NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (Land) 2017: An Analysis
The NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (Land), VJTF (L), was established at the 2014 NATO summit with the aim of ‘responding to emerging security challenges posed by Russia as well as the risks emanating from the Middle East and North Africa’.[i] HQ 20th Armoured Infantry Brigade assumed the role of HQ VJTF (L) on 1 Jan 2017 and commands a 5,000 strong multinational brigade drawn from 14 contributing nations. The main manoeuvre units are Danish and British Armoured Infantry, Polish Mechanised Infantry, a US Aviation Battalion, Spanish Light Mechanised Infantry and a British-led multinational Light Infantry Battalion. The Task Force also has significant intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, artillery and engineering assets.
Overt Russian aggression and uncertainty in the Middle East has left many questioning the role NATO plays in securing peace and deterring aggression. Russian doctrine released in 2013 by the Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, combines all state functions to wage unrestricted warfare. Through the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’, ‘Russia is increasingly blurring the lines between war and peace, business and crime’.[ii] Whilst not new or ‘hybrid’ this strategy has made many NATO countries feel uneasy. This is especially true given the experience of Ukraine and the threat to the Alliance’s eastern flank. Russia’s 2017 ZAPAD series of military exercises are the most ambitious in a generation, raising international tensions and testing NATO’s resolve. It is difficult to see them as anything less than full scale mission rehearsals with a pointed political message. At one end of the spectrum, the RAND Corporation concluded in 2016 that the Russians only needed 60 hours to capture the Baltic States and undermine NATO.[iii] This essay will challenge these conclusions and argues that VJTF (L) is credible land force with a wide utility to NATO strategic deterrence. This article is based on evidence drawn from the brigade’s conceptual and physical training in 2016 and is split into two parts. The first examines the utility of the VJTF (L) to NATO, specifically the North Atlantic Council (NAC), and argues for bolder deployments of the Task Force. As the lead ground element of the NATO Response Force (NRF), the VJTF (L) provides NATO with a flexible and credible force able to deter. It alters assumptions made by adversaries by adding material and military credibility to NATO’s political narrative. This influences their risk calculus by providing a clear path to full collective defence. The second half of this article focuses on the unique capabilities which provide the VJTF (L) with its potency. The VJTF (L) provides a balanced mix of armour, infantry and intelligence assets. It has an impressively hard edge that is far superior to the UK’s Vanguard Armoured Infantry Brigade. Despite concerns about NATO interoperability, this article will explain that the VJTF (L) has also challenged assumptions about what is possible in multinational formations. The experience of 2016 has demonstrated how individual national strengths can combine to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. In common with most brigades, the force has limited capability in the ‘hybrid space’. This is the result of a ‘C2 gap’ in which the 1* task force is commanded by a 3* Corps HQ without a 2* Divisional HQ to coordinate operational assets accordingly. NATO can certainly do more to enhance its deterrence effect. Despite this, the VJTF (L) is a credible force with a wide role in strategic utility to NATO deterrence.
Strategic Utility of a Tactical Land Force
The VJTF (L)’s primary role is not to defend against conventional attack but to deter and reassure. It does this by altering an opponent’s risk calculus. It also reassures Alliance members. This is most visible when considering NATO deterrence strategy against the threat felt by members in Eastern Europe. A RAND study in 2016 concluded that the Russians could capture the Baltic States within 60 hours: critically, before NATO could react.[iv] The study concluded that NATO had ‘woefully inadequate forces’ to meet any threat to the Baltic States. For critics of NATO strategy a brigade sized force, does little to address this threat and it is not a credible deterrent. The RAND argument continues that the forces required to recapture the Baltic States would not be available and NATO would not risk wider war to return the borders. The implication is that only large scale defensive forces are suitable for deterrence.[v] Thus, the RAND study argues for a $2.7bn defence force. Looking at a similar deterrence problem in Germany in 1985, John Mearsheimer concluded that conventional ‘deterrence is likely to fail in a crisis if a potential attacker thinks that it is possible to win a quick and decisive victory’.[vi] This analysis suggests that the VJTF (L) makes no contribution to deterrence because it is easy to dismiss a tactical force against the RAND scenario. RAND assumes that a full invasion takes place and cannot be deterred. This is a narrow parameter. War with Russia is not inevitable and is absolutely avoidable. Deploying the VJTF (L) would alter a challenger’s risk appetite significantly as it demonstrates a clear escalation towards Article 5 defence and Alliance cohesion.[vii] Indeed, the VJTF (L) would likely reinforce one of the existing Enhanced Forward Presence Battle Groups or reinforce the existing Graduated Response Plans. [viii] To challenge RAND more directly, the VJTF (L) could be defeated but would it be worth it? Open combat in Eastern Europe is at the far end of the spectrum of conceivable scenarios and almost shifts the debate away from the period prior to any conflict. It dismisses the role of deterrence forces in setting the conditions for political dialogue and de-escalation. The VJTF (L)’s role is not to ‘defend’ but to deter by challenging the decision to invade and changing the risk analysis of a potential adversary.
