From blueprints to the battlefield: How NATO can remain operational in the future
From blueprints to the battlefield: How NATO can remain operational in the future

From blueprints to the battlefield: How NATO can remain operational in the future

During the Cold War, NATO relied on a “forward defense” strategy, massing troops near the line of contact to deter Soviet aggression. After the Cold War, however, the Alliance changed its defense strategy to a “deterrence by punishment” approach, withdrawing some troops but threatening harsh retaliation if attacked. This shift reflected the lower urgency of the threats to the Alliance at the time. Now, in the face of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and increasing global instability, NATO is adjusting its strategy again.

This Alliance strategy shift began at the 2022 Madrid Summit, where Allies agreed on a new Strategic Concept that recognizes the evolving security landscape and commits them to “defend every inch of Allied territory.” The 2023 Vilnius Summit marked another defining moment for NATO’s deterrence and defense posture. It introduced an ambitious “family of plans” that includes three regional defense strategies covering the Atlantic and European Arctic, the Baltic and Central Europe, and the Mediterranean and Black Seas. These three regional defense strategies are supported by subordinate strategic plans in seven functional areas, including cyber, space, special operations, and reinforcement.

This integrated approach aims to synchronize military operations across the Euro-Atlantic area and in different domains, thus providing different responses to threats from adversaries such as Russia or terrorist groups. Under these plans, the Allies will maintain up to 300,000 troops in high readiness (ready within 30 days), as well as 100 brigades, 1,400 combat aircraft and 250 ships and submarines. This initiative represents the most ambitious restructuring of NATO forces since the end of the Cold War.

But successfully implementing these plans remains the biggest challenge. At the Washington Summit this week, NATO Allies must address intractable issues such as long-term capability gaps and revitalizing weapons production to ensure that these plans are translated into actionable strategies. The Washington Summit offers Allies a critical opportunity to chart a clear path forward – not only to demonstrate that these plans exist, but also to provide a credible roadmap for their effective implementation.

Bridging the skills gap

The fact that 23 Allies are meeting the defence spending target of 2 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) is an important step forward. However, more needs to be done to ensure that NATO can successfully implement its regional plans. Under the new regional plans, the Alliance must be able to defend every inch of allied territory in multiple areas. To achieve this, Allies must meet higher capability requirements and spend more on defence.

While the capability requirements based on the regional plans are still being determined as part of the NATO defence planning process, the new defence plans require a tripling of existing military capability targets and for each Ally to spend three percent of its GDP on defence. The key question facing Allied leaders is whether they are prepared to provide these resources to ensure the credibility of these regional plans.

The summit in Washington offers several opportunities to consolidate the implementation of NATO plans:

  • Train on a large scale and with great frequency: Allies must reaffirm their commitment to fully resource and regularly exercise the plans. This includes conducting exercises on a scale not seen for decades to rehearse, refine and validate the plans while increasing operational readiness. Steadfast Defender 24, NATO’s largest military exercise since the Cold War, involving more than 90,000 troops from all 32 Allies, is a prime example of the type of exercises the Alliance needs to conduct more frequently.
  • Further development of regional plans: The feasibility of NATO plans depends on the availability of readily accessible resources, the ability to deploy forces, and the Allies’ ability to meet capability requirements. To achieve this, Allies must place a strong emphasis on integrating national defense plans with NATO’s defense plans. This integration will increase force mobility, enhance cohesion and interoperability among Allies, and strengthen NATO’s overall deterrence and defense posture.
  • Revitalization of the transatlantic industrial base: Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine has highlighted the need for defense industrial renewal. Allies must increase their arms production not only to support Ukraine but also to replenish their own stockpiles and meet the demands of modern warfare. The Washington Summit must facilitate cooperation among Allies to jointly procure and develop capabilities, leveraging economies of scale and expertise. NATO Allies must expand their existing manufacturing facilities to meet increased demand for military equipment and ensure timely delivery of critical capabilities. Implementing the NATO Defense Industrial Commitment is a step in the right direction to help Allies increase existing industrial capabilities, standardize equipment, and improve their national production strategies.

The Washington Summit is a pivotal moment for NATO. While the plans offer a promising blueprint for collective defense, their success depends on the ability of Allies to review their readiness, overcome capability gaps, revitalize the transatlantic defense industry, and integrate national defense plans with NATO’s defense plans in the face of evolving security challenges. By seizing the opportunities presented at the Summit, NATO can reaffirm its commitment to collective defense and ensure the credibility of its deterrence posture in an increasingly complex geopolitical landscape.

Luka Ignac is deputy director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

75th anniversary of NATO is a milestone in a remarkable story of reinvention, adaptation and unity. As the Alliance seeks to secure its future for the next 75 years, however, it faces revanchism from old rivals, escalating strategic competition and uncertainties about the future of the rules-based international order.

As partners and allies turn their attention from celebration to challenges, the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative has invited contributors to address the most pressing issues ahead of the historic summit in Washington and chart a path for the Alliance’s future. This series includes seven essays focusing on specific issues NATO must address at the Washington summit, as well as five essays addressing the longer-term challenges the Alliance must address to ensure transatlantic security.

further reading

Image: Armoured vehicles move during the military exercise “Noble Blueprint 2023” at the Novo Selo military site, Bulgaria, September 26, 2023. The exercise is organised by the multinational NATO brigade under Italian command, including army personnel and equipment from Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Turkey, Albania and the United States REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov