Does NATO Need To Move Away From Rapid Reaction?

Retired Lieutenant General Sean Macfarland has spoken to Forces News about the current state of NATO and its ability to deal with threats.

Two defence experts are warning NATO needs to shift from "rapid reaction" to being "long prepared".  

Retired Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, co-author of a new paper, The Future of the NATO Corps, has spoken to Forces News about the current state of NATO and its ability to deal with threats.

With 2020 over, the retired serviceman has examined NATO’s forces, its role on the future battlefield and how it will need to be resourced.

Dealing with potential challenges like Russia, the former three-star general spoke about the problems facing any response made by the military alliance.

How ready is NATO to deal with Russia?

"Right now NATO has been very focused on dealing with challenges of the Middle East and has become very adept at conducting counter-insurgency operations," Lt Gen MacFarland said.

"We need to adjust our posture to be able to deal with this new threat that’s re-emerged to the East."

He argued that any future threats from Russia bring with them, inherently, a completely new set of challenges that in turn require a new set of experienced-based solutions. 

One of NATO's most significant challenges is moving its vehicles over different infrastructure, Lt Gen MacFarland said (Picture: NATO TV).

Are NATO forces where they need to be?

"We are largely out of position and the East flank of NATO has moved well to the East, but NATO has not moved a significant number of forces to the East," Lt Gen MacFarland said.

"The United States now keeps a presence in Poland, NATO keeps a presence in the Baltic nations and that’s all good. Is it adequate? I don’t know."

The retired serviceman recommended constant reassessment in order to best react to any emerging threats.

"We need to make sure we have adequate forces in the right position," he said.

"If we are put in a situation where we have to massively reinforce our Eastern flank, there’s going to be challenges."

What are the challenges of any rapid reaction?

Lt Gen MacFarland warned the particularly pressing challenges faced by NATO's Rapid Reaction are all largely logistical and how to overcome the problems faced when moving such a large force over a such a large distance.

"Not only is it a long line of communication, it crosses multiple international boundaries and getting those permissions to transit across those boundaries is not a trivial task," he said.

"And then there’s differences in infrastructure. Remember, in Eastern Europe their infrastructure was built to support a Soviet Army group. Their tanks were significantly lighter than our tanks, and they are to this day.

NATO-OTAN badge on anonymous uniform 040820 CREDIT PA
Lt Gen MacFarland said "NATO has not moved a significant number of forces to the East" (Picture: PA).

"In Western Europe, the autobahn system was built to support 60 to 70-ton tanks. All the overpasses are 100-ton load class and the major roads are all 60-ton up to 100.

"In Eastern Europe that drops down to 40 or 45 tons so those bridges, that infrastructure, would crumble underneath our weapons," he added.

"So, we’re going to need more bridges, or we’re going to need lighter equipment, or we need to put them closer to the fight so they don’t have to transit across all those bridges, or we have to buy a lot more bridging equipment to lay alongside or on top of existing bridges to reinforce them."

Rapid reaction or staying close, which is best?

"There’s an American Confederate General that once said ‘Who’s going to get there the first-est with the most-est, right?’ That’s what we have to deal with. They can quickly mobilise because a fight would be on their front porch," Lt Gen MacFarland told Forces News.

"They can get out the front door with the largest number of forces faster than NATO could respond to that."

Deciding on how to best solve this problem is something Lt Gen MacFarland says is still up for debate.

"So what kind of deterrent force do we need to prevent that state of conflict? Or if we don’t want to do that, what kind of force are we going to need to respond to that state of conflict, which is going to require a much larger force, and what time span are we talking about?"