by Giuseppe Morabito

A war-time strategic concept

A week or so after its official publication and having listened to leading experts (military and otherwise), one can now make the observation that NATO's new Strategic Concept is clear, concise and thoughtful and expresses exactly what it sets out to do: to communicate the Allies' seriousness and firmness on deterrence and defense.

Unfortunately, the document was published concurrently with a war in Europe (the Madrid document is not NATO's first Strategic Concept published against the backdrop of a war: in April 1999, the summit in Washington produced a Strategic Concept amidst the Kosovo war) and, as in past editions, it is a compromise between what needs to be done and what can be implemented by providing for transatlantic burden-sharing and European strategic responsibility. The Strategic Concept and Agenda 2030 include NATO's two critical components of deterrence and defense, including short-term lessons from the war in Ukraine. What matters now is that the strategic momentum generated is maintained and that the goals are achieved by the European allies, for whom the Madrid Summit was a kind of "call to arms".

The NATO Summit in Madrid

The summit focused on NATO deterrence and committed the alliance to regenerating a credible capability to use force against a strategic competitor, coupled with an understanding of the need for demonstrable speed of action and a clear ability to inflict punishment. Russian aggression has shown that it is no longer acceptable to simply aspire to "save" the citizens of allied countries, but that a deterrence plan will have to be implemented and quickly. A plan that calls for some 300,000 soldiers, mainly European, across the continent to be put on alert soon and, in any case, not with high readiness. The accession of Finland and Sweden to the Alliance will extend NATO's presence on both the northern and eastern flanks, and, after the Afghanistan fiasco (20 years, as long as four world wars), we must move into a new era of geopolitical competition in which the Europeans must finally wake up and act decisively.

Certainly questions remain about the "price" paid, to make Turkey recede from its opposition to enlargement. The government in Ankara exploited the tragedies in Ukraine and the ensuing fears to get dozens of people believed to be anti-Turkish terrorists handed over to it. There are those who have argued that there are "terrorists and terrorists," but the doubt remains in the minds of many that the "enlargement" issue has been traded off for surrendering part of the Kurdish people to the Turkish dictator's aims.

Strategic Concept and 2030 NATO

Returning to the purpose of "awakening," Strategic Concept 2022 reconfirms NATO's commitment to collective defense and a comprehensive approach based on three core tasks of deterrence and defense, crisis prevention and management, and cooperative security.

NATO 2030 can be summarized as follows: enough forces to deter and address crises and build partnerships; enough European forces that can respond quickly to any crisis in and around the Euro-Atlantic area. This is the sum of an agenda that includes deeper and faster political consultation, strengthened defense and deterrence, increased resilience, preservation of NATO's technical advantage, maintenance of order based on democratic rules, increased training and capacity building, and the need to combat and adapt to climate change. The Strategic Concept also refers to further command and control reform and the need for digital transformation, with strong statements on cyber and emerging technologies. Disagreements on increasing joint funding and strengthening defense capabilities also appear to have been resolved, while it was reaffirmed that NATO remains a nuclear alliance "also" committed to a nuclear-free world.

What is said about Russia, China and terrorism

Strategic Concept 2022 includes the need to ease the excessive U.S. military effort with greater European capabilities. Facing an economic crisis, a Russian aggression in Europe, and a regional strategic competitor that is People's China. Russia and its invasion of Ukraine pervade all sixteen pages of the Strategic Concept with a marked change in tone from the past (Lisbon Summit in 2010), where Moscow was described as a "strategic partner" even though it had already attacked Georgia. What was decided in Madrid is much less equivocal: "The Russian Federation’s war of aggression against Ukraine has shattered peace and gravely altered our security environment. Its brutal and unlawful invasion, repeated violations of international humanitarian law and heinous attacks and atrocities have caused unspeakable suffering and destruction"; People's China is now a "systemic challenge" and terrorism the "most direct asymmetric threat."

The new NATO response force

The New Force Model at the heart of the Strategic Concept is the consequence of the military strategy, and it is there that the necessary details are found. In particular, there is the intention to transform the NATO Response Force by enhancing it into a future component of about 300,000 soldiers maintained on alert, with 44,000 of them at full readiness. For the first time, all rapid reaction forces under NATO command will be engaged in a deterrence and defense role, and all these forces will be concentrated within a single command.

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On American request, the new force will be primarily European. It will also see heavy equipment pre-positioned near the borders and will be extremely expensive; so much so that concerns have already been expressed by some allies. This is exactly why Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said that the NATO commitment to invest 2 percent of each ally's GDP in defense is now "more of a floor than a ceiling." Several European NATO allies have now pledged to increase their defense budgets accordingly. Germany pledges to increase it substantially, and Britain has also committed to spending at least 2.5 percent of GDP. Italy, at the moment, has decided to reach the target in a few years (hoping it actually does).

Europe will have to do more

Given that the Strategic Concept is primarily a consequence of Russia's war against Ukraine, the U.S. will demand a greater role for allies to engage in assisting it to achieve its strategic objectives outside Europe as well. This is because People's China and the Indo-Pacific would have a higher priority for Washington than Russia and Europe, even though Russia remains an "acute threat." For NATO, the message from the Americans is clear: if the U.S. security guarantee for Europe is to be credibly maintained, going forward the Europeans will have to share the defense burden equally, reaching 50 percent of NATO's minimum capability requirements by 2030. This will mean that Europeans will assume much more strategic responsibilities than they have done so far within the Alliance framework.

The Strategic Concept first calls for identifying and learning the lessons of the war in Ukraine to strengthen deterrence, defense, and resilience in the short term. European NATO forces will need more robust logistics and also much more materiel, particularly ammunition. Then the goal will be to forge a transformed instrument of military power by 2030. In other words, the real test of the Madrid legacy will be NATO defense by means of a mobile, collective, interoperable with the United States and strategically autonomous (if necessary), European-led force capable of operating as a powerful first responder in an emergency in and around Europe and across air, sea, land, cyber, space and information.

What's changing for Italy

Extremely important for our country that it was confirmed in the document, albeit marginally, that the crises in the Middle East and Africa will have an impact on the entire Alliance's security and that terrorism is regarded as a major threat to all of NATO. The hope is that this is not a statement for its own sake, because the Mediterranean "front" has the potential to be a substantial threat - and would see Italy at the forefront.

The Italian Armed Forces (especially the Army), in order to fulfill the Madrid pledges, will have to be more ready for engagement and funds will have to be made available immediately. For example, polygons to conduct training including dynamic one. The Army must be prepared: we need a political change in the face of those ideological stances that deny the possibility of conducting exercises useful for dynamic training, for example, in areas such as Puglia and Sardinia. What was decided in Madrid, as we have observed, requires a good proportion of NATO countries' forces potentially ready and able to intervene: to do this takes adequate training, means and funds.

Italy must confirm with action that it will do its part. There will certainly be plenty of talking points for the first annual Defense Conference of the Machiavelli Center, to be held Wednesday, July 13, in Rome.

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Senior Fellow of the Machiavelli Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Brigadier General (Aux.) of the Italian Army, member of the Directorate of the NATO Defense College Foundation. For years director of the Middle East Faculty within the NATO Defense College.