The VJTF (L)'s utility to strategic deterrence rests on the ability of the NAC to authorise its deployment at the first indicators of conflict as a meaningful demonstration. The force can be activated by SACEUR[ix] prior to a NAC decision shortening deployment timelines significantly. But ultimately, its deployment rests on timely strategic judgement and boldness in its application. As the Secretary-General remarked, forces needed to be ‘at the right place, at the right time’ and the VJTF (L) deployment timelines give this strategic flexibility.[x] However, if we accept the RAND conclusion that NATO has 60 hours before the Baltics are captured, the 10 day VJTF (L) deployment is insufficient. A further point to consider is that in the current experience of land deterrence (for example Iraq in the 1990s) forces have deployed into uncontested (politically or militarily) theatres.[xi] Today’s potential adversaries have significantly greater capability and appetite to challenge NATO, particularly in the vulnerable deployment phase. On the other hand, likely opponents are also bound by limitations. During preparations for ZAPAD17, for example, the Russians ordered more than 4000 railcars far in advance of the exercise to ensure its success. These indicators are all considered when discussing the deployment of the task force.[xii] It is easy to pretend that our opponents have an un-restricted capability. Especially when judging them against our own. The VJTF (L)’s utility lays in the flexibility of its deployability. The VJTF (L) would be an effective response to such events and demonstrates NATO capability altering an opponents’ risk analysis significantly. This adds strategic flexibility to the NAC decision making and is a physical demonstration of alliance cohesion.
NATO can increase the VJTF (L)’s deterrence effect by being bolder with its employment. Looking at 2017, the NOBLE JUMP series of exercises tested deployment but only into a largely un-contested military or political environment. Even then, a successful Russian information narrative has undermined the NATO confidence by presenting the VJTF (L) as an offensive act.[xiii] Deploying full combat forces (rather than just HQ elements) needs to become routine to enhance the deterrence impact. In-line with the ‘dual track approach’ of combining strength with dialogue, as agreed at the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw, the alliance should not be cautious and has space for a more assertive tone as long as the meaning and intentions are communicated.[xiv] The VJTF (L) adds a land demonstration of strength. Potential opponents to NATO are already using far more aggressive tactics through deniable or proxy forces and defence engagement. NATO seeks to deter within the ‘conventional rules’ defined by international law. These are not always appropriate in 2017. One Polish analysis of ZAPAD17 suggests that Russia trains as it fights and such exercises are actually mission rehearsals. These are seen as a direct threat to NATO.[xv] The implication is that the VJTF (L) and wider NATO deterrence forces cannot reach their full potential unless training and deployed to a similar extent. NATO seems timid in its reaction. The VJTF (L) provides a tool for the NAC to change this and adds strength to its position.[xvi] The deployment of a combat brigade is a powerful political statement. Combined with wider deterrence strategy, particularly the Enhanced Forward Presence, it makes a bold statement if deployed unapologetically to deter.
Is the VJTF (L) 17 a Credible Force?
At the end of the training year in 2016 The VJTF (L) 17 demonstrated that it is a highly capable force, which is fully integrated, and can project its strengths. The training progression culminated in Exercise Venerable Gauntlet in Sep 2016 (Ex VEGT, Sennelager, Germany) and a full NATO Combat Readiness Evaluation in Nov-Dec 2016.[xvii] Military capability is driven by two major factors: the abilities of the individual units and the doctrinal understanding that hold them together. The VJTF (L) 17 training year saw significant progress for NATO integration and interoperability was pushed to the lowest levels. Conceptually, the VJTF (L) HQ has amended British and NATO doctrine to exploit the specific strengths of each unit and this now forms a common understanding across the force.[xviii] The concepts were tested during joint training and the VJTF (L) achieved a high level of interoperability. For example, British Royal Engineers have gained qualifications in mine laying despite it being a capability that the British Army no longer maintains. Elements of intelligence were considered completely ‘integrated’ (rather than just interoperable). In another example, the amphibious utility of the Polish Mechanised Infantry was utilised to enable an axis of advance into an urban assault, allowing the task force to exploit an enemy weakness. The combination of these factors presented an impressive capability.
