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Joint Air & Space Power Conference 2016

The End of an Illusion

Lieutenant General Ton van Loon, NLD A

Lieutenant General (ret.) Ton van Loon was previously the ­Commander of the ­International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), ­Regional Command South ­(RC-S) in Afghanistan. During this posting he conducted ­several ­operations and continued NATO efforts to implement the 3D ­(Defence, Diplomacy, Development) programme. He has operational command ­experience in Kosovo as well as having previously ­commanded the 43rd Mechanized ­Brigade and the 1st German/Dutch Corps. He has spent a significant amount of his career focused on German-Dutch military cooperation. He has also served on the Staff of the Royal Netherlands Army.

’The only way forward is through cooperation.
The unity of all who dwell in freedom is their only sure defense.‘
General Dwight D. Eisenhower

In 2014 Europe had to come to terms with the fact that not all neighbours are always nice. The Russian invasion into Ukraine and the shoot­ing down of flight MH17 pointed out painfully that the illusion of eternal, and most of all cost-free, peace in Europe was just that: an illusion. Peace is not for free and requires hard work and financial commitment. In the words of Dutch defence minister Jeannine Hennis: ‘I would like to underline that security comes at a price. And our need for security justifies paying that price. At some point, we may be forced to act militarily in order to remain secure on the European continent.’1

On the other hand, however, 2015 put the focus on another threat to ­European peace and stability. The influx of refugees and the impact of ­terrorist attacks (culminating in Paris) showed that security cannot be seen only in geographical terms. Instability and war, in the Middle-East and in Africa, has had an immediate impact on Europe. ISIS or Boko-Haram ­barbarism coupled with utterly corrupt and often equally barbaric regimes have resulted in mass migration towards Europe. We could have seen this coming but we preferred to remain in a state of denial or in the words  of Thomas Gray, ‘ignorance is bliss’. The immediate impact of instability means we have to rethink how, but more importantly, the reasons why we get involved.

European interests are not merely geographic in nature and therefore its defence can also not be seen solely in geographical terms. Not only the refugee problem but also access to natural resources, freedom of navigation and of course terrorist safe heavens are all very legitimate security concerns that are not necessarily geographic in nature. The current vice chairman of the European Commission Frans Timmermans remarked in 2014 that if we fail to export stability, we will sooner rather than later import instability and if that happens it will not only threaten our economy but all of our values.2 Even he, probably, did not predict the speed at which his comments became true. The consequence is that while ­until now, most missions outside NATO territory were seen as ‘wars of choice’, they are now turning into ‘wars of necessity’. Nations have gotten used to doing crisis response operations out of choice and with a limited engagement in these missions, both in time and volume. To deal with the instability impacting our nations directly, it is very likely stabilization ­missions will be needed for a longer period of time and with much greater resolve. Politicians like to focus on solvable short-term problems but the speed at which instability is now being imported will force a discussion on longer-term solutions. After ISAF it was often heard that NATO (nations) have lost their appetite for such big involvement. That is probably true, but the choice is not ours anymore. We do not pick the crisis; the crisis affects us.

NATO, and especially its European nations, must realize that it needs military capabilities that can deal with both geographical, old school, threats but also with new school, complex threats. It is not a good idea to differentiate between (national or collective) defence forces and crisis ­response forces. We need to have forces that can serve our security ­interest across the entire spectrum.

The biggest change in the European mindset that must occur is the ­understanding, not only in words but also in deeds, that Europe must ­invest in its own security to defend its territory but also its wider security interest. Si vis pacem, para bellum.

Geographical Threats and Degraded Environment

The aggressive Russian stance in the Ukraine has certainly resulted in renewed attention to the defence of NATO territory. One of the key problems here is that most of the discussion focusses on a potential area in which an incursion might take place. For instance: what if Russia invades one of the Baltic states. The use of air power to kick such an ­invading force out is not as easy as it has been in the era of crisis ­response operations. One problem is obviously the ability of this ­particular potential opponent to deny air access through A2/AD. In the words of General Gorenc: ‘The advantage that we had from the air I can honestly say is shrinking, not only with respect to the aircraft that they’re producing, but the more alarming thing is their ability to create anti-access/area denied [zones] that are very well defended by batteries of ground-based anti-aircraft missiles.’3

The problem here is that we still seem to think one dimensionally and most of all in a limited manner in our response to such an attack. If Russia attacks, let’s say Estonia, our response should be to recognize that all NATO nations consider themselves under attack. This immediately would make A2/AD a lot more difficult. Defending against an invading force in a limited area, such as the Baltics, is possible but how do you defend the entire NATO Russia border? Even the best, most capable anti-aircraft ­missile batteries cannot be everywhere. If we allow an invading enemy to choose the terrain on which to fight we give away a huge advantage. We should not. Fighting an enemy in a frontal assault in a very limited ­battlespace is not a good idea. French military theorist Ardant du Picq (1821–1870) puts it this way: ‘Maneuvers are threats, he who appears most threatening, wins.’

