NATO back to its core busi­ness in a cold cli­mate

The Weekend Australian - - WORLD - THE ECON­O­MIST

The Span­ish ar­moured ve­hi­cles were dug into the side of the road into Op­p­dal, a moun­tain vil­lage 300km north of Oslo, can­nons pointed across the snowy val­ley. Their task was to de­fend the lo­cal air­port from the might of the “North Force”, played by US marines, whose fleet of tanks as­sem­bled at a nearby petrol sta­tion.

The mock com­bat was part of Tri­dent Junc­ture 2018, NATO’s big­gest mil­i­tary ex­er­cise since the Cold War, last­ing from Oc­to­ber 25 to Wed­nes­day.

The al­liance is flour­ish­ing on the ground, build­ing up forces, trans­form­ing its in­sti­tu­tions and squar­ing up to Rus­sia with con­fi­dence. The ques­tion is whether this progress can be quar­an­tined from the transat­lantic squab­bling be­tween po­lit­i­cal lead­ers.

The very premise of the ex­er­cise — an in­va­sion of Nor­way, caus­ing the al­liance to in­voke its Ar­ti­cle 5 mu­tual-de­fence clause — was a sig­nal that, af­ter decades of fight­ing rag­tag Balkan armies and Afghan gueril­las, NATO is back in the busi­ness of de­fend­ing its home ter­ri­tory.

A sec­ond mes­sage lay in the ex­er­cise’s scope, stretch­ing from Ice­land in the west to the airspace of non-NATO Fin­land in the east. The last big war game was held three years ago in Spain, thou­sands of kilo­me­tres from Rus­sian soil. Nor­way, by con­trast, is not only a front­line ally, shar­ing a 200km bor­der with Rus­sia, but has also watched ner­vously as Rus­sia’s North­ern Fleet, head­quar­tered across the Bar­ents Sea on the Kola Penin­sula, has piled up new ships and in­creased sub­ma­rine pa­trols ten­fold. That has forced NATO to reac­quaint it­self with Cold War con­cepts such as the “GIUK gap”, a mar­itime choke-point be­tween Green­land, Ice­land and Bri­tain that is Rus­sia’s prin­ci­pal out­let to the At­lantic. Rus­sia has also re­oc­cu­pied seven for­mer Soviet bases in the Arc­tic re­gion and launched its first mil­i­tary ice­breaker in 40 years. In turn, the US has dou­bled the num­ber of marines based in Nor­way, and on Oc­to­ber 19 sent an air­craft­car­rier into the Arc­tic Cir­cle for the first time in al­most 30 years.

A third ele­ment of Tri­dent Junc­ture was its size: 65 ships, 250 air­craft, 10,000 ve­hi­cles and 50,000 per­son­nel. This was a test of NATO’s abil­ity to pump re­in­force­ments over the oceans, teem­ing with Rus­sian sub­marines, and then across the con­ti­nent. This has proven tricky. Ben Hodges, who re­tired as com­man­der of US forces in Eu­rope last De­cem­ber, re­calls his sur­prise at learn­ing that Eu­rope’s Schen­gen area, which has abol­ished bor­der con­trols, did not ex­tend to the free move­ment of arms. Oth­ers point to prob­lems with in­fra­struc­ture, such as in­com­pat­i­ble rail­way gauges and weak bridges.

NATO’S re­sponse to the new threats has been the big­gest over­haul of its com­mand struc­ture in a gen­er­a­tion. Two new head­quar­ters, one fo­cused on the At­lantic, based in the US, and an­other on lo­gis­tics, in Ger­many, will be es­tab­lished over the next three years, adding 1200 per­son­nel. Gen­er­als are also get­ting chummy with Euro­crats. EUNATO re­la­tions were once “trench war­fare”, says Adam Thom­son, Bri­tain’s en­voy to NATO from 2014 to 2016. Now there is “un­prece­dented prac­ti­cal col­lab­o­ra­tion”. The EU pub­lished its own ac­tion plan on mil­i­tary mo­bil­ity in March and sent the head of its mil­i­tary staff on a joint tour of Wash­ing­ton with his NATO coun­ter­part last week.

NATO’s re­nais­sance should cheer fans of the be­lea­guered lib­eral or­der. In re­cent years the al­liance has de­ployed four bat­tle­groups (up to 1400 troops each) to Poland and the Baltic states as trip­wire forces; cre­ated a rapid-re­sponse bri­gade (5000-strong) that can mo­bilise within two days; and com­mit­ted to hav­ing 30 bat­tal­ions, 30 war­ships and 30 air squadrons ready to fight at 30 days’ no­tice. Amer­ica is spend­ing $US6 bil­lion a year on its Euro­pean De­ter­rence Ini­tia­tive, lav­ished on ev­ery­thing from Hun­gar­ian air bases to ex­er­cises such as Tri- dent Junc­ture. Rus­sia’s spree of in­va­sion, in­tim­i­da­tion and as­sas­si­na­tion has roused the al­liance from its slum­ber.

Yet this mil­i­tary re­vival is ac­com­pa­nied by po­lit­i­cal malaise. For one thing, no one th­ese days is quite sure whether the al­liance’s prin­ci­pal mem­ber would ac­tu­ally show up to fight in a cri­sis. A pla­toon of Mon­tene­grin in­fantry­men at Tri­dent Junc­ture might rea­son­ably have re­called Don­ald Trump’s scorn for their “very ag­gres­sive” coun­try dur­ing this year’s NATO sum­mit, and asked how it squared with the transat­lantic spirit on dis­play in the Nor­we­gian hills.

This week French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron lamented the ab­sence of a “true Euro­pean army” to “pro­tect our­selves against China, Rus­sia and even the United States”. Yet de­spite the EU’s new de­fence schemes, which cover ev­ery­thing from joint arms pro­duc­tion to co-op­er­a­tion on mil­i­tary ra­dios, its am­bi­tion is far lower than Macron’s lan­guage would sug­gest. Far from sup­plant­ing US mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties, Eu­rope’s na­tional armies are only just get­ting around to re­build­ing their own, hol­lowed out af­ter the Cold War. The EU’s cen­tral and eastern Euro­pean al­lies, like Poland and Es­to­nia, are hor­ri­fied by Macron’s talk of pro­tec­tion against the US. For all its trou­bles, NATO re­mains the only game in town.

AFP

The Nor­we­gian frigate KNM Helge Ingstad yes­ter­day takes on wa­ter af­ter col­lid­ing with the tanker Sola TS in Hjel­te­fjor­den

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