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[Ed.Note: Dr. Johnston is a qualified submariner and is presently Executive VICe President of the Center for Strategic & Intemational Studies in Washington, DC.]

or most of its existence, the North Atlantic Treaty F Organization (NATO) bas suffered from a chronic case of political disarray in one form or another. “Whither NATO?” was the enduring question. Yet NATO bas proven to be one of the most effective, long-standing alliances in history. In short, its considerable strengths have more than offset its acknowl-edged weaknesses.

Among NATO’s strengths have been its ability to adjudicate a similar strategic outlook among the member states (with the single possible exception of France) and to adapt to changed circumstances. This latter capability has never been brought to bear so quickly or effectively as it has over the past two years in accommodating the historic and unprecedented changes that have taken place in the geopolitical landscape. In remarkably short order, the alliance bas absorbed a united Germany, accommodated the rapid disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, and adjusted to the new requirements for peacekeeping beyond its borders.

At the same time, NATO has adopted a new strategic concept based on mobility and flextbility and a political strategy that involves a declared partnership with Eastern Europe. Beyond their impact on ground and air forces, these changes will also have a major effect on the maritime component of the NATO force structure. It is already clear that the West’s maritime strategy, which was geared to deal globally with the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact at sea, will be undergoing dramatic change along with its associated naval force structure and operating methods and patterns.

General Predictions

There are four possible future courses for the alliance: (1) “NATO Present as Future,” (2) “NATO Defunct,” (3) “NATO (Rejuvenated) as a European Structure,” and (4) “NATO Broadly Rejuvenated.” Many observers forecast that either option two or three is the most likely to prevail. This predic-tion is driven by a strong feeling that U.S. domestic political realities are likely to overwhelm any strategic rationale that might be developed to support other options, no matter how compelling or well presented it may be. The prevailing mood at the recent annual Munich Conference on Security Policy – Wehrkunde (February 9, 1992) — gave added credence to such skepticism as some American representatives advised their European counterparts that a rising tide of isolationism was dramatically changing U.S. attitudes toward Europe. As Senator WilliamS. Cohen (R-Maine), a member of this study’s Steering Group, warned: some view the North Atlantic Treaty Organiza-tion as “No longer necessary, relevant, or affordable.”

Wehrkunde notwithstanding, it would appear that the public mood and support for NATO in the United States is likely to run along one of three tracks:

  1. Active support for major reductions or total withdrawal based on the disappearance of the Soviet threat and a feeling that the allies can assume their own defense.
  2. Apathy or indifference toward NATO which, in tum, leads to de facto disengagement driven by steep cuts in the U .S. defense budget and/or the impact of centrifugal forces within the alliance, which could act to drive the allies apart or at least in different directions.
  3. Sufficient support for an intelligent, well-argued strategic vision for a rejuvenated NATO.

Short of carrying the day with a compelling strategic ratio-nale, the fallback challenge will be to fashion a NATO strategy and force structure that can accommodate itself to a U.S. defense budget that is driven primarily by economic and domestic political considerations. Such a budget could easily lead to hollow forces and little more than a barebones reconsti-tution capability. Thus, it is a major challenge to provide input that can help secure continued public support for meaningful U.S. engagement in Europe. There are numerous reasons why it makes sense to continue a credible U.S. military presence, some of which are listed below:

  1. NATO is the best instrument for maintaining security ties among the European states and the United States, even as prospects increase for heightened economic competi-tion.
  2. In European eyes, the U.S. presence serves as insurance against German dominance by promoting a complementa-rity of forces.
  3. NATO provides a stable framework for assimilating Eastern European security concerns.
  4. A forward presence in Europe provides the United States with the greatest flexibility for responding to crises in that region and the Middle East.
  5. Because future major contingencies will require coalition forces, an existing structure with coordinated procedures and a high likelihood of use becomes an extremely important force multiplier during a period of reduced budgets and forces.
  6. NATO is the most effective forum for monitoring and verifying arms reduction agreements for the West.
  7. A continuing U.S. security presence in Europe can provide added leverage in the economic sphere as Europe becomes more integrated.
  8. For the near-to-intermediate term, there will be an ongoing requirement to hedge against a resurgent threat from the Easl Although CIS military capabilities have clearly eroded, they remain formidable; and intentions can swing dramatically.

