As alliance member states work to make a difference in this war, they also seek to learn its lessons in equipping themselves for future conflicts. Much that will matter in this new kind of war is old, including the can-do industrial responsiveness of World War II. Much that matters is being re-learned, including the unending need for bureaucratic responsiveness in military procurement.
The lessons from four months of fighting provide ample guidance. Little hides for long: the Ukrainians are readily finding and killing anything that bunches up and lingers on the battlefield. Munitions matter: only massively supplied artillery is allowing the Russians any progress in Eastern Ukraine. Precision matters more: large-scale applications of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles have shown how armored vehicles and rotorcraft have become more vulnerable than in past wars.
Range matters too: drones and the newly arrived HIMARS precision rockets are pushing back those Russian guns, and killing the gunners and their munitions dumps. Meanwhile, Russia is rapidly expending its weapons stocks, and Ukraine is rapidly expending those of NATO, some of whose member states now need to replenish their own supplies.
Analysts should interpret these lessons judiciously, as revealing yet another stage of a military-technical evolution already underway for decades, with important but measured changes ahead for armor and aviation. To survive all that firepower, troops may still want the protection and mobility of armored vehicles. The tank’s death has been exaggerated, as the Ukrainians are clamoring to the West for more. To contain breakthroughs and amass firepower, troops may still want the speed and reach of rotorcraft. Helicopters are still needed over the steppes, so the Americans are sending them. Even so, the numbers of armored vehicles and aircraft lost have been impressive, so adaptations are now necessary.
This dichotomy establishes a range of problems, but with a common resolution. If current armor and aircraft are at risk, military forces can devise new operating concepts, specifying and buying new systems to match. Alternatively, military forces can continue to train and equip for combined arms warfare, upgrading old systems with new subsystems to preserve their viability. However, to make a difference in a war already underway, or in the next war, once that is underway, either approach requires industrial responsiveness.
Experience dating to at least World War I indicates that designing and building wholly new tanks, aircraft, or (worse) ships takes years. For the US over the past half-century, performance has gradually worsened. Today, the Pentagon’s procurement systems “seem to struggle with new-start capabilities,” though they move more smoothly in peacetime with “block upgrades and basic platform adaptations.” The primary problems have been a lengthening in pre-contract award decision times and post-award testing of prototypes. In wartime, the Pentagon’s people have sometimes lacked the “passionate” focus needed to respond to the emergent needs of the battlefield. The consequence of their years-long delay in buying off-the-shelf Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles was thousands of casualties.
Industrial responsiveness thus requires improved procurement. In the US, the Defense Department has all the legal and regulatory structures necessary. For quickly deciding what it wants, it has its urgent and emergent requirements processes. For quickly buying what it wants, it has the so-called Middle Tier and “Other” acquisition authorities. With the MRAP, the industry delivered when asked. In Ukraine, the industry is eager to be asked again. What Defense may still lack is a focus in its workforce for utilizing these authorities to make the big requests for bold action.
Even then, the Pentagon would need budgetary reform from Congress. Buying the first thousand MRAPs required moving half a billion dollars inside the US Marine Corps, but outside the annual funding cycle. That required the attention of the service chief. Further progress eventually required the involvement of the Secretary of Defense. Such “positive arbitrariness” has worked at times and across borders, but builds no institutional capacity for future success.
Battle-grade flexibility calls for bureau budgeting, allocating funds broadly to management areas, so that risk-taking middle managers can employ administrative discretion as conditions change. The American approach, narrow and restrictive allocation through program budgeting, “does not work anywhere in the world it has been tried.” Even so, the flow of funding through the Pentagon’s planning, programming, budgeting, and execution (PPBE) processes has not changed substantially in nearly 60 years. Change is officially under consideration, through the ongoing work of the Congressionally-mandated PPBE commission.
NATO can easily win the race for better weapons faster, if government officials act with decision. Russia’s weapons industry is headed for an “all-out crisis,” if it cannot steal enough sanctioned technology from abroad. Forget its military export markets: its global reputation will not recover for a very long time. The alliance and its partners have defense industries that will continue to dominate markets around the world. Unleash their potential, and they will supply anything needed to win this and future wars.
James Hasik is a Non-resident Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He is a senior research fellow at the School of Business at George Mason University.
As the war in Ukraine – now in its fifth month – becomes a grinding battle of attrition, a new geostrategic realignment along NATO’s Eastern Flank is in full view: a fault line has emerged, running north-south, from Scandinavia and the Baltics down through Poland and into Romania and Bulgaria.
In this reconfigured Europe, Poland is the hub of NATO’s effort to assist Ukraine, serving as the principal transit route for equipment and ammunition shipments to Ukraine, and providing a key route for Ukrainian grain exports to its Baltic ports, like Gdansk.
