Deterrence Assurance: Why NATO Needs a Plan for the Indo-Pacific Region

May 29, 2021 Topic: NATO Region: Eurasia Tags: NATOAlliesIndo-Pacific RegionChinaTrade

Deterrence Assurance: Why NATO Needs a Plan for the Indo-Pacific Region

The alliance needs to come to grips with the reality that there are now two major contested theaters—one in the Indo-Pacific region as well as Europe.

Heads of state meetings are opportunities for creative problem solving and the upcoming NATO “mini-summit” on June 14 provides the perfect opportunity for the United States and NATO to respond to the consequential challenges presented by Russia and China. In both the kinetic and hybrid arenas, Russian and Chinese actions have undercut deterrence and threatened strategic stability. But the summit could generate a significant outcome if it produces parameters requiring NATO to undertake two broad initiatives:  

First, NATO needs to come to grips with the reality that there are now two major contested theaters—the Indo-Pacific region as well as Europe. Consequently, NATO and its nation members have an important deterrent role for the Indo-Pacific region. Also, NATO’s European nations and Canada need to undertake an increased role in the European theater. Additionally, NATO needs to improve its mobility capabilities and rationalize its overlapping force initiatives.  

Second, in the face of extensive cyber espionage and attacks, NATO needs to enhance its cybersecurity resilience through a “zero trust”-plus approach, particularly for the private sector’s critical infrastructures upon which military mission assurance relies.

NATO’s Deterrent Role in the Indo-Pacific Region 

The growth of China’s military capabilities combined with its increasingly aggressive postures in the East and South China Seas, its actions at the China-Indian border, and, especially its rhetoric and military incursions versus Taiwan have led to the United States Department of Defense defining China as the “pacing challenge.” Recent testimony by the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command raised the prospect of a conflict with China in the next six years. The United States is working closely with Indo-Pacific allies in bilateral and, increasingly, multilateral arrangements to raise the level of deterrence and has undertaken similar such activities with partners, particularly—though not exclusively—through the Quad arrangement among Australia, India, Japan and the United States. U.S. advanced military capabilities are being developed including both air and naval unmanned vehicles, cyber and directed energy, and hypersonic missiles.

While NATO is obviously not an Indo-Pacific alliance, the nations of NATO would be significantly affected by a conflict in the Indo-Pacific region. The United States would undoubtedly seek to curtail trade with China as much as possible—including trade with China by U.S. allies. The United States would also seek support from allies in military domains such as cyber and space that are not geographically defined. Likewise, some NATO nations, such as France and the United Kingdom, would have the capability to provide kinetic military support.  

Deterrence, rather than warfighting, is, however, the desired objective in the Indo-Pacific region. Accordingly, a first step for the NATO summit would be for the United States to set forth with clarity the importance of NATO and NATO nations supporting the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. The summit should then set for NATO a task of establishing a joint NATO approach to enhanced Indo-Pacific deterrence—including decisions on a declaratory policy covering trade limits in the event of a conflict, support in the global commons, and provision of kinetic capabilities.   

An Increased Role for Europe and Canada in the European Theater 

Unlike the post-Crimea years where Russia posed the most apparent threat to NATO nations including the United States, the emergence of China has necessarily diverted some United States capability previously available to Europe to the Indo-Pacific region. Russia, however, is hardly less of a military concern—as its recent amassing of forces on the Ukraine border demonstrated.  With somewhat fewer United States capabilities clearly available, Europe and Canada need to take steps to ensure that deterrence is maintained.

With respect to the eastern portion of the Alliance, NATO needs to be able to demonstrate a clear capability to repel a Russian invasion that utilizes significant armor and artillery capabilities. The enhanced forward presence forces in the Baltic states, as well as the host nation forces, are relatively lighter. Prepositioning the capability for heavy forces to support those countries would significantly increase NATO’s deterrent, and, if necessary, warfighting capabilities. France, Germany and the United Kingdom could each undertake to preposition the materiel for an armored, mechanized or fires brigade forward so that NATO’s prompt warfighting capability would be significantly improved. Canada might support the French effort, particularly if the latter focused on Latvia where Canada leads the existing enhanced forward presence battalion.  Other countries that have multinational arrangements, such as the one the Netherlands has with Germany or the one Nordic nations have with the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force, might likewise participate. If NATO nations undertook such actions, the United States might concomitantly return an armored brigade combat team to Europe, an action that would have both military and geopolitical significance. 

