By Alan W. Dowd
After years of crossing their fingers and hoping for the best, NATO nations are rebuilding their military capabilities, preparing for worst-case scenarios and posturing the alliance for deterrence. Exercise Defender Europe 20, which gets underway in the coming days, is just the latest evidence that NATO is returning to its core mission of deterrence.
Defender Europe 20—NATO’s largest exercise in a quarter-century—enfolds 20,000 U.S. troops; a total of 37,000 troops from NATO and partner nations; 20,000 pieces of equipment deployed from the U.S.; and military units from 18 nations. Led by the U.S. Army, the exercise will see units land at 14 airbases and seaports, move along 12 convoy routes, and operate across 10 countries. Defender Europe 20 involves parachute assaults, large-unit water crossings, and live-fire war games. A “fort to port” exercise, Defender Europe 20 aims to test and demonstrate the ability to move heavy assets from forts in the U.S. to ports and bases in Europe. That’s where the U.S. Navy comes into play. For the first time since 1986, the Navy will test its ability to conduct “a contested cross-Atlantic convoy operation,” according to the U.S. Naval Institute. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group will clear the way.
In short, Defender Europe 20 is “a very big deal,” in the words of Lt. Gen. Chris Cavoli, commander of U.S. Army-Europe.
While NATO has increased the number of military exercises in recent years, NATO’s exercises are smaller in number and scale than Russia’s, as the Atlantic Council points out. A 2018 Russian exercise, for example, involved 300,000 personnel. A 2019 Russian exercise featured 130,000 troops, 20,000 vehicles and artillery pieces, and 600 aircraft.
That brings us to the reason for Defender Europe 20 in specific—and NATO’s renewed commitment to deterrence in general.
In the years before its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin’s Russia grew more aggressive even as NATO grew less concerned about deterrence. It pays to recall that before Ukraine, the alliance had carved out a special Russian place within NATO headquarters, slashed defense spending, and pulled back deterrent military assets all across Europe. In 2013, for instance, the Obama administration withdrew every American main battle tank from Europe—the first time since 1944 Europe had been left unprotected by American heavy armor. That same year, Britain announced it would close its garrison in Germany, pulling thousands of combat troops out of Europe. All the while, Germany—NATO’s geographic center—was busily beating its swords into plowshares: During the Cold War, West Germany deployed 2,125 tanks; by 2014, fewer than 300.
Yet even as NATO turned the page on Cold War hostility, Putin waged a crippling cyberwar against NATO member Estonia; invaded and dismembered NATO aspirants Georgia and Ukraine; violated the INF Treaty; reactivated the 1st Guards Tank Army, a 500-tank force based in western Russia; conducted scores of provocative “snap” military exercises near NATO territory; hacked the U.S. political system; mused about using nuclear weapons to somehow de-escalate military conflict; unveiled a military doctrine pledging to use Russia’s military “to ensure the protection of its citizens outside the Russian Federation”; increased military outlays by 125 percent; shipped arms to the Taliban; and engaged in “a massive military buildup from the Arctic to the Mediterranean,” as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg explains.
In addition, Russia’s air force has revived the dangerous Cold War-era practice of buzzing and hounding NATO warships. Russia’s army is menacing the Baltics and Poland. Russia’s navy has taken over the Sea of Azov, gained a strategic foothold in the Mediterranean (courtesy of Syria), slipped warships into the English Channel for provocative sail-throughs, and returned to the Atlantic with gusto. Pentagon officials say Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic is “more than we’ve seen in 25 years.”
To be sure, Putin’s military is a shell of the Red Army. But it pays to recall that his military buildup and outright aggression occurred as NATO members slashed military spending, downplayed their all-for-one collective defense commitments, and “hugged the bear,” in the words of former NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove.
Putin, like history’s other revisionist autocrats, has tried to justify his actions by contriving external causes and claiming the high road of self-defense. He cites NATO’s eastward expansion to justify Russia’s bellicose turn. The problem with Putin’s version of history is that it doesn’t correspond with reality. As the Brookings Institution’s Steven Pifer details, Mikhail Gorbachev “made clear there was no promise regarding broader enlargement” as the Cold War thawed. Gorbachev himself concedes, “The topic of NATO expansion was not discussed at all.”
