NATO’s Problem in Europe Is Mobilization

What good is buying more tanks without the bridges and rail lines to get them to a flashpoint?


American forces during NATO exercises in southern Germany, May 11, 2017.
American forces during NATO exercises in southern Germany, May 11, 2017. PHOTO: CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Donald Trump has consistently called on America’s fellow members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to shoulder more of the alliance’s defense burden. He often portrays other countries as freeloaders enjoying America’s costly protection. This description of the alliance is incomplete, damaging and counterproductive—especially since there are significant areas where the Trump administration could push for change.

Well before Mr. Trump entered the Oval Office, every NATO country committed to spend 2% of its gross domestic product on defense by 2024. Most of America’s allies have increased spending, but the president is right that they should spend more. The gap between underfunded NATO allies’ budgets today and the agreed target is about $116 billion a year, according to NATO data. But military spending alone will not solve NATO’s problems.

The alliance’s most pressing challenge is to spend new resources wisely—in ways that generally improve trans-Atlantic security and specifically make NATO’s deterrence of Russia more effective. The Trump administration is overlooking other substantial contributions Europe could make.

Start with rapid military mobilization and deployment. Since 2013, NATO has watched Russia conduct multiple large military exercises in and around Europe. These training missions demonstrate Moscow’s ability to move its forces rapidly to the frontier with NATO and the European Union. At the same time, Russia has employed disruptive tactics below the threshold that would provoke a NATO military response. 

To counter Russia’s attempts at coercion in Europe, NATO allies agreed in 2014 to position “tripwire” forces in the Baltic states and Poland. The alliance has also deployed multinational forces in the Black Sea region. But those forces are relatively small. They are meaningful only if, during a crisis, NATO is able to reinforce them promptly with larger forces. That is a crucial weakness in NATO’s strategy: Since the end of the Cold War, the alliance has failed to ensure that large-scale reinforcement can happen quickly and efficiently.

Studies by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and others have highlighted Europe’s readiness problems. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who commanded U.S. Army forces in Europe until his retirement last year, frequently stressed the need to expedite border crossing arrangements. Since 2015, Gen. Hodges had called for a “military Schengen zone” akin to the agreement that allows unchecked movement of people and goods across most of the EU’s internal borders.

The U.S. needs a two-pronged strategy to address these shortcomings and make deterrence in Europe credible and effective. The first element is to address regulatory impediments and expedite national approvals so that NATO military forces and equipment can move across European borders rapidly.

But border-crossing bureaucracy is not the biggest obstacle. The more crucial shortcoming is Europe’s logistical capacity to move heavy military equipment and troops at scale. This requires adequate rail connections, rolling stock, ports, reinforced bridges and other infrastructure meeting the technical requirements for military transport. It makes little sense to spend billions on tanks without the means to get them to a flashpoint in time. Military commanders and defense ministers are unable to fix this problem. Improving infrastructure is the responsibility of national transportation authorities, the EU and private companies across NATO nations.

As NATO approaches a summit meeting in July, Washington should engage with Europe to rebuild the Continent’s logistics infrastructure. This means addressing the EU effectively and seriously as a partner on political and security initiatives, something the Trump administration has seemed unwilling to do. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, after December meetings in Brussels with his EU and NATO colleagues, had little to say publicly about this crucial civilian burden-sharing.

Currently, the EU’s central budget devotes some $19 billion a year on key transport corridors across Europe. Meanwhile the national governments of EU member states invest more than $120 billion annually, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data. Washington should work with the EU to ensure that infrastructure meeting NATO requirements is prioritized in the EU’s military-mobility review, which is due in March. In exchange, the U.S. should explore a formula under which European countries can count toward their 2% spending target a portion of dual-use infrastructure spending, which enhances military deterrence while also supporting economic growth. 

The U.S. should elevate this to an initiative that President Trump and his counterparts in Brussels can endorse in July. This would greatly improve NATO and EU cooperation, a longtime trans-Atlantic goal.

Mr. Trump has made clear he wants America’s allies to shoulder more of the defense burden, and he has won that argument. Now he should find meaningful ways for these allies to meet their commitments. By focusing on mobilization and rapid deployment, and not only on spending numbers, NATO would strengthen its collective defense. This would bring NATO and the EU closer together—making conflict less likely and the trans-Atlantic community more secure.

Mr. Rathke is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Appeared in the January 11, 2018, print edition.

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