Europe Was Just Getting Better at Moving Militaries

Soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division charge across a road during a live-fire exercise at Pabradė Training Grounds in Lithuania, Feb. 12, 2020. More than 500 were deployed in 2019 to reinforce NATO's presence there.

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Soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division charge across a road during a live-fire exercise at Pabradė Training Grounds in Lithuania, Feb. 12, 2020. More than 500 were deployed in 2019 to reinforce NATO's presence there.

With Russia, China, and the coronavirus to worry about, reliably being able to move allied forces across the continent should remain a priority.

It sounds pretty simple, but moving militaries from point A to point B in a timely fashion can mean the difference between a crisis averted and a war lost. In reality, it often involves complicated cross-continental and regional travel. In Europe, military mobility is especially complex since it requires seamless movement of people and materiel across the Atlantic and multiple allied borders.

In recent years, responding to Russia’s 2014 invasion into Ukraine, the United States and European allies have worked hard to improve their ability to move militaries quickly where they need to be. By 2018, EU and NATO capitals had initiated plans and issued declarations to improve military mobility in Europe.

But progress has stilted just as the security environment has worsened. Russia and China have grown more assertive, with military build-ups, snap exercises, and critical infrastructure investments. For the U.S. and its allies, the coronavirus has locked in place people and plans, cancelling exercises and shows-of-force meant to demonstrate just how much faster they can move from the United States and across Europe to Russia’s border. Initially promising plans have not gone far or fast enough, and investments are being reduced and deprioritized.

Fortunately, European officials can still turn the tide. 2020 is a turning point year. Big decisions related to the EU’s long-term budget, NATO’s ongoing Readiness Initiative, and national responses to the coronavirus crisis could ensure that the progress made on military mobility lasts for years to come.

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In 2018 and 2019, Europe’s focus on military mobility was high: the EU launched its Action Plan on Military Mobility, established more permissive rules on dual-use infrastructure, customs and tax reform, and streamlined some cross-border movements of troops and munitions. NATO continued to develop its Enablement Plan and the NATO Readiness Initiative, established Alliance-wide exercises to train a more mobile force, and created two new joint commands to enhance movement across the Atlantic and sustainment on the European continent. On the national level, the United States invested in infrastructure in Central Europe, and the Netherlands initiated a Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) effort to improve coordination with other European countries.

European officials should be commended for those significant efforts. But there is still a long way to go toward reliably being able to move forces across the continent and ensure the theater is set for their arrival. Other factors had cast doubt on Europe’s ability to move units effectively, like complex phased deployments, route planning, infrastructure sourcing, effective command and control, timely cross-border permissions, and numerous other intergovernmental and inter-Alliance issues.

Worryingly, a trend has emerged toward de-prioritizing military mobility, sparking concern among Eastern European nations. In early 2020, the EU discussed zeroing out funding for military mobility during its ongoing budget negotiations, with the new Finnish Presidency of the EU Council proposing to slash the proposed €6.5 billion allotment. Soon the EU will finalize its long-term budget through 2027; EU nations should reverse the course and secure as much funding as possible for military mobility.

Undeniably, a significant impact of COVID-19 is the challenging economic downturn countries are experiencing. As defense budgets shrink, the decision to prioritize mobility investments will become harder, but it must remain a target for long-term security.

In addition, the COVID-19 crisis has immediate security implications for Europe. Almost overnight, European nations across the Schengen area closed their borders. When borders re-open, nations need to be careful not to undo much of the progress made to improve military border crossings. They must continue to prioritize streamlining border permissions for transiting militaries.

And although military mobility is primarily a national endeavor, given that resourcing, border authorities, and infrastructure decisions fall to states, European leaders also should use NATO and the EU to assist where possible. We discuss this problem and propose several solutions in greater detail in the Atlantic Council’s new report, but here are four short action items:

First, at a strategic level, military mobility needs to be made a high-level priority within the governments of all European nations, including key force contributors like Germany, France, and the UK, and frontline states who might require assistance in a crisis. Currently, the record is mixed. Leaders must communicate to their publics why infrastructure spending and border crossing legislation are needed, and the benefits for national security and civilian transit across Europe. Leaders must socialize the idea that military mobility must occur in peacetime. Local governments, civilians, and national politicians need to quickly grasp how the rapid movement of forces can mitigate potential conflicts and defuse developing crises before they start.

NATO should identify military mobility as a key component in the next phase of its Readiness Initiative — the highly-publicized plan to keep 30 battalions, 30 air squadrons, and 30 combat ships deployable within 30 days to support rapid response to a crisis. Just as allies agreed to readiness goals, they should adopt companion mobility goals to enable them to meet the thirty-day timeline. The plan is ineffective if those units can’t move into theater and maintain footholds.

This year’s giant US DEFENDER-Europe 20 exercise was meant to test and demonstrate the need for military mobility. Although scaled-down due to COVID-19, DEFENDER-Europe 20 would have been the largest training deployment of US-based forces to Europe in over 25 years. What was conducted did test the US’ ability to rapidly move brigade-size elements across the Atlantic to Europe. More exercises like this are needed to stress test roads, rail links, command and control, and strategic lift assets, with NATO putting military mobility front and center.

Second, Europe requires financial investment and infrastructure development in much-needed railway lines, roads, inland waterways, bridges, ports, and air bases. Programs like the EU’s TEN-T network help jumpstart funding for dual-use infrastructure, but they require additional state investment to get off the ground. NATO should acknowledge and reward nations who invest in relevant areas by updating the Minimum Capability Requirements in its Defence Planning Process to include military mobility goals.

Third, European nations need to agree on the short- and long-term problems. For one, rail and road infrastructure development from central Germany to Europe’s eastern borders deserves greater focus. Many European ports and rail networks are privatized, making government requisition difficult outside wartime. Before war breaks out, national governments and private-sector companies must determine the rules of transport routes in a pre-crisis scenario. Rail infrastructure developments will have the largest impact on improving connectivity between Western, Central, and Northern Europe and will bring routes up to military standards. Projects like Rail Baltica – connecting the Baltic States, Poland, and Finland via high speed rail – should be prioritized.

Finally, nations should prioritize cyber resilience in telecommunications, electric grids, and transshipment facilities critical to warfighting. This will include private assets and civilian transport, which are more vulnerable and difficult to reconstitute in the event of compromise.

Better military mobility will require some areas of Europe to invest in vast infrastructure projects that may take years to realize. Yet, adversaries work on their own timelines. Russia will not wait until a bridge has been built in Poland to make its advance, and so military mobility needs priority and investment today, for the sake of tomorrow.

Clementine G. Starling is the deputy director of Forward Defense and interim deputy director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council. She is also the security and defense fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She also served as project rapporteur of the Atlantic Council’s report “Moving Out: A Comprehensive Assessment of European Military Mobility”. Follow her on Twitter at @StarlingCG. 

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