During the Cold War NATO land forces stood shoulder to shoulder along the inner German border basically doing deterrence by denial. It is hard to see how we could do that today with the limited resources available. However, we could do deterrence by punishment. If a potential enemy is convinced the price to pay for aggression is too high, it is very likely he will reconsider. The most crucial element in collective defence is solidarity and cohesion. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty revolves around the idea that an attack on one is an attack on all. During the Cold War no-one doubted this idea and that was the defining deterrent against an attack. In the 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe has been cashing in on the peace dividend. That not only resulted in declining defence budgets but also in a general reluctance to look at the big ­picture. Especially for air power, this desire to see even Article 5 attacks as a localized threat is very counterproductive. Air Power is most effective when its inherent flexibility can be exploited fully. There is nothing more maneuverable then air power!

In order to execute effective deterrence, capabilities must be convincingly demonstrated. Exercises should far more than today also focus on the message NATO sends to any potential adversary. Deterrence through training, however, cannot be limited to NATO spearhead forces (NRF, VJTF) without a credible buildup of much larger forces. In other words: the VJTF spearhead must credibly be followed by the rest of the spear, and, to stay with the metaphor, it will also only be effective with a strong athlete (or warrior) holding the spear.
Ultimately the degrading effects on NATO air power will depend on our (political) will to outmaneuver an invader. But far more importantly, we need to make sure that no-one believes they can get away with attacking NATO, not in the north- or south-east flank, nowhere.

Non-Geographic Threats and Degraded Environment

The reemergence of a geographical threat to NATO territory is however only one of the threats facing NATO countries. One could even argue it is not the biggest problem. The influx of refugees and the series of terrorist attacks have had an immediate impact on our societies. Comprehensiveness is the only way forward; as defence without development makes as little sense as development without defence. Hardcore defenders of strict separation between military and other actors need to realize that much more can be done by synchronizing efforts. The current refugee crisis cannot be dealt with by defending the borders, or by building walls, alone. At the height of the crisis, even last October, the UN World Food Program was not able to raise all the funds needed to feed the Syrian refugees in the region4. When refugees in the region are not receiving enough to survive, why are we surprised that they try to move somewhere else?

As such, this threat is maybe not bigger but certainly more imminent. ­Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, in March 2015 at the EU Inter-parliamentary meeting in Riga, talked about ‘the new security challenges posed by the so-called 4th generation’s warfare, a hybrid war, which is manifested as a combination of a use of irregular and conventional military methods as well as elements from cyber, economic and information warfare, and ­political pressure’.

The consequence of the need for a wider context in which the military contribution must fit, is the fact that military action is dependent on ­actions by others. If the building does not take place, the clear and hold cannot be very effective. The military then taking over the responsibility for the building as well is not a preferable solution. The PRTs in ISAF worked better when they had a strong civilian, development and diplomatic, ­involvement. On the other side of the spectrum, building something without creating and keeping a secure environment also does not work well. Development without security and especially spending development money without accountability can even be counterproductive5. The ­military can be the enabler for other actors but needs to realize that these other actors will provide the decisive effect.

A potential Russian threat to NATO would almost certainly also have a hybrid nature. It is very unlikely that Russia would use military force alone if it decided to attack us. In this sense, it is highly unlikely that the Cold War scenario will ever return. Dealing with such a hybrid threat would also involve other actors, for instance to deal with a dissatisfied Russian minority that could be exploited. Thinking about a comprehensive approach, and NATO contribution, is therefore not obsolete. On the contrary, it is more important than ever that we develop solid mechanisms for cross-domain synergy.

