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Joint Air & Space Power Conference 2017

JAPCC Conference Summary

By Dr Hans Binnendijk

Today’s global trends make both deterrence and the defence of NATO harder to achieve than at any time since the end of the Cold War. There are new challenges facing the Alliance in the East and South. This fact was recognized at NATO’s 2016 Warsaw summit and steps were taken in particular to strengthen deterrence. Deterring and if necessary defeating Russia is NATO’s main mission to the East while supporting counter-terror and refugee control measures is the main mission to the South. More needs to be done on both fronts and airpower will play a vital role.

At the 2014 Wales Summit, NATO sought to reassure allies that deterrence was viable. NATO Readiness Action Plan (RAP), complemented by the US European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), relied primarily on rapid reinforcement to deter the newly aggressive Russia. The VJTF was created and the NRF was enhanced. American Army companies were rotated through the Baltic States. Additional deterrence measures such as local resilience and horizontal escalation were developed. But the fact that NATO had few ground forces deployed forward was seen by many as an open invitation to Russian aggression. The deterrence package developed at Wales was inadequate.

At the 2016 Warsaw Summit, this fundamental flaw in the Readiness Action Plan was at least partially corrected. Four NATO multinational battalion sized battle groups were deployed in the Baltic States and Poland. In addition, a heel-to-toe rotational US Brigade Combat Team is exercising throughout the area. Any ground incursion by Russia would most likely result in unavoidable engagement with multiple NATO nations, hopefully convincing the Kremlin that an easy victory would be unattainable.

And yet after Warsaw, a scenario has developed that may undermine confidence in deterrence based on limited forward deployment. Analysts argued that the Warsaw plan would not provide for ‘deterrence by denial’ and hence was inadequate. This scenario suggested that risk-prone Russia might quickly defeat the small local Baltic/NATO force, create a pause in the fighting, and threaten nuclear escalation if NATO responds – hoping that NATO would be politically paralyzed as its military seeks to slowly mobilize. At the same time, it may be politically impossible to forward deploy now the 3–6 brigade combat teams needed for deterrence by denial.

NATO airpower can help fill this ‘deterrence gap’. This nightmare scenario is dependent upon the notion of a politically divisive pause in the fighting while NATO reinforces. If NATO air power is properly oriented, it can demonstrate to Russia that there would be no pause in the fighting. NATO air power would be available without pause or significant mobilization to continue the fight. NATO airpower would be the first responder to meet a Russian conventional challenge and could offset and deter a Russian strategy to ‘strike, pause, and win’. Call this ‘deterrence by continuous response’.

This strategy would require NATO air power to deal with the Russian anti-access area-denial capability centred primarily on Kaliningrad. For this ‘deterrence by continuous response’ strategy to be plausible, NATO would need to make clear its willingness to neutralize Russian assets in Kaliningrad should Russia attack first. That political decision may be difficult to make in the abstract.

In the South, airpower of NATO nations organized as a coalition currently plays the critical role in defeating the Islamic State. The post-caliphate role of NATO and NATO air power is uncertain, but continued air operations such as no-fly zones over Syria are quite possible. At the same time, unless relations with Russia improve dramatically, NATO airpower must transition from difficult but unopposed missions in the South and focus primarily on politically and militarily much more demanding tasks to the East.

In addition, the role of NATO air forces in nuclear deterrence, missile defence, and cyber assurance are also becoming increasingly complex. To deal with these new challenges, European NATO air forces will need to maximize their early warning and rapid response capabilities and to work closely with the United States to reap the full benefits of the so-called ‘Third Offset’.

As Europe increases its defence spending in response to both the growing threat and to US pressure, European NATO air forces will need to receive a significant portion of that additional funding, commensurate with their increasingly important role. Over the longer run, European nations should seek to achieve an air power capability which is much less dependent on American enablers.

This analysis suggests three main tasks that should be incorporated into NATO’s emerging joint air power strategy. In priority order they are:

  1. The new NATO joint airpower strategy should be built around the notion that given current NATO ground troop deployments, airpower provides the ability to enhance deterrence by convincing Russia that attacking those modest forward deployed ground forces will not give it an advantage that it can use by attacking, pausing, and then suing for peace before NATO reinforcements arrive. To achieve this, the first task should be to significantly improve the readiness, deployability and sustainability of existing air forces and air bases. This includes a stronger commitment to Baltic Air Policing, higher level of pilot training, technical upgrades for existing aircraft, preparing air bases for forward operations, increasing munition stocks, maximizing multinational cooperation, and attaining overflight rights. This is the low hanging fruit that can pay quick dividends.
  2. The second task of a new NATO joint airpower strategy should focus on the increasingly difficult task of rapidly gaining air superiority in an anti-access area-denial environment. To achieve this, NATO/European air forces need to acquire adequate numbers of both fifth generation fighter aircraft and advanced stand off munitions. Political decisions relating to targeting and rules of engagement will need to be made as far in advance as possible.
  3. The third task of a new NATO joint airpower strategy should concentrate on efforts to maximize the ability of NATO/European air forces to operate with declining US participation. This may take many years, but interim goals should be set in the strategy. To implement this task NATO/ European air forces should start to invest in enablers currently provided almost exclusively by the US like ISR assets, refueling aircraft, UAVs and strategic lift.

Dr Binnendijk is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and at RAND. He previously served on the US National Security Council staff as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Defense Policy and Arms Control.