RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — High-level NATO leaders met this week at Ramstein to consider the future of the alliance’s ground forces in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine and events in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization-LANDCOM Corps Commanders’ Conference drew more than 140 participants from nearly every country in the 28-member alliance, including NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove.
He and Army Lt. Gen. John Nicholson Jr., the commander of NATO Allied Land Command, spoke of the broader security environment facing NATO post-Afghanistan and the challenges ground forces, in particular, must address to hone and ready a land component that could respond to an international crisis at a moment’s notice.
"We are adapting to some of the most significant changes to the security environment here in Europe since the Cold War,” Breedlove said, "and I am pleased to say that NATO is adapting as rapidly as its 21st Century challenges are also evolving.”
Breedlove said NATO’s land forces headquarters — established in 2012 at Izmir, Turkey, to ensure the interoperability of NATO ground forces — "is focused on matching our readiness to the environment” and working with nations on contingency planning "in support of NATO’s readiness action force,” as outlined at the pivotal NATO Wales Summit last fall. Interoperability has been a constant, if elusive, goal for the alliance since the early 1950s.
"This is significant, as this planning will reduce the go-to show time needed between alerting forces and getting them to the right place at the right time,” Breedlove said.
At the Wales summit in September, allied leaders approved a response plan that addresses challenges posed by Russia and threats emanating from the Middle East and North Africa.
Neither Nicholson nor Breedlove mentioned Ukraine or Russia on Tuesday. But in speaking about collective defense, Nicholson mentioned the threat of so-called hybrid warfare, which NATO officials have accused Russia of employing in Ukraine, unnerving NATO’s eastern members.
NATO’s land forces would be one element of any collective defense measure, including if Article 5 were invoked. Article 5 is the cornerstone of the military alliance, which commits each member to consider an armed attack against one member state to be an armed attack against them all.
Nicholson said his command is focused "on our own ability to respond to the political guidance that we receive.”
"If there was an Article 5 declaration with an attributable threat … and then we were deployed to deal with that, then we’re looking at militarily, what do we need to be able to do? For us, this is a very important topic because we spent the last decade in Afghanistan, where we’re fighting counterinsurgency, but as we look to the future, we’re looking at the hybrid threat.”
Hybrid warfare is seen as conventional warfare that employs unidentified regular forces and insurgents, cyberwarfare and disinformation.
Insurgents in Afghanistan, while "very cunning and lethal,” had a limited set of capabilities, Nicholson said in an interview with Stars and Stripes. "When you look at the hybrid threat, it could be anything, up to armored air, chemical; there’s a full range of capabilities that we have to be prepared for.”
In melding the alliance’s diverse land forces on the scale of a potential Article 5 response, NATO faces a host of challenges, including "logistics, communications, integration with the air, with the maritime, with the special operations,” Nicholson said. "The nature of the military challenge is different. That’s what we’re focused on.”