Fighter jets with the NATO Response Force train over Norway.

Fighter jets with the NATO Response Force train over Norway. NATO

Where NATO Needs to Do More—And Less

Preparing forces for Russia and the Islamic State? Yes. Missile defense and nuclear weapons? No. By Joe Cirincione

It will be impossible for the NATO summit to live up to the expectations set for it. But there are steps that NATO can and likely will take beyond strongly-worded proclamations. Here are three capabilities we can reasonably expect NATO leaders to strengthenand two they would be wise to shed.

It appears likely that NATO will form a rapid response force of “some 4,000 troops capable of moving on 48 hours notice.” This is a formation that can be part of the evolution of NATO forces and strategy that would allow the alliance to respond to threats that fall below the invasion of a member nation, but, like the Ukraine crisis, threaten the security of all. 

The troops would reportedly be based in Central and Eastern Europe, but on a rotating basis. This should reassure the nervous new eastern members of NATO while not violating the terms of the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, which banned the permanent stationing of new NATO conventional forces in these areas. Even the rotated forces will antagonize Russia, but there is no need to breech the agreement at this point. The plan strikes a sober compromise.

NATO will also reportedly announce plans for new collective defenses against cyber attack. This is long overdue. Europe no longer has to worry about Soviet tank armies surging through the Fulda Gap but the threat of Russian hackers pouring through gaps in computer networks is real and growing. There should be little doubt that Russian officials increasingly try to offset their conventional military weakness with covert and paramilitary operations, doctrines that plan on the early use of nuclear weapons, and cyber sabotage.

The new policy would establish a cyber attack on one member of the alliance as an attack on all, triggering a NATO response. Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder told The New York Times, “It’s a measure of how far we’ve come on this issue that there’s now a consensus that a cyber attack could be as devastating as any other kind of attack, maybe even more so.”

Finally, expect substantial new cooperation on confronting the threat of the Islamic State group. This is unlikely to take the form of NATO troops airlifted into Iraq (remember, one expected focus of this summit was to be managing the final withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan, a mission almost now forgotten). But individual nations are now stepping up. Germany has already broken its long-held policy of not shipping weapons into conflict zones and has announced plans to give thousands of machine guns and anti-tank weapons and armored vehicles to the Kurds to bolster their defenses against Islamic State militants.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will be in Wales to “enlist the broadest possible coalition of nations” to combat “the cancer of ISIS,” says Kerry. They will then fan out to forge the alliances with Middle Eastern rulers necessary to stop and roll back the group. This, Washington Post columnist Walter Pincus explains, is part of the process that Obama had in mind when he warned last week, “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse…We don’t have a strategy yet.”

“The ‘horse’ is an agreed-upon approach by U.S. and Middle Eastern regional and European partners about how to remove the Islamic State cancer,” says Pincus. “The ‘cart’ is the much-demanded strategywhich can only be announced after the pieces are in place.”

Opponents and commentators were quick to mock the president, but his patient policy may prove to be far better than the “ready, fire, aim” approach they promote. “The White House calculation,” says National Journal’s George E. Condon, Jr., “is that, in the end, both Congress and the people will appreciate a process that ponders the full consequences before the bombs fall.”

Two topics unlikely to get much attention at the summit will be missile defense and nuclear weapons. And for good reason: they don’t matter. Neither provides protection against the threats concerning NATO.

Leaders in Poland and the Baltic states have insisted that the limited anti-missile interceptors now deployed in Europe to counter a future long-range Iranian missile be re-directed against Russia. But it is not for fear of provoking Russia that we do not do so; it’s because they would not work. There is no missile defense system currently in existence or that could be developed in the next few decades that could defeat a determined attack by long-range missiles.

Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral James A. Winnefeld, Jr. explained at an Atlantic Council conference in May, “We’ve told Russia and the world that we will not rely on missile defense for strategic deterrence of Russia because it would simply be too hard and too expensive and too strategically destabilizing to even try.” 

The odds of a missile interceptor shooting down even one primitive long-range missile are slim. In the last 14 carefully controlled tests, U.S. interceptors have hit only half of the intermediate-range targets. Sophisticated Russian (and Chinese) missiles can simply overwhelm any defense with volleys of launches, decoys, jammers, stealth warheads and a half-dozen other techniques. 

The U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in NATO Europe will also get short shrift. Several of the nations in which they are based want them to be removed back to the United States, but are unlikely to press this issue during the current crises. Indeed, these weapons have slipped into military irrelevancy, rarely mentioned except as a symbol.

The U.S. command in charge of the U.S. forces in Europe formerly championed the central role of these weapons to NATO defense, but even here support has dwindled. As the Task Force on DOD Nuclear Weapons Management, chaired by James Schlesinger, reported in 2008:

USEUCOM, long the principal advocate for nuclear weapons in Europe, now abstains from its advocacy role. It no longer recognizes the political imperative of U.S. nuclear weapons within the Alliance. This attitude is held at the senior levels of USEUCOM and permeates the staffs. In the view of one senior leader referring to nuclear weapons in Europe: ‘We pay a king’s ransom for these things and . . . they have no military value.’ 

“Russia’s incursion into Ukraine has not changed this logic,” write Barry Blechman and Russell Rumbaugh, “Neither conventional forces nor tactical nuclear weapons would have prevented the Russian subversion in Crimea. After all, Ukrainian forces did not lose; they did not fight. In any event, the presence of NATO's tactical nuclear weapons on the continent clearly has been irrelevant to decision-makers in Washington and Moscow.”

Hercules could not pull off some of the labors pundits have set for President Barack Obama as he meets in Wales with the leaders of the 28 NATO nations. Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker says the summit “may be the most important NATO gathering since Prague in 2002, when NATO added seven members.” Volker wants NATO to expand rapidly again, bring in Ukraine and Georgia, and surge troops to Russia’s borders by basing them in the Baltic states. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum wants the president to remake the alliance completely. “In two years, President Obama could reconceive, renegotiate and rewrite a new North Atlantic Treaty,” she urges. If the other nations don’t agree, “America can always leave.”

But even the crises with Ukraine and the Middle East cannot quickly overcome decades of divisions. As Council on Foreign Relations scholar Stewart Patrick points out:

The governments and electorates of NATO members often hold dramatically different opinions about the importance of threats, from terrorism to cyberwar. Similarly, they are not equally willing to risk military of civilian casualties, nor do they agree about whether they should shoulder risk to protect increasingly distant allies.

The Wales Summit will not do all some hope for, but it will likely do more than many expect. The threats confronting NATO are serious, even historic, but they are orders of magnitude removed from the threats the U.S. and Europe faced during the Cold War. Then, specters of a Soviet-occupied Europe or a world burnt to a radioactive cinder kept NATO leaders up at night.

The next few days may well mark a turn from the outmoded doctrines and weapons of the past towards the new, more sustainable policies needed for the 21st century. 

Joe Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund and the author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late.