The NATO Response Force – A 2006 Deliverable?
At the end of 2002 the heads of state and government of NATO ushered in a period of intensified transformation. A centrepiece of this effort was the so-called NATO Response Force (NRF). The NRF is scheduled to reach full operational capability by October 2006. Elements of the NRF have already been used since late 2004. If the NRF was to become fully operational on target, it would become one of the key deliverables for NATO in 2006. While its use in 2004 and 2005 has helped to make the case for NATO’s relevance in the new security environment, it has also masked obstacles lurking under the surface which might yet undermine the overall transformational purpose of the NRF.
The NRF Rationale
The fully operational NRF is an about 20.000 strong permanently available, multinational and joint force at extremely high readiness. It is supposed to be deployable in 5 days and sustainable for 30 days. Its missions are determined by the North Atlantic Council (NAC) on a case by case basis and can comprise Article 5 and non-Article 5 – crisis management – tasks without any geographical limits. Thus, the NRF can be deployed as a stand alone force, an initial entry force facilitating the deployment of larger follow-on contingents, or serve as instrument to support diplomacy if resolve needs to be demonstrated. As should be clear from this wide spectrum, the NRF has to be able to engage in high intensity combat.
The NRF idea was first floated by US Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld in September 2002 and the November NATO summit of the same year adopted the initiative. The concept was approved by Alliance Ministers of Defence in June 2003. An initial operational capability was announced in October 2004. What the widely reported goal of full operational capability by October 2006 obscures is that the overall agenda of the NRF is long term. If the 2006 target is met, this will merely be the beginning of the second phase in which the NRF would consist of almost exclusively European troops supported by American enablers such as strategic lift, command and control, communications or satellite surveillance. This phase is expected to last until about 2012 after which European and/or NATO-owned enablers would be integrated as they become available.
This long-term vision is an expression of the key objectives of the NRF. The first objective is to enhance interoperability among the multinational units of the NRF. This must not be confused with interoperability among European and US units, which is not a key concern, at least not from the US point of view. For the first NRF cycle, the US has merely provided about 300 troops which put the biggest military power on the globe in the neighbourhood of the contributions of Greece and Belgium.
Second, and more important, the NRF is supposed to give NATO high combat readiness forces that can be used against contemporary threats. It is a clear move away from territorial warfare against clearly identifiable enemies towards expeditionary and asymmetric warfare on a global scale. Since NATO had to repeatedly reinvent itself after the end of the Cold War, the NRF both gives NATO purpose and direction while at the same time providing a focused driver for the improvement of (European) capabilities.
Third, and equally important, the NRF is about transformation of capabilities. The force is intended to be a catalyst for the development of advanced network-centric capabilities among NATO member countries. The key instruments to achieve this within the NRF are rotation and certification. Directly before the multinational units are being deployed or put on standby for six months, they undergo a rigorous 6 months joint training period. They will be evaluated by Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). SHAPE certifies whether the units brought together by the member states are combat ready. The training and deployment phase, usually followed by a six months refitting phase, make up a full NRF cycle for the units involved. The trick is that certification requirements will become more demanding with each cycle. Hence, as NATO member governments are forced to rotate units through the NRF, transformation supposedly spreads through the Alliance’s forces as units struggle to meet certification requirements.
The Challenge of Doing and Transforming
NATO has been eager to put the NRF to use as a quote from Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer makes clear: “When circumstances demand that we use the NRF…we should not hesitate…to do so. If you look at the mandate of the NRF, it is quite a far reaching mandate.” In fact, the mandate is pretty much what the NAC decides it to be.
It is thus not surprising that the NRF has been engaged several times already. In the summer of 2004 elements helped secure the Athens Olympic Games, and in September 2004 provided additional support for the Afghan presidential elections. A year later, air elements of the NRF were lifting relief goods to the US in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. When, in October 2005, disaster struck in Pakistan, up to 1.000 NRF troops were on crisis response duty in the country after the earthquake.
Critics might argue that all these deployments concern soft security issues and that it is a waste to use a highly trained force such as the NRF to deliver aid to the US or Pakistan. What these critics overlook is that the missions offer both a testing ground and an opportunity to demonstrate NATO’s relevance. For example, the use of the NRF’s Deployable Joint Task Force Headquarters for the Pakistan mission will yield important lessons. At the same time, as has been pointed out in the past, the practical notion of the NRF in action as such is a good thing for the Alliance. It demonstrates that NATO can make important contributions beyond classical ‘hard’ security tasks and moves the debate from political divisions about a global and encompassing role of the Alliance to the practicalities of making decisions in real time.
The danger is that the NRF’s transformational aspirations and importance is neglected. Surprisingly, there is no plan – beyond the basic principles of rotation and escalating certification mentioned above – of how to ensure that the impact of transformation is maximized and in this context, the operational reality is not helping. The NRF is based on a spiral model of capabilities development. This means that new capabilities are included in the requirements and certifications process as they become available. Hence, the certification practice will not be able to generate guidance and drive the transformation process as only what is available will enter the process.
Certification might end up following the development of new capabilities instead of leading it. If, then, operational necessities trump the overall transformational agenda, the low intensity missions the NRF has been engaged in are likely to limit the benefits of rotation and certification further, as these missions are not demanding enough to make the process work overall. The NRF is an important vehicle for improved performance and a major tool as NATO engages the contemporary security environment. To master the challenge of ‘doing’ and transforming at the same time, transformation needs to receive a stronger impetus than provided by the current operational experience. If this can be ensured, the NRF will indeed be a major deliverable; in 2006 and beyond.