NATO is trying to arm its Russian borders. Can it find the guns? – POLITICS
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BRUSSELS – Add NATO’s military planners to the list of those worried about enough shells.
coming Months, The alliance will accelerate efforts to stockpile equipment on the alliance’s eastern edge and designate tens of thousands of forces that can rush to allies’ short-term aid — a move aimed at preventing Russia from expanding its war beyond Ukraine.
In order to achieve this, however, NATO must persuade individual countries to contribute various elements: soldiers, training, better infrastructure – and above all large quantities of expensive weapons, equipment and ammunition.
With countries already concerned about their own ammunition stockpiles and Ukraine in dire need of more shells and weapons from allies, there is a risk that not all NATO allies will keep their promises to contribute to the alliance’s new plans.
“If there’s no one to host the potluck and tell everyone what to bring, then everyone would bring potato chips because potato chips are cheap and easy to get,” said James J. Townsend Jr., a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO policy.
“Nations,” he added, “would rather bring potato chips.”
It’s a challenge NATO has faced in the past, and one that experts fear could become an ongoing problem for the western alliance as the war with Russia drags into a second year. As the US and EU hatch plans to quickly acquire more weapons, the replenishment process is bound to take time.
That could clash with NATO’s aspirations. Military leaders will present updated regional defense plans this spring that should help redefine how the alliance protects its 1 billion citizens.
The numbers will be big, with officials touting the idea of up to 300,000 NATO forces needed to get the new model up and running. That means a lot of coordination and persuasion.
“I think you need forces to counter a realistic Russia,” said a senior NATO military official, underscoring the need for significantly “more troops” and especially more “ready” forces.
An urge for “readiness”
There are several levels of “readiness”.
The first stage – which may consist of about 100,000 troops ready to withdraw within 10 days – could be recruited from Poland, Norway and the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), said Heinrich Brauss, former NATO deputy secretary general for defense policy and force planning. It may also include multinational battlegroups that the Alliance has already deployed on the eastern flank.
A second tier of troops would then support these soldiers, who would be ready to deploy within 10 to 30 days from countries like Germany.
But the process could be difficult. Why? Because moving that quickly, even in a month, requires a lot of people, equipment and training – and a lot of money.
Some militaries need to step up their recruitment efforts. Many allies will need to increase their defense spending. And everyone needs to buy more guns, ammo and equipment.
Ben Hodges, former commander of US Army Europe, said “readiness” is “basically, do you have all the things you should have to assign the mission to a unit of a certain size?”
“An artillery battalion needs to fire X number of rounds per year for planning purposes to maintain its level of performance,” he said. A tank battalion must hit targets, respond to different situations, and “move day and night to hit moving targets.”
“It’s all very challenging,” he said, citing the need for firing ranges and ammunition and maintaining competency as personnel changes over time. “Of course, that takes time and is also expensive.”
And that’s if countries can even find companies to make quality bullets quickly.
“We’ve been trying to stockpile cheap ammo…it’s just woefully inadequate,” said Stacie Pettyjohn, director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security. “I think the problems our allies have in NATO are even more acute because many of them often rely on the US as a sort of backstop.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, meanwhile, has repeatedly said that allies have stepped up work on production in recent months – and that the alliance is working on new requirements for ammunition stockpiles.
But he also recognized the problem.
“The current rate of consumption compared to the current rate of ammunition production,” he said in early March, “is unsustainable.”
The big exam
Once NATO’s military plans are ready, capitals will be asked to get involved – eventually providing troops, planes, ships and tanks for various parts of the blueprints.
A test for NATO will come this summer when the leaders of the alliance’s 30 member countries meet in Lithuania.
“We are asking nations — based on the insights we have from our three regional plans — what we need to make those plans… executable,” said the senior NATO military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to sensitive people to discuss plans.
“I think the hardest part,” the official added, “is sourcing.”
Some allies have already recognized that meeting NATO’s needs will require far more investment.
“It takes more speed, be it material, personnel or infrastructure,” said Colonel André Wüstner, head of the independent Bundeswehr Association, the “Bild am Sonntag”.
The Bundeswehr, for example, carries out its assigned missions, “but that’s nothing compared to what we have to bring to NATO in the future.”
And while Berlin now has a much-vaunted €100 billion modernization fund to modernize Germany’s armed forces, not a single cent of the money has been spent so far, Bundestag Commissioner for the Armed Forces Eva Högl said earlier this week.
Underpinning the preparedness issue is a controversial debate over defense investment.
In 2014, NATO leaders pledged to spend 2 percent of their economic output on defense within a decade. At the Vilnius summit in July, leaders will have to decide on a new target.
“Two percent as a floor” seems to be the “focus” of the debate right now, a senior NATO official said, while warning that “2 percent would not be enough for everyone.”
A second problem is the contribution balance. Officials and experts believe the majority of the upgraded troops will come from European allies. But that means European capitals need to step up while Washington considers how to meet challenges from China.
The answer will show whether NATO is serious about fulfilling its ambitions.
“It’s hard to ensure that you remain at the top of your military game during peacetime when there is no threat,” said Townsend, the former US official. NATO is “in the middle” of a stress test.
“We all say the right things,” he added. “But will we make it? at the end of the day and do the right thing? Or will we try to bring potato chips to the potluck? The jury is out.”