To maintain NATOs viability, NATO ames have undergone a fundamental shift in military outlook and accepted peace-keeping objectives that may require the application of mUitary force beyond the current NATO Guidelines Area (NGA) boundaries. To accommodate this changed context and protect its own Interests elsewhere, U.S. forces assigned to NATO will clearly need to have dual-use characteristics.

Implications for the Maritime Component

In evaluating what these changes mean for NATO’s maritime component, it is useful to examine the alliance’s new strategic concept, as ratified by the NATO heads of state at the Novem-ber 1991 summit in Rome (and reinforced by the NATO foreign ministers at their June 1992 meeting in Oslo). Among other things, that concept reflects a greater reliance on multi-national forces that has already involved changes in command relationships, force plans, and deployment patterns for NATO maritime forces. It also reflects a movement away from garrisoning armies and air forces on foreign soil.

Although there is no longer a requirement for extensive forces to be maintained ready, in-theater for the defense of NATO, it is nevertheless the case that potential areas of instability continue to line the seas that lap NATO’s shores. These challenges, while smaller, are inherently less predictable than those for which the alliance bad to prepare in the pasl The confrontation with Libya in 1986 and the 1991 war in the Persian Gulf are suggestive of the kinds of threats that might be expected in the future. In addition, the remnants of former Soviet military power are substantial and their ownership still in some dispute. In the wrong hands, these remnants could pose a significant danger to NATO and its interests.

With all NATO members facing deep defense cuts and corresponding demands for peace dividends, a strong, visionary alliance partnership will be all the more difficult to maintain. In addition to being lighter and smaller, future forces will have to be more mobile and flexible than ever before. Despite major reductions that will take place over the next several years, U.S. naval forces will still need to be forward deployed and prepared to project power – in conjunction with allied forces – wherever and whenever it is called for. Forward presence continues to make as much sense DOW as it ever did iD the past by enhanc-ing deterreuce, providing a quick response capability, and avoidlug the high cost ID lives and equipment that typically atteuds after-the-fact attempts at forced iDterdictlon. While it appears that these expected reductions in force structure can be implemented within a framework that continues to protect NATO’s interests, it is the unexpected reductions that could take the alliance below the critical mass required to protect its vital security interests.

According to William Kaufmann and John Steinbruner of the Brookings Institution, the U.S. contribution in FJSC&l Year 1990 to the non-nuclear defense of Europe – from Norway, along the Central Front (including the Atlantic sea lanes) to NATO’s southern flank – accounted for approximately $136 billion, or more than 40 percent, of the FY1990 defense budget. If the costs·of covering the strategic and tactical nuclear threats to Europe are also included, then the defense of Europe currently consumes nearly half of the U.S. national defense budget authority. On this basis, when one takes into account the demise of the Soviet/Warsaw Pact threat and the projected 25 percent (or greater) reduction in U.S. defense expenditures during the next five years, it is safe to assume that the portion of total obligation authority (TOA) devoted to European security will drop below $100 billion a year.

Associated naval force structure reductions will take their toll on the forces available for assignment to the NATO area of responsibility. As the U.S. Navy drops from 549 ships to approximately 450 (a 25 percent decrease from the original 600-ship goal), the respective shares of aircraft carrier battle groups, amphibious ready groups, ships, airwings, and marine forces assigned to the Atlantic and Pacific commands will remain approximately even. The differences will appear in their employment.

Reductions in the U.S. defense budget that exceed those currently planned would have an even more dramatic impact on the naval forces available for deployment/assignment to NATO. Congressional Budget Office estimates of the effects of force structure of an additional 10 percent cut in the defense budget (beyond the 25 percent) show a $250 billion budget driving naval force levels down to 10 to 11 aircraft carriers and fewer than 400 ships overall. As a rough role of thumb, for each additional $50 billion across-the-board cut beyond that already built into the defense budget, a reduction of one to two aircraft carriers and about 50 ships can be expected. In other words, a $200 billion defense budget would probably include eight aircraft carriers and 350 ships; a $150 billion budget, six aircraft carriers and 300 (or fewer) ships.