In other words, the alliance didn’t double-cross its way to the Russian border. Instead, NATO grew through a transparent process that allowed East European nations to pursue membership on their own volition—and encouraged the sort of political reforms that actually diminished tensions with post-Soviet Russia. But Putin won’t be confused by the facts.
Reawakened to the dangers on its eastern flank, NATO members are revitalizing the alliance. For years, both the Trump and Obama administrations pleaded with NATO allies to invest more in defense. The message is finally getting through: By 2024, two-thirds of the alliance will invest 2 percent of GDP on defense, as NATO has called for since 2006. Twenty-nineteen marked the fifth consecutive year of increased defense spending in Europe and Canada. NATO’s European members have added 109,000 troops to their ranks since 2015. By the end of 2020, Stoltenberg reports, NATO’s European and Canadian members “will add $100 billion extra toward defense.”
NATO has tripled the size of its rapid-response force (to 40,000 troops); approved a U.S. proposal to develop capabilities to deploy 30 troop battalions, 30 squadrons of aircraft and 30 warships to any European crisis zone within 30 days of a go order; and launched a new Rapid Air Mobility program, which grants NATO aircraft priority to move across European airspace.
Britain is standing up a Littoral Strike Group based in the Mediterranean-Atlantic. Germany, Britain and Canada are spearheading NATO’s forward-deployed battlegroups in the Baltics. Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia are establishing a Regional Special Operations Component Command to coordinate, train and jointly deploy commando units. This will posture the alliance to better detect and defend against Russia’s hybrid warfare tactics, which rely on the use of troops scrubbed of insignia to slip into foreign territory to sow confusion and direct fifth-column elements.
Germany recently signed an agreement with the U.S. that will lead to “an unprecedented level of interoperability,” according to DefenseNews, with German brigades deploying under operational control of the U.S. Army.
Troops from Canada, Denmark, Great Britain, Lithuania and Poland have joined U.S. troops in Ukraine for a long-term mission aimed at rebuilding and retraining the Ukrainian army.
Poland, which already hosts U.S. Army brigade combat teams on a rotating basis, has pledged $2 billion to build a permanent U.S. base on Polish soil.
That brings us to the United States, the political-military lynchpin of the alliance.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Barack Obama quadrupled funding for the defense of NATO’s East European members.
Although his comments about NATO have often been counterproductive (see here, here and here), President Donald Trump’s actions vis-à-vis NATO speak louder than his words.
Trump tripled Obama’s funding levels for what’s now known as the European Deterrence Initiative; reactivated the Navy’s 2nd Fleet (which was deactivated in 2011, after defending the Atlantic and supporting NATO throughout the Cold War); re-established the Army’s Germany-based V Corps (which was deactivated in 2012, after almost a century of service, much of it focused on Europe); authorized construction of and/or upgrades to bases in Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Latvia and Estonia; approved the largest shipment of Air Force ordnance into Europe since the late 1990s; and brought two new members into the NATO fold (Montenegro and Republic of North Macedonia).
These initiatives—on both sides of the Atlantic—are raising the costs of Putin’s hybrid war. One suspects that Putin privately realizes his assault on Ukraine triggered a response that made the U.S. and its NATO allies more engaged, more alert to his malign actions, and more prepared to detect and reverse any attempt to repeat his Ukraine gambit elsewhere.
“The paramount, the permanent, the all-absorbing business of NATO is to avoid war,” NATO’s first secretary-general, Lord Hastings Ismay, matter-of-factly observed.
President Harry Truman was a bit more poignant in his description of the alliance: “For the first time in history, there exists in peace an integrated international force whose object is to maintain peace through strength,” he said when NATO was new. “We devoutly pray that our present course of action will succeed and maintain peace without war.”
By investing in the common defense and conducting exercises like Defender Europe 20, NATO has done exactly that. As such, it is an answer to Truman’s prayer—and the prayer of all people of goodwill.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose. A version of this essay appeared in Providence.