Poland is also the principal entry point for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war (estimates put the number of Ukrainians that have entered Poland at close to 3.5 million).?And in terms of sheer numbers, it is the largest European provider of equipment and ammunition to the Ukrainian military. Its shipment of at least 240 upgraded T-72 tanks and an additional 50 Krab 155mm self-propelled howitzers on top of the 18 units already provided are just the most prominent examples of the scope of Warsaw’s military assistance to its neighbor.?
But Poland’s increased prominence in NATO rests on more than its contribution to Ukraine’s war effort. It has now become the key military power on NATO’s Eastern Flank, a frontline state akin to West Germany during the Cold War.?The Polish military is being restructured and expanded into Europe’s largest land force, with a target of 400,000 troops from the current 150,000.?The country has also committed to buying large volumes of American weapons, including 32 of the F-35 fifth generation combat aircraft and 250 of the most advanced version of the M1A2 SEPv3 Abrams main battle tanks. It is also finalizing a deal to buy 500 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers.?In short, Polish rearmament dwarfs the potential of other allies along the flank.
Washington recognizes Poland’s new role as the pivot along the Eastern Flank. Last week at the NATO Madrid summit, President Biden announced that the US will establish a permanent headquarters for the US Army’s V Corps in Poland and significantly increase the number of US troops and equipment deployed there, today numbering 10,500.?The decision to move the V Corps headquarters is likely a prelude to establishing permanent US installations and eventually transitioning from rotational to permanent US deployments. Last but not least, as military mobility requirements have shifted to the north-south axis, Poland’s central position in the Baltic-to-Black Sea intermarium makes the country a central distribution hub for NATO’s entire Eastern Flank.
Historical parallels are often overused or oversimplified, but as a new iron curtain spun by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine descends across Europe, Poland is the new frontier state, critical both to continued Western military, economic, and humanitarian support to Ukraine as well as the lynchpin of the alliance’s defensive perimeter.
A midsize country in the heart of Central Europe, Poland has been thrust into the limelight by the Continent’s rapidly changing balance of power.?When it comes to sheer military power, it is punching far above its weight, positioning itself as the pivotal ally of the United States in continental Europe.?
Chels Michta is a Non-resident Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Chels is a former CEPA Title VIII Fellow and is currently a military intelligence officer serving in the US Army.
The entry of two wealthy and well-defended Nordic states mark a genuinely transformational moment for the alliance in the High North. The decision, which still has to be confirmed by the other 30 member state parliaments, is only the latest self-harming consequence of Vladimir Putin’s largest invasion of Ukraine on February 24, coming just days after the European Union (EU) gave the country candidate status, and NATO pledged more arms.
The alliance’s expansion to include two large Baltic Sea powers changes the military map.
It will give NATO operational depth and logistic routes that it previously lacked. When Sweden and Finland were non-aligned, the main route for NATO reinforcements heading to Finnmark, the northernmost part of Norway, had to follow the single coastal road, the E6, along the Norwegian shoreland. Any Russian stand-off weaponry, or special forces, could, with limited effort, strike the E6 route and cut off Northern Norway, leaving it open to a rapid Russian advance.
This lack of operational depth and NATO’s reliance on a single route to reinforce the High North has long offered an opportunity for a Russian fait accompli attack early in any conflict with NATO.
A sustained fight to defend an area needs a land-based supply route to maintain the flow of equipment, logistics, and reinforcements, as these represent thousands of tons to be hauled into the operational area. Airborne or air transported troops can only sustain a fight over a limited time. The recent battle for Hostomel Airport outside of Kyiv, where Russian airborne troops were beaten by Ukrainian ad hoc formations, shows the short duration airborne forces can sustain a fight without land-based reinforcements and a logistic tail.
The fastest way to move ground units from Germany, Denmark, and the UK to Northern Norway is through Sweden, which has several roadways leading to the far North. Meanwhile, coastal Norway has fjords, deep-cut valleys, mountainous terrain, and numerous bridges that could be destroyed and hinder NATO movement; Sweden offers a more direct route.
A Russian military planner, creating a case for assault plans on Northern Norway, previously only had to focus on the western edge defending against NATO forces arriving along the Norwegian coast. The southern flank towards Sweden and Finland was “protected” by Swedish-Finnish neutrality. So the Cold War expectation, maintained until now, was that any USSR/Russian attack on Northern Norway would strike from east to west.
All that has changed. NATO’s defense of the High North will now benefit from the alliance’s ability to rapidly pre-position air assets on Swedish and Finnish airfields if a conflict is on the horizon. The Swedish towns of Kiruna and Gällivare have civilian airports, and any airport can also be used for military purposes. There are also several airfields in Finland; Enontekiö airfield is almost on the Norwegian Finnmark border. These added airfields and assets give a stronger ability to establish air superiority in the Far North and means less reliance on a few Norwegian airports that could be disabled in the initial stages of the war.