In simple terms, a $250 billion defense budget could support two carrier battle groups forward-deployed, $200 billion — one and a half, and $150 billion- one. In terms of area coverage, when the budget drops below $250 billion, the U.S. Navy will begin to lose the ability to deploy aircraft carrier battle groups simultaneously to more than a single theater on a continuous basis. Because these budget levels would only be conceivable in a much more benign world than the one we appear to be leaving, it would have to be assumed that the former Soviet threat in the Atlantic region had totally disappeared. This, in tum, would lead to the conclusion that the U.S. Navy would no longer be able to keep forces continuously deployed to NATO that it would have constant coverage only in whatever part of the world represented the current zone of crisis.

In addition to the aircraft carrier, each carrier battle group currently contains four to six surface combatants, one to two replenishment ships, and one to two submarines. At the 450-ship level, these numbers will drop to three to four surface combatants, one replenishment ship, and one to two subma-rines. Amphibious ready groups, which currently contain three to five ships, are expected to drop to three as new, larger, multi-purpose ships replace smaller, single mission amphibious ships.

At the peak of the U .S. commitment, more than half of the Navy’s force structure was earmarked for assignment to the NATO Guidelines Area. In the 1970s and for most of the 1980s, the continuous deployment of two robust carrier battle groups and one amphibious ready group in the Mediterranean became the requirement. However, the Navy was able to meet this requirement only about one-quarter of the time; and it has since been eased to one smaller carrier battle group and an amphibious ready group. Meanwhile, the 1992 National Military Strate&Y states that two carrier battle groups and two amphibious ready groups are “required to support U.S. interests” in the Atlantic regions — “including Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Southwest Asia.”

Assuming current operating parameters, at 450 ships and 12 aircraft carriers, the navy’s ability to provide simultaneous, continuous coverage in three theaters (Mediterranean, North Arabian Sea, and Western Pacific) is lost. Constant coverage can now only be provided for two theaters, with partial coverage for the third. Below 450 ships, only partial coverage can be maintained in the second theater.

Because of the exteusive capital and lone lead times involved in the design and building of new ships, there is a fragility and irreversibility to naval force reductions that greatly exceed those associated with ground forces, which are inherently easier to reconstitute. This Is a critical asymmetry that should not be overlooked In future force reductions.

Naval Forces:  A Unique Out-of-Area Asset

Sea power offers a mobile, flexible, and easily manageable means of projecting alliance resolve in either a deterrence or conflict-resolving mode. It also offers the advantage of a graduated presence, as subtle and unobtrusive or as visible and threatening as the situation may demand. Naval forces can remain on station indefinitely if need be and can, in most instances, be employed without violating any state’s territorial integrity. In short, they are a diplomatic rheostat, well suited to overseeing alliance interests on a worldwide basis.

In the past, NATO multinational naval forces and exercises provided much more than strength in numbers for containment of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact Combined forces provided a comprehensive and highly successful basis for multilateral cooperation and joint maritime operations outside the NATO area. The continuing value of this cooperation was apparent to all in the recent Persian Gulf War. Although NATO was not technically involved in the conflict, NATO’s maritime forces provided an integrated defense line in the Mediterranean that involved not only ships from 12 different navies but also the use of numerous other alliance assets, such as the AWACS (airborne warning and control system). Among other things, this NATO umbrella facilitated the flow of forces to and from the region on the part of those member countries operating as a part of the coalition. The familiarity of the coalition partners with NATO operational concepts and pro-cedures was invaluable and contnouted to the many early and continuing successes of the naval interdiction against Iraq.

It should also be noted that naval forces offer more than simply an ability to project power and control the seas. They are uniquely capable of extending humanitarian assistance to nations in need and of providing non-combatant evacuation and disaster relief. In addition, port visits by NATO ships to non-NATO members do a great deal to strengthen political and cultural ties among nations.

Future military conflicts, whether they involve NATO itself or simply coalitions involving some of NATO’s members, are likely to require the type of multinational naval response seen during the Persian Gulf War. As NATO’s focus shifts to dealing with destabilizing contingencies, as troop levels on the Conti-nent decline, and as collective interests arise in more remote areas of the world, NATO will come to rely even more than it has in the past on the inherent mobility and flexibility of seapower for providing both initial crisis response and stabilizing forward presence.

