April 24, 2008

The Risk of Threat-Based Planning

With the end of the Cold War, other missions and tasks beyond the physical defence of territories and populations – notably, international peace support operations – gained greater emphasis in NATO member states. Hand in hand with these changes, threat-based planning has become unfashionable and new approaches have been developed to replace it. These approaches require defence planners to consider the range of operations their armed forces might have to undertake and to seek to design force structures that are robust and flexible enough to deal with this full range of future challenges. In this way, planning approaches such as scenario- and capability-based planning explicitly seek to prepare armed forces to face an uncertain future.

With the end of the Cold War, other missions and tasks beyond the physical defence of territories and populations – notably, international peace support operations – gained greater emphasis in NATO member states. Hand in hand with these changes, threat-based planning has become unfashionable and new approaches have been developed to replace it. These approaches require defence planners to consider the range of operations their armed forces might have to undertake and to seek to design force structures that are robust and flexible enough to deal with this full range of future challenges. In this way, planning approaches such as scenario- and capability-based planning explicitly seek to prepare armed forces to face an uncertain future.

Threat-based planning, by contrast, assumes that if a force structure is able to deal with the most stressing scenario, it will also be able to cope with ‘lesser’ contingencies. In the early years after the end of the Cold War, the UK armed forces would often express this idea in the phrase “to be the best at peacekeeping, you need first to be the best at warfighting.” The US Army also expected to be able to deal with ‘lesser included cases’ with the structures it designed for major wars.
But deeper experience in peace support operations and supporting research has shown this idea to be false. Peace support operations require soldiers to have a different skill set from that needed for warfighting operations. These operations require fewer combat troops – but often more special forces – and more logistics support. They mean smaller deployments, sometimes of sub-units, which has implications for the overall organisation of the armed forces. The resulting force structure requirements have been stressed in NATO’s capability development efforts not because international missions are more important, but because NATO’s armed forces need to be able to do these as well as territorial defence missions.
Estonia, like all NATO states, has recognised the value of participating in international missions and the security benefits that participation brings. But a force structure that exists, above all else, to train, maintain and ultimately generate a large, reserve-based, static territorial defence force, will not be able to make as effective a contribution and will realise fewer security benefits. Whether Estonia is more secure because of its commitment to international operations or whether it would be safer if it focused on the defence of its own territory is a subject for another blog. My concern here is process. As Estonia has decided that its armed forces should be used in a range of circumstances, it cannot base its planning, as Kunnas advocates, on a single military threat.

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