wales to our Minister of Defence, Sven Mikser, by his Spanish counterpart, Pedro de Morenés, that Spain will take over air policing duties based in Ämari from the Germans for four months from January next year. We are working to receive other similar messages in the coming months—on deploying command and control elements, pre-positioning equipment, additional rotating units, the Ämari training centre and so on.
NATO’s deterrence worked even in the coldest of the Cold War years and, after the Wales summit, even the most sceptical observer could perhaps state that collective defence and deterrence are working today as well. It is clear that these aspects are considered, planned, practised and demonstrated. President Obama’s message in his historic Tallinn speech leaves no room for misinterpretation: “We have a solemn duty to each other. Article 5 is crystal clear: An attack on one is an attack on all. So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, ‘Who will come to help,’ you’ll know the answer— the NATO Alliance, including the Armed Forces of the United States of America. ‘Right here, [at] present, now!’ … You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.”
1 I recommend the following article for those interested in finding out more about the topic:
Sven Sakkov, “What is NATO for? The North Atlantic Alliance after 2014” – Defence Academy Yearbook 2012. A Selection of Commended Essays,www.da.mod.uk/publications/library/miscellaneous/2… 2 Ian Traynor, “Ukraine crisis: NATO plans east European bases to counter Russia” – The Guardian, 27.08.2014.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.