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You And Whose Army?
NATO would do well to stay out of Ukraine.
I will do such things –
What they are yet I know not, but they shall be
The terrors of the Earth! - Shakespeare, King Lear.
Ignorant politicians and muddled pundits have been making noises recently, threatening, or even fantasising about, some kind of formal NATO intervention in Ukraine. In general, they have no idea what they are talking about, and what the practical implications of intervention would be. Here are a few examples of why it’s a stupid idea.
Back in January 1990, I was in NATO HQ in Brussels for a routine meeting of some kind. It was one of those cold, wet days that Belgium specialises in, but there was more than that behind the chilly, mausoleum-like atmosphere of the deserted corridors. For the last few months, the ground had been moving under NATO’s feet continuously, and, not long before Christmas, Rumania, the last hold-out of the Warsaw Pact, had gone up in flames. Nobody had the remotest idea what was going to happen next week, let alone next month, and NATO was beginning to resemble a demonstrator with a placard for a cause that was already out of date. National capitals were struggling to simply keep up with what was going on. I had asked a colleague just back from Washington what the hawks in the Bush Administration were saying. “They’re in a state of shock” was the reply.
The fact that NATO still exists nearly thirty-five years later, and that it now has twice as many members as it did then, has encouraged some people who haven’t been paying attention to believe that NATO is still the same powerful military organisation it was in 1989, and therefore it’s only necessary to threaten formal involvement in Ukraine, and the Russians will creep away. They could not be more dangerously wrong.
The fact that NATO survived at all after 1989 was a surprise to some. But as I’ve pointed out, the Alliance did actually serve a number of useful purposes for European states, and in any case, the world was changing so rapidly that it was not only impossible to agree on what to replace it with, but it was impossible to know what kind of tasks any future organisation would have to carry out anyway. Organisations don’t just suddenly close down, and in any case NATO actually had quite a lot still to do. That day in January 1990, NATO was still deeply involved in the Arms Control negotiations in Vienna that finally gave the Cold War a decent burial, and continued to have great deal to do, as the negotiating partners across the table started to have what might be described as coordination problems, and as one of them came round to our side of the table. When that saga and its attendant complications were finally sorted out, NATO found itself in Bosnia, then taking in new members in a way that hadn’t been anticipated, then in Kosovo, then in Afghanistan. All of this was essentially improvised: there was no master-plan, other than a pervasive consensus that NATO was more useful than not, and that it was necessary to find things for it to do to keep it going.
But an awful lot was changing behind the scenes. The military structure of NATO, set up in a panic after the Korean War and always ready to mobilise at short notice, was clearly serving no useful purpose now. Slowly at first, and then with increasing speed, the national contingents that had made up its standing forces started to melt away. One after another, European nations abandoned national service, radically reduced the size of their military forces, and stood down their mobilisation procedures. The US forces progressively went home. The generation of military equipment that was coming into service at the time was eventually deployed, in small numbers, and for the most part is still in service now. The tanks and aircraft that NATO intends to send to Ukraine (the Challenger II, the Leopard II, the F-16) are essentially 1970s designs, albeit much updated.
The recognition that NATO’s capability for serious warfare is a shadow of what it once was is slowly starting to percolate through the strategic community, which hasn’t been paying attention for the last generation or so, because its eyes have been fixed on Afghanistan and Iraq. But in fact the situation is a lot worse than that, and as often the real problems are hidden away in the technical complexities. I’ll cover some of those very briefly, to explain why NATO intervention in Ukraine is not really possible, if it were possible not desirable, and even if it were desirable totally ineffective, and even dangerous. Since I don’t have a military background, I’ll leave that part to the experts, and concentrate on the wider issues.
As the British have been making some of the most belligerent noises recently, let’s look at what has changed there since the Cold War. In 1989, the British Army of the Rhine could field a complete Corps of four Divisions, some 55,000 soldiers, ready to be reinforced in war by almost as many reservists and regular units moving from the UK. (The heavy equipment was essentially in place.) There was also a powerful air component. During what was called the Transition to War phase, mobilisation would have taken place under emergency wartime powers, taking people away from their jobs, and commandeering transport and logistic resources to move tens of thousands of combatants to Europe, while families were evacuated in the other direction. Normal government would be replaced, and Parliament would effectively dissolve itself. Tens of thousands of other troops would be mobilised for Home Defence. Civil Defence measures would be introduced to cope with anticipated bombing raids and sabotage operations. Government itself would be dispersed, and Ministers would function as Regional Commissioners.
Similar arrangements were taking place on the Continent, of course. Millions of reservists would have been recalled, sent to their units, and in some cases moved hundreds of kilometres into their wartime locations. Ordinary life would effectively have come to a halt, because mobilisation would have required all of the resources of the nations involved. That’s what modern “war” actually means: why should the Russians agree now to some arrangement that causes us less trouble? Why should they agree to some kind of “war minus,” limited only to Ukraine?
