NATO confronts advanced, high-technology threats in Eastern and Southern Europe that limits its freedom of movement, writes Luis Simon. Alliance discussion on deterrence and expeditionary missions needs to take this new military-strategic paradigm into account.
By Luis Simon, April 21, 2017
Most strategic debates in NATO today revolve around two main problems: a) how to counter hybrid warfare and strengthen deterrence in the so-called eastern flank vis-à-vis Russia; and b) how to tackle the different security challenges emanating from southern Europe’s neighbourhood (North Africa and the Middle East). In fact, a key question is how to balance priorities between east and south – a strategic question as much as it is a political one.
This short article aims to bring east and south together around a unifying theme: the global proliferation of Precision-Guided Munitions (PGMs) and the emergence of so-called anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities in and around Europe. PGMs and A2/AD go hand in hand, in that the progressive introduction of precision-guided systems to warfare, and the technological advances that come with them, has allowed a number of non-Western countries to develop A2/AD capabilities over the last few decades – from ballistic and cruise missiles to offensive cyber weapons and electronic warfare measures.
Large, long- to medium-range ballistic missiles can target key air bases and naval facilities bordering a given theater of operations, as well as that theater’s line of supply and communications.
Anti-access capabilities are used to prevent or constrain the deployment of opposing forces into a theater of operations. For instance, large, long- to medium-range ballistic missiles can target key air bases and naval facilities bordering a given theater of operations, as well as that theater’s line of supply and communications. A good example is China’s DF-21D or “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missile, which could be used to block US aircraft carriers into the Western Pacific theater of operations altogether. In turn, area-denial capabilities are used to reduce their freedom of maneuver once in a theater. For instance, advanced counter-maritime and counter-air short-range ballistic and cruise missiles can destroy critical mobile assets, such as surface ships and aircraft.
This means that the proliferation of A2/AD capabilities poses a direct threat to the forward deployment, movement, communications, and situational awareness of Western militaries.
Ever since the end of the Cold War, most NATO-level discussions on strategy and capability development have been set against the backdrop of Western military-technological supremacy. However, the global proliferation of PGMs and the associated development of A2/AD capabilities are leading to a levelling of the playing field, by challenging the foundations of Western global military-technological supremacy. This could, in turn, undermine the basis of allied military supremacy in and around Europe.
In the United States, most discussions on how to cope with the global proliferation of PGM and overcome or mitigate A2/AD have so far been set against the backdrop of Sino-American military-strategic competition in the Western Pacific, specifically how to respond to China’s growing arsenal of anti-ship or land-attack ballistic and cruise missiles. However, the proliferation of PGMs and the development of A2/AD also presents a series of problems for NATO. These problems bear serious implications for Europeans both in the context of defence, deterrence, and hybrid warfare in an “eastern flank” but also when it comes to conducting out-of-area military operations in Europe’s extended southern neighbourhood.
Moscow’s integrated air-defence system and short-range, land-attack missiles already cover the Baltic states and large swathes of Polish territory.
Russia’s inroads into precision-guided, network-centric warfare have led to important improvements in A2/AD in recent years. Moscow’s integrated air-defence system and short-range, land-attack missiles already cover the Baltic states and large swathes of Polish territory. In addition, we have other A2/AD bubbles or potential bubbles popping up alongside NATO’s eastern flank, broadly defined: from Murmansk in the High North; through Kaliningrad in northeastern Europe (where Russian capabilities are perhaps most serious); through Crimea in the Black Sea all the way to Tartus and Latakia in Syria.
Of course, we need to take a hard look at the different systems Russia has deployed in different locations, and the capabilities the West has at or near those locations, before we can determine how serious each of those alleged bubbles or potential bubbles are.
At any rate, and regardless of how mature the problem may be in different sub-theaters, the build-up of Russian A2/AD poses an operational problem for NATO. In the case of a conflict or crisis, it would become riskier for the Alliance to move aircraft, ships, and troops into frontline states in northeastern or southeastern Europe. NATO could conceivably take out Russian A2/AD capabilities. But this would lead to a serious escalation. Some Western European allies might object to that, which means that at the very least A2/AD poses a challenge to intra-Alliance cohesion.