The biggest risk to integration rests on the ability of units to achieve a level of technical maturity. All contributors, for example, need secure CIS and the digital infrastructure to enable a common intelligence and operational picture. Communications presented the most difficult area. NATO must invest in secure digital infrastructure. Common doctrine and national procurement must be aligned to solve these issues. There are other capability gaps across the force, for example, there are disparities in night fighting capability and night / thermal imaging equipment. These issues cannot be solved without national investment and NATO either invests or accepts the situation. In comparison to unilateral planning and execution, this places constraints on the use of the force. Having some units which are technically more or less capable forces them into templated roles; the Danish and British Armoured Infantry Battle Groups were routinely tasked to lead assaults giving predictable indicators to any opponent. This was made more difficult given the range of languages spoken across the task force. The HQ used only NATO English and doctrine to ensure that these messages were not lost in translation. This involved utilising Liaison Officers to confirm understanding prior to orders being issued. This process also helped the HQ understand individual unit strengths and capabilities otherwise not well understood by GBR planners and data was gathered to allow a more scientific approach in line with the GBR Staff Officers' Handbook. Additional unit back briefs were also added to the planning process to ensure units fully understood their role in any plan. This added time to battle procedure and often forced the simplification of the concepts that could be articulated when compared to a unilateral force. While it is fair that this could cause additional friction in high tempo operations, the experience of the VJTF (L) shows that these are little more than minor problems. Effective solutions have enabled the task force to act as one and form a coherent and credible force.
The VJTF (L) may struggle most in ambiguous theatres of operations due to a lack of information operations capability and understanding. The challenge for the VJTF (L) is deploying into an operations ‘within which warfare will be played will be different than at any other time before; ease of information flows, global news reporting, international human rights organisations… and short term politics’ will all be crucial to success. [xix] The concept of ‘information manoeuvre’ is not new to either the British Army or NATO but there is a new focus given recent operational experiences. Likewise, deterrence rests on the ability to project messaging more than achieving hard effects. However the task force is not resourced or commanded in a way which is necessarily coherent with these scenarios. Doctrinally this level of planning (integrated action in British doctrine) is the remit of a 2* operational HQ with the associated capabilities and specialists. In its current establishment that the VJTF (L) is likely to deploy without a covering 2* HQ and they will be expected to work directly to the ARRC or other NATO 3* HQ giving a ‘C2 gap’. Commander VJTF (L) is likely to be the senior NATO ground commander adding a responsibility to achieve effects in the operational space. When not war fighting or conducting manoeuvres, the force faces a conceptual gap stunting its ability and focusing it on hard military power. This is mitigated by reach back to information specialists in 77 Brigade[xx] but this falls short of the tools likely opponents are already using.
NATO’s decision to keep hard and soft elements conceptually separated is further limited by doctrine which does not specify when hybrid action breaches Article 5 and becomes a conventional threat.[xxi] The lack of a Political Advisor limits the Commander’s decision making and ability to plan effectively in the hybrid space. It means planning for a comprehensive approach is limited. There was both a Russian hard reaction and a softer Russian media reaction to Ex VEGT.[xxii] Yet the task force is not well equipped to counter these non-traditional threats. Western doctrine and concepts are framed by experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, which places significant emphasis on ‘hearts and minds’ over a more manoeuvrist approach to the hybrid space. Compared to the Russian ‘Gerasimov doctrine’, the task force is not conceptually well prepared to engage in anything other than conventional deterrence manoeuvres. It is difficult to see the VJTF (L) placing information as the driving factor for operations when principally equipped with only hard military tools. It is easy to see a force that maintains a focus on the hard end of military power with a focus on a conventional threat that may never appear.
In summary, the VJTF (L) provides a force that adds credibility to NATO deterrence. It can rapidly deploy, which alters adversaries’ risk calculations whilst reassuring Alliance members. But the force alone is unlikely to achieve a defence against the RAND scenario of a full conventional invasion. The VJTF (L) is a capable land brigade; however, the force should not be judged against unrealistic standards or unlikely scenarios. This article has argued that NATO should be bolder to enhance the deterrence effect. Its utility to the NAC is best demonstrated when deployed. It gives the NAC a physical demonstration of Alliance cohesion and a clear path to a wider NATO Article 5 response. Within the wider context of NATO strategic deterrence, the VJTF (L) is a highly potent contribution. Despite the inherent integration problems the training progression of 2016 saw the force make significant strides towards interoperability. Effective solutions were found to all problems. The VJTF (L) 17 experience is captured in doctrine and is best practise moving forward. Longer term nations will need to invest time into common doctrine, money into equipment and digital infrastructure. The biggest limitation to the force is its approach to information operations and its understanding of soft power. There is certainly more that can be done in this sphere to enable the VJTF (L) to play a greater role. Hard force must be coupled with soft power to enhance its impact; this is especially true in likely deployments. Despite the limitations identified, it is too easy to consider the task force in isolation and ignore the wider NATO context. During its training year the VJTF (L) forged itself into a highly coherent and capable force. It is a symbol of Alliance cohesion with a hard military edge.
[i] “NATO Response Force / Very High Readiness Joint Task Force,” 2016, accessed 26 Sep 2016, http://www.shape.nato.int/nato-response-force--very-high-readiness-joint-task-force.
