Mini-Battlegroups: How NATO Can Take On the Threats of the Future

A paratrooper waits for the signal to jump from a Hercules aircraft. Flickr / Defence Images

Mini-formations are extremely useful because they have two things that NATO lacks: permanent forces and a small number of members.

Last month Sweden and Finland—the two neighbors and long-time proponents of neutrality—joined a military formation. On June 30, their defense ministers and UK defense secretary Michael Fallon signed the accession of Sweden and Finland to the Joint Expeditionary Force, a British-led outfit that also includes Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Norway. The JEF, as it’s known, is one of several military mini-alliances now operating in Europe. And that’s good news for NATO.

The JEF is a high-readiness force tasked with quickly responding to emergencies around the world. It’s also a very recent multinational formation. It was launched only two years ago and JEF’s members are still adding to its capabilities. Also, it is scheduled to become fully operational next year, which means that it could deploy ten thousand troops to military or humanitarian crises.

Britain uses its expeditionary troops for another joint force, the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force, which it operates with France. The CJEF, part of the so-called Lancaster House military cooperation treaty signed by the two countries seven years ago, likewise deploys troops to crises; a recent exercise involved more than five thousand troops.

In fact, these days Europe has a host of military mini-formations. The EU operates battle groups with the same task as the JEF and CJEF forces, though those EU forces are smaller. On the day before they signed the JEF agreement, Sweden and Finland’s defense ministers signed a military cooperation treaty with Germany. Germany and France, in turn, operate a joint brigade, while EU member states operate the twenty-five-year-old Eurocorps. Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania, in turn, have a joint brigade with the somewhat clunky name LITPOLUKRBRIG. Taking armed forces cooperation to a new level, Germany is integrating units from three other countries—Netherlands, Romania and the Czech Republic—into the Bundeswehr. According to Dick Zandee, a senior research fellow at Clingendael (the Netherlands Institute of International Relations) and a former head of the Planning and Policy Unit at the European Defence Agency, such smaller military groupings makes perfect sense. “Clusters optimize the military cooperation between countries’ armed forces,” he said. “In terms of optimization, clusters are the only thing that works. The more member states you have, the more complicated it becomes.”

But most of the countries involved in these European mini-formations are also members of NATO. That raises the question: with NATO available to defend Europe, why does the continent need more military formations? Specifically, does Europe need military formations whose capabilities are dwarfed by those of NATO? The United States armed forces alone feature some 1.3 million men and women; at the recent Saber Strike Seventeen exercise some eleven thousand troops trained in the Baltic states and Poland.

Indeed, in case of a real emergency NATO members would rely on that alliance, not on the JEF or another mini-formation. And while the JEF has supported Ebola efforts, the EU’s battle groups have never been deployed despite having been fully operational for ten years. Indeed, chances are they will never be deployed because the EU’s members would have to agree to deploy them—and most crises are either too small or too large to be effectively addressed by 1,500–2,500 soldiers. And nobody would expect the JEF or the EU battle groups to perform the same massive effort as NATO—that’s not their mission.

Even so, the mini-formations are extremely useful. That’s because they have two things that NATO lacks: permanent forces and a small number of members, whose armed forces are very similar in training and equipment. Additionally, the regular exercises conducted by mini-formations have a benefit in themselves: they help European armed forces integrate. The EU’s battle groups may only consist of some two thousand soldiers, but constant exercises with troops from other countries they learn to operate effectively together.