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Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, the West has provided billions in military and economic assistance aid to Kyiv. The United States alone has provided more than $8 billion in security support in the last six months. The money and arms are making a difference on the battlefield. The recently delivered U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), for example, have allowed Ukraine to launch counteroffensives in the southeast and repel attacks elsewhere.
Support from other NATO allies has been mixed, however. Germany, for example, has been delayed in delivering similar rocket systems, with the first arriving just in the last few days, and other promised heavy weapons likely delayed until the end of the year. France, which has one of Europe’s most capable militaries, has provided only around $160 million in military support to Ukraine, and committed 0.008 percent of its GDP in military aid. In contrast, Estonia, Latvia, and Poland committed 0.84 percent, 0.69 percent and 0.32 percent, respectively, despite having much smaller economies. Poland alone has delivered at least $1.8 billion worth of weapons.
Russia’s advance on Ukraine is now turning into a long war of attrition in which each side tries to wear the other down. Assisting Ukraine for this type of war will require a different approach: the country will require many more heavy weapons, most notably air defense systems, delivered faster and from more European allies. And NATO members in eastern Europe that have drawn down their own weapons stocks will need continuous resupplies.
As allies send varying types and levels of security assistance to Ukraine and deplete their own warehouses, the coordination and distribution of supplies have become a huge logistical operation. The U.S. military leads the effort, receiving supplies from more than 50 countries and distributing them to Ukraine. That coordination is led by the United States European Command out of Stuttgart, Germany. In the short term, the U.S.-led effort is working effectively despite intermittent delays. In the long term, however, NATO, as the institution established explicitly for the purpose of collective security cooperation and coordination among its members in the Euro-Atlantic area, should take up the role.
NATO is tasked with carrying out the common will of its member states, and with 30 (and counting) members, reaching consensus quickly is no easy task. Individual member states, however, can act far faster outside the boundaries of NATO decision-making. This is one reason why the U.S.-led coordination effort has been efficient in the short term: without the need to get agreement from all the allies, weapons deliveries can be more responsive to the immediate needs on the battlefield. NATO allies have also been careful to walk a fine line between supporting Ukraine and not appearing to come into direct confrontation with Russia. It’s one thing for a member state to provide weapons and another for the alliance to do so, as the thinking goes. But with every member providing some form of assistance to Ukraine (military, humanitarian, or financial), the reality is that the alliance is already involved in the war even without “boots on the ground.” Coordinating this type of support between allies is exactly what NATO is designed to do.
The alliance has the operational capacity and the political mandate to do much more to support Ukraine now and in the longer term. At their Madrid summit in June, NATO allies approved a new strategic concept, a document that serves as a mission statement for the alliance and recommits it to three core tasks: deterrence and defense, crisis prevention and management, and cooperative security. It also rightfully identified Russia as the “most significant and direct threat to the allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.” This new strategic vision gives NATO a broad political mandate to do much more than it is currently doing to support Ukraine and deter Russia. Namely, in the immediate term, NATO should be taking the lead role in training Ukrainian troops; prioritizing security of the Black Sea, which Russia aims to fully control and militarize; and bolstering cyber-cooperation with Ukraine. In the longer term, NATO, not the United States or other individual member states, should coordinate weapons deliveries to Ukraine and the distribution of resupplies to allies across the alliance. If the alliance doesn’t step up, it will signal a lack of long-term commitment to Ukraine, emboldening Russia to continue its brutal assault.
The efficient and rapid training of Ukraine’s military is key to reducing the time lag between the weapons systems committed and the time it takes to put them in action, especially as the equipment becomes more sophisticated. NATO should take the lead coordinating existing efforts and identify future needs. The United Kingdom, for example, has committed to training 10,000 Ukrainian troops over the next few months. Following Russia’s 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea, the United States boosted its training and exercises with Ukrainian armed forces in Yavoriv, Ukraine. After Russia’s invasion in February, U.S. forces relocated and then resumed training in Grafenwoehr, Germany, home of the largest U.S. military installation for training in Europe, as part of a joint multinational group. Over time, consolidating these disparate training sites and initiatives will be crucial for ensuring that Ukraine’s fighters are well prepared to operate everything from tanks to multiple launch rocket systems and fighter jets.
Poland would be the most logical place for a NATO training hub. This year, the United States committed to establishing a permanent presence for the U.S. Army in Poland. It will serve as a new command post for U.S. land forces defending the alliance’s eastern flank. Such a base could be expanded to include a NATO-coordinated training hub for Ukrainian soldiers, ensuring the quick movement of troops along Ukraine’s western border. Training centers could also be established in Romania, where the United States keeps a rotational brigade. Most important, the training should prioritize teaching Ukrainians how to use state-of-the-art equipment (including drones, fighter jets, and unmanned naval capabilities) that the Ukrainian military has not yet mastered so that it can more quickly be put to use on the battlefield.