So you have to wonder whether any of the nonentities who talk about being “at war” with Russia have any idea what that means, and understand how these days even the most basic mechanisms don’t exist to make it possible. For a start, war is not just something we do to others. This is not waving goodbye to the boys as they set sail to do battle in foreign climes, this is picking a fight deliberately with someone who can hurt us a lot more than we can hurt them. There are a host of practical implications here: let’s just pick out a few of the more important ones.
Nobody “declares war” these days. Since the Nuremberg Trials and the United Nations Charter, wherein nations undertake to abstain from the use of force, it is no longer possible to proactively begin a state of war with another nation. To say, as some have “we are at war with Russia” is therefore meaningless except as a political slogan. It has no legal force. The only body capable of, in effect, “declaring war” is the Security Council, and that will clearly not happen in this case. Since the Russians have been careful not to attack NATO territory or deliberately engage NATO forces, no “state of war” can be said to exist with NATO nations. What does exist, is a state of “armed conflict”, which has its own definition: essentially protracted armed violence between states or between states and other armed groups. But “armed conflict” is precisely a state of affairs, not a process or a declaration, and it exists or it doesn’t as a matter of fact and law. Thus, whilst it’s obvious that there is an armed conflict in Ukraine, it’s equally obvious that western states are not parties to it. So it’s hard to see how the fantasies of the bellicose politicians could actually be fulfilled.
The only potential way in which this could be done would be if Ukraine made a formal request for military assistance from western states. This is how the Russians have justified their own operations in Ukraine, by arguing that they are assisting the breakaway republics to exercise their right of self-defence, which is preserved (though of course it was not established) by Article 51 of the UN Charter. But it’s not obvious what this would mean in practice, and how far western forces could actually go. Direct attacks on Russian territory, for example, would probably be ruled out if this argument were used.
But let us say that somehow these problems could be overcome, and it was joyfully announced that NATO nations were going to enter the conflict as full belligerents. This would make the Russians tremble, wouldn’t it? Actually not. You see, if we are in a state of war with another country, and free to attack them, then they are also free to attack us. There’s no way in which such a conflict could be confined to Ukraine, and no reason why the Russians would want to. So the first consequence is that NATO nations, NATO forces and NATO targets would be exposed to immediate Russian attack, at a point where sub-committees were still labouring away in Brussels trying to generate forces. So what would the Russians reasonably do?
Well, in a state of war, any “military objective” can be attacked. In practice today, this means military units, military headquarters, the political decision-making chain for the war, and the infrastructure of transport, power, industry etc. which is needed to support it. Now we do not know, and the Russians are obviously not going to tell us, what their long-range strike capabilities with conventional weapons actually are. We do not know, for example, precisely what capabilities they have to bombard the United States with conventional munitions from ships and submarines, and if they intend to use them, but it would be unwise to rule the possibility out. But we have to assume, if only for planning purposes, that they have ways of striking important targets in most or all western countries, with missiles launched from aircraft, ships or submarines. If we very conservatively limit Russian capabilities to attacks on twenty-five major targets, what might they do, bearing in mind that NATO has no effective defence against such attacks? Some targets are obvious: the Pentagon and the White House, for example, or the headquarters of the CIA and the NSA. NATO HQ in Brussels would not last long, not would its military HQ in Mons. The Defence Ministries, Military HQs and Chancelleries of the major European powers can assumed to be likely targets as well.
But of course the Russians are not obliged to hand over a target list, and so in practice, western states would have to consider hundreds of sites as potential targets, depending on what stocks of missiles the Russians had and how they decided to use them. Obviously, all military airfields would be potential targets. But whereas you concentrate ground forces in a time of tension, you disperse air forces. During the Cold War, many countries kept reserve airfields on standby: I’d be astonished if there are many such now. In practice, aircraft would have to be dispersed to civilian airports, which would then become military targets and would have to be closed to civil flights. All military bases, military garrisons, HQs, ammunition storage facilities, repair depots, naval bases, civilian ports to which naval vessels might be dispersed, intelligence gathering facilities and major transport hubs, among other things, would have to be considered potential targets.
All this matters, for two reasons. Firstly, no government today has made serious provision for continuing to run the country during a conventional war, with the risk of air and missile attack. In the earlier days of the Cold War, there were plans for governments to go underground during the conventional phase of any war in special shelters, a number of which still exist. But towards the end, nuclear weapons had become so accurate and powerful that it was thought very unlikely that any of these facilities would survive a subsequent nuclear attack, and so they tended to fall into disuse. So effectively, not only are NATO nations unable to defend against such a conventional missile attack, they have no means of protecting what is called the “continuity of government” from such attacks either. So a missile on the Elyséé Palace, one on the Defence Ministry and one on the Land Forces HQ at Lille, and that would be about it for France, for example.
