A new NATO force lacks the size and power to deter Russian attacks on its own. But it will boost the cohesion and combat-readiness of NATO allies.

NATO battlegroup in Lithuania Feb 2017. Credit Getty/Petras Malukas

By Amanda Lapo and Monty d’Inverno, Research Analysts for Defence and Military Analysis.

The arrival of Belgian and German troops in Lithuania in January 2017 marked the first deployment of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP). At the conclusion of the Warsaw Summit, NATO declared this presence was designed to ‘unambiguously demonstrate... Allies' solidarity, determination, and ability to act by triggering an immediate Allied response to any aggression’. While this relatively small conventional force faces multiple challenges in its role to provide a minimum credible deterrent in the region, it also offers a unique opportunity to improve the interoperability of NATO’s land forces. After the arrival of four battalion-sized battlegroups to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland by May 2017, NATO will have deployed some 4,000 troops to the region as part of the EFP, with these rotational forces ‘underpinned by a viable reinforcement strategy’.

The locations of the battlegroup headquarters and the contributing countries and lead nations are marked on the accompanying map and table: Canada (Latvia), Germany (Lithuania), the United Kingdom (Estonia) and the United States (Poland). The assessed composition of the battlegroups, shown in the tables, has several significant implications.

NATO enhanced forward presence plan 2017NATO Baltic states tablesThe multinational force is to be drawn from a total of 16 different contributing countries out of a total of 28 member states. The presence of such a range of NATO states in the force represents a potentially more effective extension of the ‘tripwire’ function to guarantee the support of a range of allies in response to any attack on the host nation.

The Canadian, German and UK-led battlegroups will consist largely of tracked armoured forces, including infantry fighting vehicles and main battle tanks. Given the limited armoured forces in the existing inventory of the three Baltic states (see The Military Balance 2017, p. 67), this force represents a substantial increase in NATO’s capability in the region. However, the EFP battlegroups are, in total, equivalent to only a single heavy brigade, spread over an extensive geographical area – far from the highly publicised assessment in 2016 that a force including at least three heavy brigades would be needed to provide the minimum credible deterrent to a possible Russian attack.

Battlegroups could join others to create division-sized heavy force

However, NATO does have the additional capability of the land component of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (which is brigade-sized), while the US deployed in Europe, from late 2016, an Armoured Brigade Combat Team. If the EFP battlegroups are counted alongside these other two brigade-sized formations, they could be seen as part of a wider attempt to achieve deterrence by demonstrating the capability to generate a division-sized heavy force in Eastern Europe.

Higher level command-and-control arrangements suggest that a potential divisional capability is in mind. The EFP battlegroups will report to a new multinational division headquarters based on the existing Polish 16th Mechanised Division in Elblag, which will in turn answer to the NATO Multinational Corps Northeast in Szczecin. However, developing effective command-and-control relationships and interoperability with host-nation forces will be just as important. For instance, the German-led battlegroup in Lithuania has been assigned to Lithuania’s mechanised infantry brigade and will take part in its training cycle. Similarly, the US has already confirmed that its Stryker battalion will be put under the tactical control of a Polish brigade, while encouraging others to implement similar command-and-control arrangements.

Overall, NATO’s EFP will likely face significant challenges in command and control and interoperability at both local and alliance level. In addition, its immediate combat capability may well be smaller than some defence planners would wish for. Nevertheless, if sustained the EFP will not only contribute to defence and deterrence in the Baltic region, but will also act as a valuable catalyst in enhancing cohesion and joint combat-readiness among NATO allies.

The Military Balance 2017, released on 14 February 2017, is now available to order.

The Military Balance is The International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual assessment of the military capabilities and defence economics of 171 countries worldwide. It is an essential resource for those involved in security policymaking, analysis and research.

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The Military Balance is the authoritative assessment of the military capabilities and defence economics of 171 countries.