As the war evolves, Western allies may be more willing to provide weapons that were off the table just a few months ago. And the Ukrainians should be ready. The United States, for example, is reportedly considering supplying fighter jets to Ukraine, a move it has not yet been willing to take, and Ukrainian pilots should already be receiving training. Waiting for the official decision risks an unnecessary delay. A NATO-coordinated hub would ensure that Ukrainian pilots receive the necessary training to fly U.S. fighter jets such as F/A-18 Hornets and F-16 Fighting Falcons. Investing in training on such systems as well as others before they are delivered would significantly reduce the time it takes to get these planes flying in Ukrainian airspace. Such training would need to take place without widespread public knowledge to avoid getting ahead of political decisions.
Securing the Black Sea is critical to Ukraine’s military operations and longer-term economic resilience. It is also a focal point of several of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic aspirations: Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s agricultural exports via the Black Sea has already sparked a global food crisis, allowing Moscow to hold Ukrainian grain hostage. On July 22, Russia signed a deal brokered by the UN and Turkey to allow Ukraine to export millions of tons of grain. Hours later, Russian missiles hit Ukraine’s key port of Odesa before one ship carrying grain was finally allowed to sail. Russia’s consistent violations of international law over the years does not lend much confidence to the idea that the UN-brokered deal will hold. With global food supplies at risk, NATO should be prepared to provide naval escorts to export vessels regardless of Russian adherence to the agreement. The alliance’s core tasks commit it to ensuring human security. Certainly, food security is part of that mission.
With three NATO members—Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey—having direct access to the Black Sea and Ukraine’s most important trade routes going through it as well, the alliance should consider the sea a strategic priority. NATO can enhance its presence in the Black Sea by working with Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey to establish a year-round presence there, increasing the number of NATO forces stationed on a rotational or permanent basis within these countries. At the Madrid summit, the allies established multinational battle groups in two Black Sea states, Bulgaria and Romania, as part of an effort to extend the alliance’s forward presence to the Black Sea. Romania is also home to Europe’s only active Aegis Ashore site, a powerful missile defense system, under NATO control.
NATO should be taking the lead role in training Ukrainian troops.
Since February, the United States has also reinforced its presence in Romania with additional troops and F-16s. As the Black Sea region continues to be a focal point for Russia’s war, the alliance will need to invest more resources in integrating air and missile defenses, deploying anti-drone capabilities and increasing its aircraft fleet with F-16s. Increased surveillance and reconnaissance flights by NATO forces could also undermine Russia’s control of the sea by monitoring and exposing movements of Russia’s Black Sea fleet as well as other vessels and equipment.
NATO should also work to strengthen its cooperation with non-NATO member states that are part of the Black Sea regional security environment, most notably, Moldova and Georgia. Both countries are eager to have closer partnerships with NATO. In Georgia, for example, the alliance could expand the function of the NATO-Georgia Joint Training and Evaluation Center, which provides joint field and virtual training for active NATO military personnel and Georgian soldiers, to include naval operations.
NATO also plays an important role in supporting and bolstering Ukraine’s cyberdefense and offense capabilities. Cyberattacks are part of Russia’s full-spectrum war against Ukraine: in the first three months of the invasion, Russia conducted almost 40 destructive cyberattacks against Ukraine, according to Microsoft. Last year, prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine sought to increase its collaboration with NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence (CCDCOE), only to be rejected by the alliance when the steering committee could not reach unanimous consent.
The committee finally approved Ukraine as a contributing participant member in March, and an agreement that will formalize the country’s membership is in the works. For the time being, Ukraine is still considered as a candidate country. Ukraine’s participation as a contributing participant of the CCDCOE should be expedited so that it can officially join the ranks of other non-NATO members, such as Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland. This will allow Ukraine to integrate its cyberdefense system with that of the alliance as it cooperates and exchanges information with other members of that unit through education, and research and development.
NATO members can also support Ukraine’s already successful efforts to recruit an “IT Army” of international hackers to both defend Ukraine and attack Russian state and private entities that are fueling the war, most notably those under Western sanctions. So far, the cyber-army is made up of mostly Ukrainian volunteers, but NATO could help Ukraine institutionalize a robust cyberforce by providing hardware, regular training for Ukrainian cyber-specialists, and providing technical assistance to Ukraine’s government agencies to improve cyberdefense capabilities.
Over the last several months, the United States has taken on the burden of supplying Ukraine with weapons and coordinating their distribution. But the U.S. defense industry is not prepared to do so for the long term, as that would require a significant pivot toward mass production of specific weapons, some of which the U.S. military has not purchased in decades, such as Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. More closely integrating U.S. and European industrial defense production by streamlining defense procurement practices, for example, may allow the defense industry to better anticipate the needs of Ukraine specifically and Europe at large, but doing so would take years. In the meantime, NATO, working with member states, can provide the strategic guidance to defense companies across the alliance to help identify gaps.
Over the long term, the alliance has a mandate to take up its leadership role as the most important collective defense alliance responding to the Russian threat. The United States still sees China as the greatest long-term challenge, which means that more of the burden for securing Europe will eventually fall to the 29 European countries that are members of NATO (soon to be 31 with Sweden and Finland). The current U.S. administration is committed to supporting Ukraine and investing in broader European security. But the window for changing the trajectory of the war is narrowing. The sooner NATO takes up its political mandate to support Ukraine, the greater the chance for ensuring its future as the most effective and powerful security alliance.
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