Say Latvia were invaded. Its allies would, naturally, want to respond immediately. First out would most likely be NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, or VJTF, a 5,000-troop rapid-reaction group. Together with NATO air power, the VJTF would quickly deploy to assist the Latvians and the 1,100-troop-strong Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroup stationed in the country. After that, however, Latvia’s allies would struggle to quickly dispatch a large follow-up force. Logistics, unavailable troops and equipment, decision-making: all of these factors would slow the allies down.

None of these problems will be solved by the signing of the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation. PESCO’s goal is to develop European defense capabilities for EU military operations through a variety of longer-term programs. Although Europhiles may be rejoicing over the agreement, Europe has a much more pressing need: it has to get its forces ready to fight. According to a recent study published by the RAND Corporation, the British Army would need up to three months to assemble a brigade that could deploy to the Baltics. France would do better, at around one month, but many of its troops are busy with domestic counterterrorism duties. Germany, too, could put together a brigade within a month, but that brigade would need to borrow its equipment from other units.

“You need to have personnel and equipment available, and we don’t,” Vincenzo Camporini, Italy's former chief of defense, told me this month. “And you need fast decision-making so that troops can move within 24 hours. We don’t have that, either. If we don’t correct this situation, we won’t be able to respond to attacks.” Mihnea Motoc, who was Romania’s defense minister until earlier this year and now serves as deputy director of the European Political Strategy Center, the European Commission’s in-house think tank, similarly noted that “readiness can be a credible deterrent, but it depends on the kind of military mobility we can count on.” And that is a reason to worry.

Among Europe’s long-neglected armed forces, mobility is lagging. According to the European Defense Agency’s most recent figures, the total number of deployable land forces among EU member states dropped by 13 percent between 2013 and 2014, a result of defense cuts and falling readiness. Meanwhile, the number of sustainable land forces—forces that can be quickly deployed to a conflict zone and remain there—dropped by a whopping 28 percent for the same reason. It is expensive to keep forces ready.

Russian President Vladimir Putin watching military exercises at a training ground in Leningrad Oblast, Russia, September 2017.
Sputnik / Mikhail Klimentyev / Kremlin via REUTERS

As a result, in 2014, 27 European countries had a total of 417,000 deployable land forces and 79,000 sustainable land forces. That’s the lowest count since 2006. Figures may have risen since 2014, but not by much. Readiness can’t be achieved in a rush. Richard Barrons, who until last year was chief of the United Kingdom’s Joint Forces Command, estimates that it would take six to 12 months to bring a complete army to an acceptable readiness level, even if a smaller group of troops could deploy within 24 hours and a modest second wave could do so within seven days. 

Here’s the challenge: there is no strict definition of readiness. Instead, readiness is a competition, with a country or alliance being measured against its competitor’s level of readiness. In practice, that means that NATO has to match Russia. And in the past several years, Russia has put enormous effort into increasing the readiness of its forces. According to a 2016 report by FOI, the Swedish defense research agency, “the fighting power of Russia’s Armed Forces has continued to increase…due to additional units and weapons systems, increased readiness and—primarily where the Ground Forces are concerned—a higher proportion of combat-ready units.” Readiness also means having troops positioned close to where they would most likely be needed. For NATO, the dilemma is that by permanently positioning troops in, say, Latvia, it would risk further escalating tensions with Russia.

NATO could speed up quite a bit at almost no cost.

The task may sound daunting, but Europe’s lack of readiness is an acute problem. Not only are there too few quickly deployable troops, but equipment is an issue as well. In Germany, for example, only 95 of the Bundeswehr’s 224 tanks are currently usable, according to the country’s defense ministry. The others are out for upgrades and repairs—but the necessary parts are not available. And earlier this year, the recently retired executive commander of the Dutch army revealed that half of the army’s vehicles don’t work.

If one of the Baltic states or another member state were invaded, NATO would quickly dispatch its spearhead force, the VJTF. But the VJTF and NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battlegroups stationed in the Baltic states can only fend off an adversary temporarily—for several days, as they’re only supposed to function as a tripwire—and, in any case, they lack capabilities to protect themselves, such as air defense.