Establishing a Military Mobility Fund 

Even with additional prepositioning, NATO’s deterrent posture relies heavily on reinforcement, which, of course, requires effective mobility capabilities. However, there are two recent studies, one co-chaired by a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and the other by a former U.S. European Command land commander, concluded that NATO needed to significantly upgrade its capacity for military mobility. The importance of mobility to an effective reinforcement strategy is well-known, and the European Union has, in fact, established a military mobility initiative. Unfortunately, that initiative is significantly underfunded—with the EU only budgeting 1.69 billion euros over five years as compared to the 6.5 billion euros recommended by the European Commission (and as further compared to the 7 billion euros cost for a single rail project in the Baltics). Military mobility requires significant resources, and, accordingly, NATO should establish its own “military mobility fund” to resource the projects that are required. Nations should support the fund with any such amounts included in the “two percent of GDP” spending goal that the NATO nations have agreed to for individual defense budgets. 

Rationalizing NATO’s Force Initiatives 

NATO has two overlapping force initiatives that need to be rationalized. The NATO Readiness Initiative (NRI) calls for thirty battalions, thirty air squadrons, and thirty ships to be ready for combat within thirty days. The NATO Response Force (NRF) provides for a forty-thousand-person multidomain capability intended to respond to collective defense or crisis management crises. NATO needs to organize these overlapping efforts so as to have a prompt warfighting capability if required against a Russian attack. The NRI forces first need to be organized at higher levels—brigades, wings, battle groups—with effective command and control established including making the US European land commander the NATO land commander similar to the existing arrangement for NATO air forces. The NRI and NRF then need to be consolidated, so that there is no double-counting and so that appropriate exercising with a focus on collective defense can be undertaken. 

Cyber Resilience 

Militaries have always relied on the private sector as part of warfighting; indeed, attacks on “war supporting industry” are lawful under the laws of armed conflict. But whereas the private sector historically has had some protection by being “behind the lines,” the combination of digitization and global cyber connectivity has eliminated such protection and, in fact, has made private sector firms by far the most vulnerable portion of the military enterprise. Three recent cyber attacks—SolarWinds affecting software, Hafnium affecting ubiquitous Microsoft programs, and Colonial Pipeline shutting down fuel flows—demonstrate the potential for Russian hackers to undercut NATO’s defense capabilities by attacking key critical infrastructures. These hackers have targeted such as ports, pipelines, and the electric grid—things that are necessary for NATO military mission assurance.

NATO needs to undertake a cyber resilience initiative that reduces these vulnerabilities. The United States is in the process of undertaking to develop key elements of such an architecture—a “zero-trust”-plus approach as required by a combination of a presidential executive order and congressional legislation.  In broad terms, such an effort includes the use of expert cloud providers, zero-trust architectures, secure hardware capabilities, and formal coding to reduce vulnerabilities. NATO should develop a comparable cybersecurity resilience architecture requirement that could be put into place through a combination of the NATO Defense Planning Process, coordination with the European Union, and actions by individual nations. In addition to the United States, other nations with significant cyber capabilities could contribute to developing the requisite architectures.

Additionally, along with the cybersecurity resilient architectures themselves, active cyber threat hunting will be necessary as no cyber resilience program can be expected to eliminate all penetrations. NATO should establish Standing Cybersecurity Hunt Teams that can support a resilience program and that would undertake threat hunting in collaboration with key critical infrastructure companies.

Each of these efforts will require the development of effective public-private coordination including decisions on whether and how governments would supply resources for actions that private companies will be asked to undertake. But without an effective cybersecurity resilience initiative, NATO’s reinforcement capabilities could falter in the event of conflict because the private sector could be disabled from providing necessary support. 

NATO Summit—Making a Difference 

The NATO summit provides an opportunity to make a difference. Of course, none of the issues highlighted can be resolved at this summit which will take place in a matter of weeks. But what the summit can do is to require NATO and its nations to undertake actions to begin to accomplish the goals described above. A summit decision to require the establishment of the relevant initiatives noted, and a requirement to report to heads of state at the next NATO summit, presumably in 2022, would set NATO on the right course to making the upcoming summit one of consequence.