Outlook for the Future

Whether NATO remains In its present form, bec;:omes defunct, is rejuvenated as a primarily European structure, or Is broadly rejuvenated, the relative importance of maritime forces to NATO is likely to increase. Whatever form NATO takes in the future, it will adjust to future events much as it did to the Persian Gulf War, where coalition forces came in large part from NATO countries and where alliance forces were ready to back-fill U.S. requirements in the NATO area. NATO will also eventually adjust to more extensive out-of-area capabilities as it becomes clearer that the future of the alliance, along with that of its members, may be more determined by what happens outside the region than within.

If NATO remains robust, then the primary maritime event that will occur is the downsizing of the alliance’s maritime forces. These forces will retain their importance, however, as the disproportionately greater reductions in land and air forces lead to an increased reliance on sealift and amphibious capabili-ties.

By contrast, if NATO falls apart or is rejuvenated as a European entity in which the U.S. role becomes one of providing reinforcement in time of major crisis (and the ongoing coverage of its nuclear umbrella), the importance of U.S. naval forces in the region as the only U.S. military presence will be even greater. Paradoxically, such a situation would place severe demands on a naval force structure that has already been reduced — perhaps to as few as 350 ships and six to eight carrier battle groups- as a result of the U.S. de facto departure from NATO, whether driven by the perceived absence of a significant threat, compelling domestic priorities, or some combination of the two. In such a case, most of the U.S. forces would belong to CONUS-based contingency forces.

NATO’s new strategic concept, adopted at the November 1991 Rome Summit, redirects it toward reassurance and the maintenance of stability. Although not fully articulated, the concept implies that the European Community (EC), Western European Union (WEU), and Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) could develop security-related forces in parallel with NATO but that the United States would remain the leader of the alliance for the foreseeable future. As these .other security organizations evolve, it should be possible to adjust U.S. force levels in proportion to their growing capabilities. Until these organizations have matured, however, it will be necessary to maintain sufficient naval force levels within the NATO area to cover the drawdowns of air and ground forces.


The alliance should actively seek to persuade U.S. executive and legislative branch officials of the continued need for a meaningful U.S. security presence in Europe. European military representatives should play a key role in this regard.

To accommodate NATO’s growing reliance on its maritime component, the alliance should consider adopting the following recommendations wherever possible and appropriate:

  1. Continue to realign the NATO command stlucture to accommodate changes in the threat and the prospective increased role of the maritime component. Toward this end:
  • When feasible, upgrade CJNCSOUTH (Commander in Chief, Allied Forces Southern Europe) to a major NATO command.
  • Assign individual SA.CLANT commanders for extended tours of duty.

2. To complement STANAVFORLANT and STANAVFOR-MED, develop on-call multinational task groups tailored to perform alliance-related missions, including those that extend beyond the


  1. As NATO adjusts to an evolving out-of-area capability, take steps to disarm possible international concern and to develop added proficiency on a number of maritime-related fronts:
    • Political Acclimation.STANAVFORLANT and STANAVFORMED should conduct occasional out-of-area exercises and (later on) operations.
    • Humanitarian Assistance. Given the nature of most humanitarian assistance programs, more initiatives in this area should prove unthreatening and welcome.
    • Noncombatant Evacuation. In situations where the maritime evacuation ofnomcombatants is required, the interests of several NATO members are often similar, if not identical.
    • Chokepoint ControL NATO maritime forces should develop a focused capability to protect and control chokepoints.
  1. An integrated effort in the areas of adequate strategic lift and prepositioning should become an alliance priority as the NATO members downsize their naval forces.
  2. NATO should reexamine the need for a NATO frigate that can be optimized for Third World operations.
  1. Provide a Tactical Ballistic Mzssile Defense capability for NATO forces both within and outside the NGA by using the maritime surveillance assets of the alliance in combi-nation with the potential anti-tactical ballistic missile (ATBM) capabilities of U.S Navy Aegis ships.

The bipolarity of the Cold War has left in its wake a volatile set of antagonisms, especiaUy among and within the countries of the former Warsaw Pact. In the midst of these new uncer-tainties, the NATO alliance represents stability. Its bold and creative responses to recent global change have been impressive and reassuring. It is hoped that ordered thinking in the face of budgetary imperatives for drastic drawdown will prove useful in continuing that trend.

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