NATO’s 2021 summit in Brussels came and went without much fanfare, largely overshadowed by the Biden-Putin meeting that immediately followed. Yet significant steps were taken with respect to enhancing the Alliance’s security. Chief among these was a clear statement by the Biden administration of its support for NATO. Washington also reaffirmed the importance of the Article V commitment to respond to an attack on one Alliance member as an attack on all.
The summit’s communique stated the Alliance’s determination to strengthen and modernize the NATO force structure both now and, in the future, to ensure deterrence. In addition, the communique put members on record that they would build a flexible, agile, and resilient force architecture “with the right forces in the right place at the right time.”
But for what contingencies? While the NATO summit discussed a range of threats to allies’ security, it made clear that the primary focus of NATO’s deterrence and defense mission was Russia. In this context, the communique noted the significant growth of the military threat Moscow poses to the free and democratic nations of Europe.
“We reaffirm our commitment to respond in a measured, balanced, coordinated, and timely way to Russia’s growing and evolving array of conventional and nuclear-capable missiles, which is increasing in scale and complexity and which poses significant risks from all strategic directions to security and stability across the Euro-Atlantic area,” the communique stated. “We will continue to implement a coherent and balanced package of political and military measures to achieve Alliance objectives, including strengthened integrated air and missile defence; advanced defensive and offensive conventional capabilities.”
The 2021 summit also reaffirmed the importance of NATO 2030, the Allies’ plan to ensure that NATO remains strong politically, militarily, and technologically through the next decade. Recognizing that more than strong words were necessary, the members directed the secretary-general to make concrete proposals for implementing a more robust capability to respond to a range of threats.
In response to this directive, the secretary-general commissioned a Reflection Group in 2019 to propose concrete actions that the Alliance could undertake to meet objectives identified in the NATO 2030 document. The Reflection Group called on the Alliance to focus its military investments on portions of Alliance territory under threat from Russia. In particular, it concluded that NATO should do more to strengthen defenses along its eastern flank. In its final report, the Reflection Group recommended that “NATO must maintain adequate conventional and nuclear military capabilities and possess the agility and flexibility to confront aggression across the Alliance’s territory, including where Russian forces are either directly or indirectly active, particularly on NATO’s eastern flank (emphasis added). Non-U.S. Allies need to step up their efforts to ensure that their financial commitments and military contributions match NATO’s strategic needs and can deliver an effective balance between U.S. commitments and the development of other Allies’ capabilities.”
NATO has taken important steps to strengthen its capabilities along its eastern flank to deter Russian aggression. The presence of NATO forces in the area has been enhanced by the deployment of multi-national groups in frontline nations. Notably, fighter aircraft from different NATO countries are providing routine air policing above the Baltic states.
The United States has significantly enhanced its military presence along the eastern flank, including around the Baltic and Black Seas. In November 2020, Warsaw and Washington signed an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that provided for the stationing of U.S. forces and military equipment on Polish territory. These include the rotational presence of an armored brigade combat team (ABCT), prepositioned stock for an additional ABCT, key enablers such as long-range fires and drones, and the forward element of the newly reactivated V Corps.
NATO members on the front line with Russia—the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania—have taken concerted steps to enhance their capabilities to confront the threat posed by improving Russian conventional forces. The Baltic states and Poland have each met or exceeded the NATO defense spending goal of two percent of their GDP. All have sought to replace their aging Soviet-era equipment with modern Western systems that also provide enhanced interoperability.
Poland, the keystone to the defense of NATO’s eastern flank, has undertaken a long-term, multi-billion-dollar program to modernize its military. Poland has acquired the Patriot air and missile defense systems and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System long-range rocket artillery platform. Most recently, it signed a contract for fifth-generation F-35 fighter jets.
U.S. and NATO forces along the eastern flank are the equivalent of the stand-in force Commandant David Berger envisions for the U.S. Marine Corps. They will be operating from the start of a conflict within the engagement zones of Russian long-range anti-access and area denial capabilities. They must be able to withstand an initial blow, slow down the advance of Russian forces, and strike critical targets.
To pose the kind of deterrent that would dissuade Russia from military adventurism, Poland needs to finish modernizing the remainder of its tank fleet before Russia can achieve an overwhelming advantage in conventional forces. Poland’s army still operates some five hundred obsolete Russian-designed tanks that are more than thirty years old. The Biden administration should encourage and support a Polish effort to acquire the M1 Abrams tank.
This action would have several benefits. First, it would substantially improve Poland’s capabilities for high-end heavy combat. When it comes to conventional war, even in the twenty-first century, tanks matter. Second, it would send a further signal to Moscow that Washington intends to back up its words in support of NATO with deeds. Third, it would support interoperability between Polish and U.S. forces and improve sustainment for the Polish military.
Helping frontline nations such as Poland acquire the means to operate as a stand-in force is of vital importance to the Alliance’s deterrence mission. Providing Poland with a version of the M1 Abrams tank and encouraging its industry to be involved in sustaining U.S. and Polish Abrams tanks would be a significant statement of NATO’s commitment to the defense of its eastern flank.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC.