By Duan Ting
NATO recently announced that its Joint Force Command Norfolk (JFC-NF) has achieved initial operational capability, marking a substantial step forward in the military bloc's fourth transformation of its combat command system after the Cold War. This transformation reflects NATO's new considerations for its security environment and new ideas for the employment of military means.
The European allies and the US don't see eye to eye on the development of NATO. Most European members hope the alliance would focus on collective security and defense and mull developing their independent defense leveraged on its resources. In contrast, Washington is determined to turn it into a global military organization and use it as a tool to defend its global supremacy.
Given the deepening divergence among the members, expanding the command structure accommodates all their demands, which enhances their capability and confidence of collective defense, relieves European fear of Russia, and ramps up the head-on containment of Russia, thus keeping the alliance together after a fashion.
While meeting the interests of various parties, NATO's command system reform is also aimed to fortify its military operational capability.
On the one hand, the reform will improve NATO's war-readiness organization and fast deployments. After 2014, the organization has formulated and repeatedly revised its war-readiness plan to not only intensify the forward deployments in Eastern Europe but also make sure fast-response troops can be in place in batches within 2-7 days with reinforcements ready to dispatch 30 mechanized battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 combat vessels within 30 days. This is highly demanding on the organization and coordination of troops projection. One of the purposes of the newly established command organizations in various levels is to effectively organize cross-border projection and forward coordination, making sure their main forces can be quickly deployed and put to the battleground in wartime.
On the other hand, the reform can make command and control more efficient and operations more coordinated. The Joint Force Command Norfolk is tasked to safeguard routes on the Atlantic Ocean and fend off maritime threats in high-altitude regions of North Atlantic, while the Command Ulm is responsible for ensuring smooth routes on the European continent as well as rear defense operations in central and western Europe. Echoing with the other two Joint Forces Commands in Netherlands’ Brunssum and Italy's Naples, they have realized multi-directional combat coordination on the sea and land, in the forward position and the rear area. The Cyber Operations Centre also empowers NATO's precise coordination across borders and services by not only performing cyber-attack and defense as well as situation awareness tasks but also enhancing the military alliance's alignment in multi-domain tactical operations.
As the command system reform goes deeper, NATO may continue to set up a space operation center and other new command institutions. Its self-reshaping will foreseeably have profound impact on the security situation across Europe and even beyond.
For one thing, it will further aggravate the conflict between NATO and Russia and upgrade their tug-of-war. After the Crimea event, NATO has stepped up the military pressure on Russia, which has responded tit-for-tat. Compared with the previous confrontation, the reform of the command structure has more strategic and deep-going effects and will put a sustained deterrence on Russia. But Moscow won’t eat humble pie. It will definitely react to avoid putting itself in a passive situation.
For another, it may fuel NATO's inclination to carry out military interference operations out of the region and add to the possibility of the US' military adventures. Transforming NATO's command structure seems aimed at a stronger collective defense, but that doesn't mean it will concentrate its military resources and attention on Europe alone. Actually it has looked to the Indo-Pacific region in recent years primarily because European countries pay special attention to the security situation in the West Indian Ocean as they rely on the energy supply from Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. But a more important reason is that Washington has spared no effort in promoting its Indo-Pacific strategy and has spurred on its NATO allies and partners to engage in the region's security affairs more actively, thus pushing the alliance eastward by force.
Therefore, transformation of NATO's command structure may influence regions beyond Europe while deterring Russia's westward expansion. Once a handy excuse pops up, the organization is very likely to repeat what it did when meddling in the Libyan war – some members and partners will utilize the command organization to execute out-of-region military interference operations in NATO's name. The international community should be alert to its commanding system reform this time.
(The author is from the Joint Operations College of the National Defense University, PLA China)