[ii] Farrah, Douglas. “The Gerasimov Doctrine.” The Cipher Brief. 5 Jan, 2016. Accessed July 20, 2017. https://www.thecipherbrief.com/article/gerasimov-doctrine
[iii] David Shlapak and Michael Johnson, “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank,” RAND Corporation, 2016, accessed 26 Sep 2016, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR1200/RR1253/RAND_RR1253.pdf.
[iv] David Shlapak and Michael Johnson, “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank,” RAND Corporation, 2016, accessed 26 Sep 2016, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR1200/RR1253/RAND_RR1253.pdf.
[v] See eg Commander US Army in Europe, Lt Gen Hodges cited in Sohrab Ahmari, The View from NATO’s Russian Front, (wsj.com), 6 Feb 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/weekend-interview-gen-frederick-hodges-on-natos-russian-front-1423266333. For a more extreme opinion see General Sir Richard Shirreff, War with Russia: An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command (London, United Kingdom: Coronet Books, 2016).
[vi] John J. Mearsheimer, “Prospects for Conventional Deterrence in Europe,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 41, no. 7 (Aug 1985).
[vii] The Washington Treaty Article 5 states that an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies. See http://www.nato.int/cps/cn/natohq/topics_110496.htm.
[viii] NATO Factsheet, "Boosting NATO’s presence in the east and southeast," North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Updated 29 Jun, 2017, accessed 20 July, 2017. http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_136388.htm?selectedLocale=en.
[ix] Supreme Allied Commander Europe
[x] “Speech by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the Munich Security Conference,” NATO, 6 Feb 2015, accessed 20 Oct 2016, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_117320.htm.
[xi] Kenton White, “Britain’s Defence Fallacy and NATO,” British Army Review 167 (Summer 2016).
[xii]Kowalik, Col Thomas K., and Dominik P. Jankowski. "The dangerous tool of Russian military exercises." The dangerous tool of Russian military exercises | CEPA. May 09, 2017, accessed July 09, 2017. http://cepa.org/EuropesEdge/The-dangerous-tool-of-Russian-military-exercises.
[xiii] See e.g. Luke Harding, "NATO and Russia playing dangerous game with military build-up," The Guardian, 27 Oct 2016, accessed 20 Jul 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/27/military-build-up-along-russias-border-no-cause-for-alarm.
[xiv] See e.g. Professor Julian Lindley-French, “NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2016,” Atlantic Treaty Association, 28 Jun 2016, accessed 31 Dec 2016, http://atahq.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/FWPN-JLF-NEA-2016-FINAL-230616.pdf.
[xv] Kowalik, Col Thomas K., and Dominik P. Jankowski. "The dangerous tool of Russian military exercises." The dangerous tool of Russian military exercises | CEPA. 9 May 2017, accessed 9 Jul 2017. http://cepa.org/EuropesEdge/The-dangerous-tool-of-Russian-military-exercises.
[xvi] Professor Krzysztof Miszcak, “NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2016,” Atlantic Treaty Association, 28 Jun 2016, accessed 31 Dec 2016, http://atahq.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/FWPN-JLF-NEA-2016-FINAL-230616.pdf.
[xvii] George Allison, “UK Troops Lead Exercise Venerable Gauntlet”, UK Defence Journal, 16 Sep 2016, accessed 20 July 17. https://ukdefencejournal.org.uk/pictures-exercise-venerable-gauntlet/. See also #venerablegauntlet for a more contemporary analysis.
[xviii] The ‘VJTF (L) Handbook’ is available on the British Army Knowledge Exchange (AKX).
[xix] British Army Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research, "Being Ready for Warfighting at Scale," Ares & Athena, Nov 2016, pp 15-18. Available from http://www.army.mod.uk/documents/general/AresAthena_Issue_6_WARFIGHTING_AT_SCALE.pdf.
[xx] 77 Brigade is the UK’s ‘non-lethal engagement’ capability. See http://www.army.mod.uk/structure/39492.aspx
[xxi] Michael Aaronson et al., “NATO Countering the Hybrid Threat,” Prism 2 (Journal of US Department of Defence Centre for Complex Operations), No. 4 (Sept 2011).
[xxii] See eg “No so Fast: ‘Bureaucracy’ Threatens to Smash NATO’s Rapid Reaction Force,” Sputnik News, August 22, 2015, accessed 10 Oct 2016, https://sputniknews.com/military/201508221026060717-nato-vjtf-germany-inefficient-bureaucracy. “Russia Forms Brand-New Task Force to Counter NATO Buildup in Eastern Europe,” Russia Today, 27 July 2016, accessed 10 Oct 2016, https://www.rt.com/news/353599-russia-military-upgrade-nato/.