The new paradigm, therefore, is interdependency which requires a change in military culture. Military leaders need to understand that they cannot make decisions without involving others. Their effectiveness heavily depends on interaction with other, non-military, actors. In the words of General Mattis, USMC: ‘if you cannot create harmony across ­service lines, across coalition and national lines, and across civilian/military lines, you really need to go home because your leadership in today’s age is obsolete.’6

This is not necessarily a degraded but far more an uncomfortable ­environment. However, there is one crucial aspect that will degrade the effectiveness of air power. Almost all recent conflicts have shown that our adversaries are very well versed at using messaging against us. ­Terrorism is all about creating fear. The actual action is only a tool to achieve that aim. It is not so much about the physical action as the ­perception of fear. We however usually respond with action supported by messages that often do not reach the target audience. The gap is significant. For instance, the Daily Mail online reported on 6 June: ISIS controls as many as 90,000 Twitter accounts which it uses to spread sick propaganda and radicalize Westerners.7

In that sense, the hostile media environment in most (if not all) COIN and CT operations must be seen as a degraded environment, especially for air power. In Afghanistan the Taliban became very versed in capitalizing on any civilian (collateral) casualties. Sometimes civilian casualties were even deliberately caused just to blame the ISAF coalition. The same can also be observed today in Iraq and Syria. Again it is all about the perception, not so much the physical casualties. The only way to deal with this problem is to fully synchronize our actions with our messages. Our ­motto should be: if you cannot explain what you are doing, you ­probably should not be doing it.

In dealing with non-geographic threats the degraded environment for air power is not so much about achieving air supremacy, it is far more about achieving pinpoint accuracy and proving just that. Avoiding ­collateral damage while striking the desired targets is however very ­difficult, especially if we allow our opponents to continue to control the (social) media.

C2 in the Complex Environment

Interdependency requires a different way of organizing command, changing from a vertical, command-driven approach to a more ­horizontal, networked approach. Systems supporting such fundamentally changed thinking about command need to be much more open than today’s systems. To work in a networked environment, we surely need to able to talk to each other. In the US military the development of a Mission Partner Environment (MPE) which replaces what was known as Future Mission Network (FMN) is a step in that direction. Based on the experiences in Afghanistan (Afghanistan Mission Network), the idea is to build a system enabling commanders to work with partners (other nations and other actors) in a common security domain.

It would be a big step towards real capabilities to combine forces in Europe if we could decide to build ONE functioning CIS system. Interdependence requires a change in mindset, away from national and military stovepipes. Of course, some things will need to remain secret but being able to communicate should not suffer from unnecessary secrecy.

Strangely enough, the European Defence Agency (EDA) actually has the mission to build just such a system. On the EDA website its says: ‘The aim of the GovSatcom initiative is to provide its Member States and European actors with appropriate capabilities through an innovative and sustainable cooperation model. It further signals a new partnership not only between military and civil institutional actors, but also with industry in order to better contribute to the competitiveness of Europe.’ That sounds perfect, why are we not using it?

White Papers

Predicting the future has proven to be very difficult. Attempting to define the threats and then calculating the capabilities needed to deal with those threats has not been very successful. For one because threats changed at such a pace that planning ahead was just not possible. But often, risks that resulted in high costs were written down to accommodate yet another budget cut. The problem with defence is that it is very hard to explain why a capable military is needed when the enemy is not at the gates. But if the ­enemy shows up it is too late to build up the military. That fundamental ­dilemma will not go away. Authors and readers of white papers or strategic defence reviews, therefore, need to recognize that we can never predict ­exactly what is needed. ­Flexibility is, therefore, a cornerstone for any security policy.

The current German ‘White Paper’ process uses a series of meetings with stakeholders (participation meetings) in which the basis is laid for a broad public acceptance for an effective military. Interestingly, these stakeholder meetings look at defence from various angles, asking the question ‘what do we want defence to do?’ from different perspectives.8 Asking this question could be a big step towards developing consensus on the capabilities we need. Broad discussion on this topic could also lead to a much better public understanding of the role of the military.

Today changes happen at such a high tempo that it is incredibly hard to plan ahead. A couple of anchor points remain however:

  • Future military capabilities will have to rely on others. Joint, multinational and interagency must be elements of any defence development ­programme.
  • Interdependency requires a fundamental change in mindset focusing much more on enabling then on commanding.
  • Without enablers nothing works, military capability development must take that into account.

Perhaps the most important certainty is that having a credible military is the best guarantee we do not need to use one.


1. Speech during the Future Force Conference in Mar. 2015.
2. Free translation from Dutch of the HJ Schoo lecture by Frans Timmermans on 2 Sep. 2014.
3. Interview in Breaking Defense, Sep. 2015
5. See among others. Linda Polman, the crisis caravan, metropolitan books, Sep. 2010.
6. Quoted from