The development of modern anti-ship missiles, with a range of hundreds of kilometers, in combination with an enhanced ability to base and use operational space in the North, also gives NATO a broad ability to prevent the Russian Northern Fleet from reaching the Atlantic Ocean to intercept the movement of US and Canadian formations to Europe.
Swedish-Finnish entry means the whole Scandinavian peninsula enjoys membership and strengthens NATO’s defense of the High North by providing logistic pathways, operational space and depth, and the ability to base air assets which would combine strengthen the deterrence posture against Russian aggression. Deterrence means a higher threshold for conflict, both for Sweden and Finland but also for NATO as a whole. It is therefore also an unquestionable defeat for Vladimir Putin.
Jan Kallberg is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He is a former Research Scientist with the Cyber Operations Research Element (CORE) with the Army Cyber Institute at West Point. His works have appeared in Joint Forces Quarterly, Strategic Studies Quarterly, IEEE Security & Privacy, and IEEE Access. Follow him at cyberdefense.com and @Cyberdefensecom.
NATO Madrid’s Summit agenda includes Joint Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), a capability in the process of rapid technological evolution that can greatly sharpen the performance of alliance forces.
ISR dates back as far as the oldest warrior cultures, but in the 21st century many approaches — like drones — can be operated by military personnel far from the frontlines, and offer an extraordinary ability to view and intervene on the battlefield. Copious numbers of drone videos from Ukraine have demonstrated how, for example, modern ISR works in devastating tandem with artillery.
The alliance must now ensure that its ISR fully digests the most useful lessons of the war in Ukraine and that it has the equipment and personnel to match this.
Joint ISR is one of a long list of capabilities designed to strengthen NATO’s long-term deterrence and defense. “At the Summit, NATO Leaders will significantly strengthen the Alliance’s posture for the long term, with more presence, capabilities, and readiness. Ensuring NATO remains fit for the future will require adequate resources and continued investment in defense.”
NATO describes Joint ISR as bringing together “data and information gathered through projects such as NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system or NATO Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS) surveillance aircraft, as well as a wide variety of national JISR assets from the space, air, land and maritime domains.
“Both surveillance and reconnaissance include visual observation (from soldiers on the ground) and electronic observation (for example from satellites, unmanned aircraft systems, ground sensors, and maritime vessels), which are then analyzed, turning information into intelligence.”
This encompasses a lot, but in short, JISR multiplies the options for commanders and decision-makers. At a time of expanding capabilities and opportunities, it is a good time to be discussing how much JISR capability should be NATO-owned and NATO-operated, and how much should be provided by member states.
For example, the AGS with its flight of five RQ-4D Phoenix remotely piloted aircraft associated ground installations for processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) is a NATO capability. AGS reached initial operational capability at its main base in Italy in February 2021 and flew extensively in the Black Sea Region prior to Russia’s largest invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. Large numbers of flights have continued in NATO member airspace, including a surge week from 11-18 May. The force buildup and Russia’s war in Ukraine will inform the Madrid Summit’s discussion of JISR and provide some solid lessons learned.
Unmanned systems should not be limited to air vehicles only. AGS performance in the Black Sea region should inform NATO discussions of remote maritime systems, on both surface and subsurface platforms.
The Ukraine war has also spotlighted the value of commercial space-based imagery. The timing of the Madrid Summit offers a great opportunity to begin mapping the way ahead for this capability. NATO has explored this, but allies with pre-existing commercial contracts can also deliver what is needed through national contributions. This is a growth area; in truth, NATO leadership has little option except to identify paths for acquiring this capability.
For AGS, commercial imagery, data from NATO AWACS, and more, the most important future capability is to apply Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML.) This can be a game changer for the critical PED portion of the ISR process, reducing voluminous data to a manageable level for the human in the loop. Automated processes can speed the sensor-to-shooter link and provide a distinct advantage in combat. In order to optimize interoperability — data standards, product standards, command and control systems — AI/ML in Joint ISR needs to find the right balance between NATO and national capabilities.
Another key segment of the Joint ISR system which must have the right balance, is in intelligence staff.
Alliance leadership at the Madrid Summit will discuss increased forces in Europe, but must also consider the training and manning not only of the NATO JISR system but all of the intelligence billets at regional headquarters and other structures providing increased force posture. This is another area to find the balance between investing in NATO and in national contributions.
Intelligence sharing from NATO to non-ally partners with whom NATO operates (like Ukraine) also needs attention. Not just on policy, but also for technical solutions to share intelligence between NATO partners.
The Madrid Summit is occurring at exactly the right time to consider the future of NATO Joint ISR, whose critical importance can be graphically illustrated to alliance leaders. Looking ahead, Joint ISR lessons from the war in Ukraine and any Joint ISR decisions from Madrid can be exercised and tested in Unified Vision 2023.
Steven Horrell is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He is a former US Navy Intelligence Officer, retiring as a Captain in 2021