Time to Reinforce Direct Defense in Europe

By Robbin Laird and Murielle Delaporte

The question of the direct defense in Europe today is broader than that of the Russian challenge alone. The Russians are clearly playing off of the dynamics of change within Europe and the transatlantic relationships, and those dynamics are not generated by the Russians themselves but provide a rich environment in which to shape enhanced influence and capabilities to provide both direct and indirect threats to individual states as well as to deepen fissures within NATO and the EU, the two collaborative organizations most central to direct defense.

These alliances provide broader ways for the nations to work together, and that achievement is a key one; because the coalitions of the willing working within these umbrella organizations are able to do so in part because of framework rules of engagement, and as those coalitions of the willing operate together, they are generating ways to rewrite the rules to manage the broader alliances to adapt to a changing strategic environment.

And countering the Western liberal democratic alliances are the deepening relationships among the core drivers of 21st century authoritarianism, the People’s Republic of China and Putin’s Russia. These two powers play off of one another in working to reshape the rules of the game rather than working within the rules-based order that the liberal democracies have crafted over the past 50 years. It is this contest between the liberal democracies and the 21stIt is this contest between the liberal democracies and the 21st century authoritarian powers which is resetting the nature of the challenge of the direct defense of Europe in the 2020s.

Security threats have unleashed national reactions, with various nations seeking to rebalance their position in the global order and seeking to work with clusters of either like-minded states, or with states capable of providing key needs. Coalition defense in today’s world of defending the interest of “coalitions of the willing” of liberal democratic states is clearly about the exercise of effective operations in a semi-sovereign coalition environment as seen from a national perspective. It is not exactly the return of nationalism, for that has not been absent in any case, but is clearly the return of security and defense concerns as a priority, and these concerns are always led by states seeking allies, partners or friends, or “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” types of partners.

In our recently released book, entitled The Return of Direct Defense: Meeting the 21st Century Authoritarian Challenge, we underscored how a focus on European defense was prioritzing centers of defense capabilities shaped by “coalitions of the willing.” There is no single defense challenge, but a range of challenges, with NATO providing common standards and training and key states shaping ways ahead for their own defense along with key partners in providing for direct defense.

No “coalition of the willing” is more suggestive of the way ahead than Nordic defense cooperation in shaping a key role in the evolving Arctic to UK to North American defense corridor. With the Kola Peninsula as the location of the most concentrated military capability in the world, it will be a key focus for defense of the United States, and as such a key focus for the American forces to protect their own country. Increasingly, for the Nordics a key way ahead is to shape greater defense cohesion and joint capability to defend against any Russian invasion force by ensuring that there is a more effective local balance of military power.

In other words, rather than viewing the Nordics as defended by friendly forces come to the region, the ability of these states to combine capabilities to deter the Russians from a direct operation against them becomes a key part of the way ahead. As a Finnish official put it during the recent phase of Finnish defense modernization: “The timeline for early warning is shorter; the threshold for the use of force is lower.”

Time might be too short for non-Nordic NATO forces to show up to reinforce their direct defense effort: therefore, how can the Nordics prepare for direct defense reinforced by the United States and other European forces in times of crisis but to do so with a credible direct defense capability?

For example, a Danish colleague, Hans Tino Hansen, the CEO of Risk Intelligence, is leading a study which focuses on how the Nordic coalition could enhance direct defense capabilities.  In a recent interview with him, Hans Tino Hanson sketched out how the Nordic integration process could more effectively shape a dialogue from strength strategy even if two countries are members of NATO and two are not.

He started from the fact that Russia is not the Soviet Union and does not have the advantages which flowed from Warsaw Pact geography or the forces of the Cold War. “We have been looking at the conventional air-ground forces which could move into north-eastern European territory primarily from the Russian Western Military District. We have at the same time looked at how the national efforts of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Nordics, if integrated more effectively, can provide for a more capable defense against different levels of direct action by the Russians.

“Our study is not yet ready, but the initial findings suggest that if you do such a correlation, there is almost a balance between the two even without NATO reinforcements in the basic and early scenarios of a conflict and not counting in the operational-strategic level assets on the Russian side. Furthermore, the Russians have at the present a significant advantage of readiness, training and large exercises in higher levels of formations, electronic warfare as well as C2. To get a good outcome, it is crucial to have the kind of integration tools such as C2 which allow for a cohesive defense approach, but what such a process underscores is that integrated defense in the region holds great promise for shaping a stronger hand for the countries to initially defend themselves and to dialogue with Russia from a position of strength.”

He underscored that the Ukrainian piece of this effort was crucial, because stronger Ukrainian defense would require the Russians to have forces in place to deal with that challenge that could not be used elsewhere. At the same time the Belarus military and geography adds to the balance of Russia. Finland can mobilize a significant force to hold Russian forces at risk within the broader Nordic context and enhanced Swedish and Finnish collaboration creates new conventional capabilities which can affect Russian actions in the Baltic as well.

We discussed Kaliningrad which is most often considered a source of strength for Russia and a danger to NATO and allied operations in the Baltic, but it is at the same time a source of vulnerability as well as strength for Russia. For example, the Russian enclave could if faced with a significant regional missile strike capability combined with a range of other conventional air, naval and land capabilities, face a formidable threat to its enclave. Hans pointed out that the Nordics and Poland have to acquire such a capability, but that Denmark, for one is on the way to do so with the current study on strike missile capability as part of the current defense material acquisition plan.

We discussed a key missing piece as well, which is the role of long-range artillery. By adding significant long range artillery capabilities, Russian forces can be targeted in the enclave, as well as in terms of forces they would move into the Baltics, and in other areas where they would wish to project ground forces. I added that the US Navy and USAF are clearly looking to add longer range conventional strike and an ability to provide such a strike capability to an enhanced integrated air and ground capability by the national forces in the Northern region would provide a significant deterrent to the Russians.

Hansen underscored that the United States is a key part of Northern European defense, but what he is suggesting is that the approach needs to change. “By reducing what we need the United States to do in our defense in the initial period of armed conflict, the capabilities which the American can build for stand-off strike and defense capabilities as well as strategic capabilities becomes more important and part of the integration package.”

He argued that “we need the right capability mix in the wider region. We need to be able to do both defensive and offensive (in a defensive context) operations for a period of time without having to depend initially on the UK or the United States.”

This is clearly one way ahead to see real deterrent capabilities within the Western Alliance, rather than waiting for others to get serious about European defense.

For the authors’ assessment of the nature of the challenge and the way ahead with regard to European direct defense, please read the following: The Return of Direct Defense in Europe: Meeting the 21st Century Authoritarian Challenge by Robbin Laird and Murielle Delaporte.

This article was published by Front Line Defence on February 2, 2021.