Written by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront
On the face of it, NATO is a military alliance without peer, clearly stronger than any other military power on the planet. However, references to “NATO” as an entity tend to obscure the fact the alliance consists of one military superpower–the United States, and a large number of countries whose capabilities range from respectable to non-existent. To be sure, collectively the European members of the alliance boast impressive numbers of military personnel and hardware that actually rival the US totals. But while the numbers may be comparable, absent US involvement European powers are hard-pressed to sustain sizable independent military operations, particularly in distant theaters. In what may be a case of number of EU politicians have also called for the creation of a European army that would be able to function cohesively in case of national security emergencies and without having to rely on the increasingly unpredictable United States. For the time being, a European military is out of the question. European powers might, however, operate jointly in the “coalition of the willing” format which is de-facto how NATO already operates. Therefore joint European operations would be a matter of creating an appropriate political decisionmaking mechanism and then utilize NATO-promoted inter-operability to stage coalition operations. But who are the “willing”, what do they bring to the table, and what kind of coalitions might they be willing to be part of?
The Southern Flank
This flank of NATO consists of Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy, with France being the natural leader in the area. Indeed, the French have long contested US prerogatives, seeking to appoint own officers to command any joint NATO operations or standing forces in that region.
France is clearly the most important of the powers in this region. Its army consists of several brigades equipped with Leclerc MBTs, VBCI IFVs, Tiger attack helicopters, and other modern equipment. The Armee de l’Air boasts over 100 Rafale fighters, in addition to older Mirage 2000. And finally its navy operates Europe’s only genuine aircraft carrier, supported by modern frigates armed with land-attack cruise missiles. These forces moreover have recent combat experience. Italy and Spain are not all that worse off, would be able to contribute multiple brigades each in an emergency, and also have sizable and relatively modern naval and air forces, though their rates of readiness are considerably lower than France’s.
These countries also have a shared interest in the stability of North Africa, given the proximity of the civil war in Libya that was in part triggered by France, and are concerned about the spread of ISIS influence in the region. France, for its part, has troops committed to operations in Mali and Niger, and has staged perennial interventions in Chad. Given the strain on the French military, including from domestic counter-terror missions, it would naturally be interested in forging a closer military alliance among the like-minded states of the Western Mediterranean.
The Eastern Flank
The major players here include Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Denmark, and of course the Baltic States, though recent military exercises in Poland and the Baltics have also seen the presence of contingents from France, UK, and even Spain. Moreover, the Bundeswehr divisions exercise command and control over brigades from other countries, for example Netherlands, and participate in multinational corps, though the commitment of these non-German forces to battle would be in the hands of the national governemnts.
Here, the dominant power is by far and away Germany, with a modern force of Leopard 2A6 MBTs, Puma and Boxer IFVs, Panzerhaubitze 2000 artillery, Eurocopter Tiger attack helicopters, supported by a Luftwaffe of over 100 Eurofighter Typhoons and a navy of over 10 modern frigates, a growing number of corvettes, and air-independent diesel-electric submarines. Poland is the second most-powerful member of this segment of the EU, and its armed forces include over 200 Leopard 2A4 and 2A5 tanks, several hundred Rosomak wheeled IFVs, and about 50 F-16 fighters, in addition to older equipment. Other forces in this region are smaller and with less modern equipment. Thus while Germany could plausibly field 2 modern heavy divisions with a total of 6 heavy brigades, Poland arguably has equipment for 3 or 4 modern heavy brigades, plus a number of brigades with obsolete equipment. The rest of the countries mentioned above could contribute or two brigades, with the combat potential of individual Baltic States being measured in battalions. Dampening the picture somewhat, all of these forces suffer from serious though remediable readiness problems. Even Germany’s military has very low equipment availability rates due to underfunding and the strain of out-of-area deployments. Other militaries are in an even worse state of disrepair.
While collectively this is a respectable military force, in practice it is difficult in the extreme to envision all of these forces operating as part of a coalition. The main obstacle would be the different priorities the governments of these countries are pursuing, particularly their attitude toward Russia. Poland, moreover, is pursuing a number of projects seeking to establish its own sphere of influence in the area, to the exclusion of Germany, which makes its subordination to Germany in the event of a coalition war rather unlikely. At the moment the most plausible scenario demanding a coalition response in this area is the break-up of Ukraine and a civil war on its territory, and it is difficult to imagine the countries listed above agreeing to a common response.
The Northern Flank
Here the key interested European state is Norway, though other countries, including Germany, Netherlands, and Denmark, have force projection capabilities that would allow them to contribute troops, aircraft, and ships to missions in this region. There is only one issue that might potentially lead to a conflict, and that is the control over the Arctic’s natural resources, which at the moment appears to be moving toward a three-way tug of war between Russia, EU, and US. Considering Russia’s interest in reaching international legal agreements on the status of the Arctic, the likelihood of conflict is small barring rash unilateral US actions.
The Eastern Mediterranean
Here the situation is all but hopeless due to the intractable conflict between Greece and Turkey, with Greece being now reduced to a de-facto refugee buffer. This set of affairs will continue for the foreseeable future, and there seems very likelihood of any formation of any regional EU coalition because Greece is too weak to lead one, and other major actors are not interested in leading one.
While the United Kingdom is about to leave the EU, it is not leaving Europe as such. Moreover, it has an interest in preventing either France or Germany playing a dominating role in either of the theaters described above, and has been known to align itself with the most extreme Russian factions in Eastern Europe which are likewise looking to Britain for support. While less interested in North Africa, UK may be counted on backing any US initiatives aimed at pushing France’s influence out of that region, for the sake of control of its natural resources.
Sweden and Finland, while not members of NATO, are becoming increasingly active militarily and are looking for leadership not to Germany but rather to the US. The US promotion of “Scandinavian Union” suggests an effort to limit Germany’s influence in Europe as well.
While Europe faces two sets of problems in the form of political instability along its southern and eastern flanks, it lacks the political unity necessary to tackle either or both. France and Germany, the leading political, economic, and military powers of the continental EU, are only gradually moving in that direction by merging their defense industries and forging ahead with joint military exercises. Europe moreover lacks an outside threat of magnitude sufficient to unite them in a common cause. Russia’s supposed “aggression” does not rise to that level, as few Western leaders appear to genuinely believe their own propaganda. Furthermore, the maritime English-speaking powers have an interest in preventing such unity from arising because they are more interested in continental Europe as a military and ultimately economic protectorate to be exploited. EU’s expansion in the past couple of decades is now coming to haunt it, because the countries of Eastern Europe are not so much pro-EU as they are pro-US and anti-Russia, which undermines EU’s ability to act cohesively and allows the US to “meddle” in European affairs through its “stalking horses”. Paradoxically, given Russia’s eagerness to establish a partnership with continental EU powers, that impetus toward greater European unity may yet be provided by US and UK, driven to desperation by their mounting economic and social problems.