Secondly, whilst the new generation of Russian missiles are allegedly pretty accurate, we must remember that accuracy is relative, and cannot be guaranteed. Accuracy is normally expressed according to a measure known as the Circular Error Probable, or CEP. This is the radius from the target within which fifty per cent of the missiles are expected to fall. No guarantees are given about where the other fifty per cent will land. So if a missile has a CEP of 200 metres, then fifty per cent of the time it is expected to land within a circle 400 metres across, whose epicentre is the intended target. Given this, given the blast radius of the explosions and the tendency of some missiles to get lost, it’s safe to say that anyone or any building within a kilometre of a potential high value target is potentially at risk. All over the western world, hundreds of thousands of people often live near airports, seaports, and headquarters. (The UK’s Permanent Joint HQ is in a quiet outer suburb of London.)
In many European cities, government and military facilities are clustered close together in the centre of the capital. This means that much of the city-centre itself would be at risk. It’s not at all clear, in most countries, where government could decamp to in a crisis so that it could continue operations. Even if it were possible to evacuate the senior figures of government to a nominally safer place, it would be necessary to close at least the centre of some cities down completely to the public (since some government services would have to remain and thus be targets) and there would be no way of preventing the spontaneous evacuation of tens or hundreds of thousands of ordinary residents as well. In effect, with modern levels of car ownership, motorways would soon be jammed with people fleeing sites that were expected, or rumoured, to be on the Russian target list. No modern government has plans for evacuating and housing large numbers of refugees these days, or even for managing a spontaneous popular exodus. All this, of course, would start to happen before the first Russian missile was fired, assuming any actually were. The fact that western governments would have to explain that there was no effective defence against such missiles, and that there were no plans and no facilities to protect the civilian population against them, would not help to calm the political climate either. No western government has the forces or the plans available to contain the panic and confusion that are likely to result.
But surely, you say, western publics will be comforted with the thought that their own forces are performing retribution on Russia? Well, not necessarily. Simply put, western nations have seen little need for long-range conventional missiles, and have not put a great deal of effort into developing them. The best known are the Tomahawk family of subsonic cruise missiles, with ranges mostly around 1000-1500 km, and with a warhead of about 500kg (roughly equivalent to a single bomb dropped by a German bomber in 1940). Such weapons can be effective, but they are launched from ships and submarines, and so the targets need to be near enough to the sea. This is where it is useful to get a map out.
The first thing that strikes you is that Russia is a big place. The second is that Moscow is a long way away. Tomahawk missiles launched from the Baltic or the Eastern Mediterranean might have the range to get to Moscow, at least in theory. On the other hand, as the punditocracy itself now remembers being told, Russia has inherited from the Soviet Union the world’s most comprehensive air defence system. Quite what its effectiveness would be against subsonic but low-flying cruise missiles, not even experts really know. That said, NATO cannot pose anything like the same threat to Russia that new Russian missiles can pose to NATO countries, and it must be assumed that the Russians would be able to detect and target the NATO launching system themselves. Manned aircraft trying to drop conventional bombs on Moscow from bases in Europe, even if they had the range, could be expected to suffer such losses that no government would consider their use worthwhile.
But let us assume that cities and target areas can be safely evacuated and western governments and economies put onto a genuine wartime footing. Air power and missiles are going to be ineffective, so the only real option is to form and deploy a multinational mechanised force of some kind, presumably to help the Ukrainians recover the territory they claim as theirs.
Well, let’s stop right there. Western nations no longer know how to do such things. I’m talking about military doctrine: the set of principles that tells commanders how to fight. NATO has none for offensive mechanised operations far from home territory, and never has had. During the Cold War NATO’s orientation, and thus its doctrine, was defensive. The assumption was that its forces would face an attack from a larger and more powerful enemy, and that they would conduct a fighting withdrawal, hoping to stop the enemy incursion as close to the Inner German Border as possible. At all times, therefore, NATO forces would be falling back on their own supply lines, and towards their own reserves, and their own maintenance and supply depots, while enemy forces would be getting progressively farther from theirs.
To my knowledge, NATO commanders have never trained or exercised for long-distance aggressive mechanised warfare, and there is no doctrine for it, which is to say nobody knows how to do it, let alone how to integrate ground forces with air and other assets. in Bosnia, NATO was an occupation army, which did no fighting. After the air campaign against Serbia, the situation in Kosovo was similar. In Afghanistan, NATO as such only deployed after the Taliban regime had been defeated, and most of its activities were small-scale counter-insurgency. The nearest equivalent to the kind of operation that would be necessary in Ukraine (albeit then with overwhelming forces and complete air superiority) was Iraq in 2003, but the senior commanders of that era have long since retired and the institutional knowledge has been long lost.