This leads to an important point: A2/AD and so-called “hybrid” tactics can work hand in glove. Notably, given its ability to use A2/AD capabilities to thwart NATO’s plans to reinforce the frontline states in the case of a crisis, Russia could more confidently resort to hybrid or non-linear forms of warfare to expand its influence in Eastern Europe. If Russia manages to successfully convey the message that it enjoys local escalation dominance in northeastern Europe, it can undermine NATO’s credibility in some frontline states – and strengthen stakeholders that are in favour of accommodation.
While great powers like China or Russia may be particularly advanced in the precision-strike game, PGMs and A2/AD capabilities are proliferating on a global scale. And that means they are also finding their way into Europe’s extended southern neighbourhood.
If Russia manages to successfully convey the message that it enjoys local escalation dominance in northeastern Europe, it can undermine NATO’s credibility in some frontline states – and strengthen stakeholders that are in favour of accommodation.
To be sure, the A2/AD challenge in Europe’s southern neighbourhood is still relatively immature, at least in terms of technological sophistication. However, several state and non-state actors in the south are exploiting the advantages offered by precision-strike to progressively build up their own A2/AD capabilities in creative and operationally efficient ways. Some examples would include Iran’s efforts to impose A2/AD in the Strait of Hormuz; Syria’s expansive air defence network; or the fact that Houthi rebels have recently used guided anti-ship missiles in the strait of Bab el-Mandeb.
What does the proliferation of PGMs and A2/AD capabilities in and around Europe mean for NATO strategy? In addressing that important question, it is important keep in mind that the proliferation of PGMs and emergence of A2/AD present different levels of maturity in Europe’s east and south, and that they also pose different sets of challenges for NATO.
The assumption of freedom of (military) access and movement has guided NATO thinking on strategy and capabilities ever since the end of the Cold War. In particular, discussions on capability development have revolved around the assumption that the West’s monopoly on PGMs assured deterrence, and that expeditionary military operations presented little obstacles. Most potential operational environments were seen as rather benign and permissive to the entry and movement of Western forces. But this double proposition is being increasingly challenged by the proliferation of PGMs and A2/AD.
As already argued, Russia’s artful combination of A2/AD and hybrid strategies in Eastern Europe could undermine deterrence in the east. In order to mitigate this problem, NATO countries should think long and hard about how to strike the appropriate balance between those strategies or operational concepts aimed at defeating or rolling back Russia’s A2/AD capabilities (i.e., deterrence by punishment) and those hedging strategies or operational concepts that are less dependent on unhindered access and instead seek to restore deterrence by actually imposing A2/AD on Russia, including through asymmetrical forms of warfare.
As far as Europe’s southern neighbourhood is concerned, the present and future proliferation of PGMs and A2/AD concepts and capabilities could challenge the assumption that (most) NATO countries can safely access operational theaters in Africa and the broader Middle East, and move freely within those theaters. NATO member states should therefore prioritize power projection capabilities and technologies that are “A2/AD proof,” which can give them an edge in an era where most present and future competitors are likely to have PGMs. This will require investing in stealthy air-to-ground capabilities; exploiting the potential of submarines for land-attack missions; special operations forces; electronic warfare; and advanced cyber-weaponry.
All in all, it is imperative that NATO discussions on strategy and capability development get to grips with the new military-strategic paradigm, characterized by the global proliferation of PGMs and the advent of A2/AD. To do that, they must exploit all of the relevant bilateral and multilateral channels to connect with current US thinking on offset and defence innovation.
Luis Simón is Research Professor at the Institute for European Studies (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Director of the Brussels office of the Royal Elcano Institute, and co-founder of the online magazine European Geostrategy. He has a PhD in International Relations from the University of London (Royal Holloway College) and a Masters in European Studies from Sciences-Po (Paris).