NATO planners estimate that it would take the second wave 60 days to reach the Baltic states, but a recent RAND study found that Russian forces would only need 60 hours to reach the Baltic capitals. In other words, getting NATO support to VJTF some 57 days after the initial invasion would hardly help. “NATO’s credibility is based on the capacity to reinforce the four eFP battalions quickly if the Russians were to test us,” Alexander Vershbow, until last year NATO’s deputy secretary-general, told me this month. “That requires that allies bring their forces up to a sufficient state of readiness so that the VJTF and follow-on forces can move on three to four days’ notice and arrive, fully equipped and trained, at the eastern flank in a matter of days or one to two weeks—not months.”

NATO readiness is, of course, not only about defending the Baltic states—it’s about having troops available to protect all the group’s members, which is a complicated task because a military attack on a NATO member state could come in the shape of several small incursions. “Russia could, for example, breach [NATO’s] Article 5 with small and agile forces,” Barrons pointed out. “That makes NATO readiness very difficult. There’s no point reconstructing Cold War deterrence because today’s conflict is likely less about a general assault on territory than responding to effective but limited incursions and strikes on capitals and critical infrastructure. But the point is that we have too few troops ready to go on short notice.”

Of course, all is not lost if large NATO forces don’t arrive within days. Using air power, NATO could hold off an attacker until its second wave arrives. Still, the forces must arrive faster, because a conflict can’t be won with air power alone. 

An airdrop during a NATO exercise outside Zaragoza, Spain, November 2015.
Paul Hanna / REUTERS

The good news is that NATO could speed up quite a bit at almost no cost. In November, the organization announced that it would form a new command in charge of logistics. Meanwhile, NATO officials are hastily collecting details on infrastructure, including railroads, tunnels, and bridgeheads, from every member state, so that commanders will at least know what’s available to their forces. NATO is also trying to insert its requirements into infrastructure projects already planned by the European Union. (Right now, not knowing whether a tunnel can fit a tank convoy rather complicates planning.)

In November, meanwhile, the EU announced that it plans to minimize the red tape that now holds allied troops back for days, even weeks, to cross into another allied country. Motoc recalls how, last year, he managed to slash the time it took NATO troops to cross the Romanian border. “Acting within the boundaries of my ministerial authority,” he told me, “I brought down the time required for clearing the land border entry of allied troops from five to ten days to 24 to 48 hours .” But as he diplomatically explains, “more is required, and it will take a lot of collective will to overcome enduring sensitivities.” From 10 days to 24 hours: that’s a huge difference for troops crossing Europe. “In some cases, good political will and updating entry requirements is all it takes,” Motoc added. Many countries, however, are wary of providing easy entry to visiting troops, albeit friendly ones. Still, if they want allies to help them, they have to be less protective of their border bureaucracy.

Armed forces could also achieve higher speed through large exercises. Although NATO does conduct exercises, they are far smaller than Russia’s flagship Zapad exercise—and occur less frequently than other Russian exercises. Between 2015 and the beginning of this year, Russia conducted 11 exercises involving at least 10,000 troops, whereas NATO conducted six, according to research by the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Russia conducted 95 exercises involving between 1,500 and 5,000 troops; NATO conducted 24. The alliance’s current exercises are also smaller than its Cold War Reforger exercise, which involved around 100,000 troops. Although NATO may not need a new Reforger, regular exercises half that size would quickly put the alliance in good shape. And military practice doesn’t just make perfect: it also signals capabilities. By conducting large exercises, NATO and its allies would show adversaries just how unwise it would be to attack. 

The cheapest potential accelerator, however, is in NATO’s own bureaucracy. After the Cold War, the alliance’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) lost much of his authority to the North Atlantic Council (NAC), a notoriously slow body consisting of the member states’ NATO ambassadors. If SACEUR regained his power to mobilize forces without having to wait for the NAC to authorize the move, the alliance would save crucial time. To make a decision, the NAC’s ambassadors have to first await instructions from their governments.

Few believe that Russia is about to invade a NATO country. But it is still wise to keep armed forces as a deterrent. For that to be effective, armed forces have to be credible, which means they must be ready. As Camporini put it to me, “an alliance that’s not ready will lose its discipline.” Indeed, it will lose its very purpose. It’s a good thing, then, that European countries have some real opportunities when it comes to quickly improving their readiness. They just need to make sure not to be distracted by longer-term dreams about PESCO.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ELISABETH BRAW is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and Nonresident Associate Fellow at the European Leadership Network.
  • More By Elisabeth Braw