Moreover, whilst Brigade-sized units still exist in western armies, they are more and more administrative formations, that seldom if ever train together. Any western force would have to spend something between weeks and months training together, complete with mobilised reservists, before it could be considered ready to deploy. Then of course it would have to train with Brigades from other nations, all in the absence of an agreed coherent military doctrine. Since by that stage NATO would inevitably have had to admit that it was in a state of war with Russia, one could only hope that the Russians would not unsportingly target the units while they were training.
Above all, what would the objective be? “Kill Russians” is not a military objective. When the Supreme Allied Commander Europe comes to the North Atlantic Council after all this preparation and says “what do you want me to do?” they had better have an answer. But there is none, or to be precise none that even begins to respond to the political hype. With considerable difficulty (see below) some western military units could be transported to Western Ukraine, where they could form an improvised garrison around some major Ukrainian cities. This might be politically effective in the short term, but the forces themselves would be completely exposed, since they could be attacked by the Russians without being able to respond. And it’s uncertain how long western publics would agree to having their entire usable armies tied up in a static position in Ukraine. Moreover, many European combat units are heavily dependent on reservists: the only serious combat unit in the Dutch Army, for example, the 43rd Mechanised Brigade with its handful of tanks, relies on reservists for around a quarter of its operational strength: how long can you keep them away from their jobs and families?
But of course to begin with, you’d have to get them even that far. In the Cold War, NATO (and for that matter Soviet) troops were essentially in the positions they fought their way to in 1945. In both cases, the occupied existing Wehrmacht facilities. Over the decades, new units and new equipment were brought in little by little, accommodation constructed, and so forth. This kind of infrastructure would have to be reproduced in Ukraine and, even if UAF facilities were used, there would still be a massive deployment and infrastructure building programme, taking years.
And in any case, the fighting isn’t there anyway. It’s taking place around a thousand kilometres to the East, so any NATO troops would have to move again, the distance roughly between Paris and Munich, just to get to where the fighting was. I don’t think there is any precedent in history for that kind of movement of heavy equipment and manpower over such a distance, under air and missile attack, and into contact with superior forces.
Western tanks of the Cold War, like the Leopard, the Challenger and the M1, were built to fight a defensive war. Whilst some models were lighter than others, all were expected to use the excellent infrastructure, sturdy bridges and railway systems of western Europe, and to begin the war not that far from where they were stationed. Just getting them, their recovery vehicles and variants for engineering etc. to the front line would be a challenge. But of course it’s more than that. Even “light” armoured tracked vehicles can’t easily move along some roads without damaging them, or cross all bridges. To get an idea of what moving a Brigade, even over permissive terrain, would actually entail, have a look at this diagram of a typical UK Armoured Infantry Brigade. You’ll see that it has some 500 combat vehicles, of which around ten per cent are Main Battle Tanks, that would, in turn, require large and heavy transporters to move them any distance. To that need to be added recovery vehicles, repair vehicles, engineer vehicles, medical vehicles and a whole set of transport and supply vehicles. This could easily amount to a column some ten kilometres long, needing to travel along cleared and secured routes across most of Europe. (To say nothing of getting them across the Channel in the first place.) Once in position the Brigade would need to be resupplied, provided with POL, spares and consumables, workshops and a small hospital. If it saw action, casualties would need to be evacuated, reinforcements deployed and damaged equipment repaired if possible, since it is unlikely that it could be replaced. And this is only one Brigade from one country.
How many Brigades of this sort could NATO actually field? Nobody really knows, but the best estimate seems to be between six and ten, bearing in mind that, if we are at war with Russia, it might be as well to have some troops at home as well. I leave military experts to judge how much value that size of light mechanised force would have, but I honestly doubt if Moscow is too worried.
And that’s the problem. The West is so intoxicated with the perception of its own power, that it assumes everyone else is as well. After all, the US spends far more on defence than Russia, so it should be much more powerful, shouldn’t it? Well, in certain areas, like Carrier Battle Groups, it is. But the Russians don’t want to play that game : they want to play High-Intensity Land/Air War in Europe, which is a game that the West essentially gave up on a generation ago, and which it can only play for a week or two at most before it runs out of ammunition. The other delusion is that the West is untouchable. They wouldn’t dare drop a missile on NATO HQ, would they? I mean, if they did, we would … we would… well what would we do? Nuclear threats are recognised to be dangerous, pointless and irrelevant. Like King Lear in the quotation at the start of this essay, NATO will do … something, when it works out what that is. But if I were the Russians I would be sceptical: after all, remember what happened to Lear.