A few months ago I discussed this …
“Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.”
(Gen. Robert H. Barrow, USMC)
… in the context of combat service support (logistical support for the Canadian Forces.
I was thinking, back then, logistics and support at the national level but the problems and technical complexities of support, which includes moving large bodies of troops, are also there at the highest level, as this article, from Foreign Affairs, which is reproduced under the Fair Dealing provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act, in the interests of an informed discussion, makes clear:
A Schengen Zone for NATO
Why the Alliance Needs Open Borders for Troops
“NATO’s member states are willing to defend one another, and they have the troops and the equipment to do so. But quickly getting those troops and equipment to their destination is a different matter altogether. In some new NATO member states, bridges and railroads are simply not suitable for large troop movements. But one thing frustrates commanders even more: the arduous process of getting permission to move troops across borders.
“I was probably naïve,” admits Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe. “I assumed that because these were NATO and EU countries we’d just be able to move troops. But ministries of defense are not responsible for borders.”
At their upcoming summit in Warsaw, NATO members will discuss joint responses to Russian aggression, and they are likely to agree to station four battalions—totaling about 4,000 troops—in the Baltic states and Poland. But with Russia forming two new divisions in its western military region, which borders the Baltic states, 4,000 forward-stationed troops may not be enough to deter a potential attack. (A division consists of 10,000 to 20,000 troops.)
Indeed, “if NATO’s emerging forward enhanced presence is going to be more than a symbolic tripwire,” Ian Brzezinski, a deputy assistant secretary of defense under George W. Bush who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told me, “NATO will have to conduct brigade- to division-level enforcement exercises in the Baltic region.”
And beyond deterrence, if a member state were attacked, NATO commanders would need to quickly pull together troops from different corners and bring them across Europe to their destination, which would most likely be a new NATO member state.
And there’s the complication. Moving troops across Europe requires permission at each border. “During the Cold War, we had pretty good plans to rapidly move across borders, but until [the 2014 NATO summit in] Wales we didn’t have similar plans for new NATO member states,” says a NATO official knowledgeable with the issue. “Right after Crimea we sent out a questionnaire about [border regulations] to each member states, and the results were pretty scary. Some countries needed to recall parliament in order to let NATO units cross their borders. And one country said, ‘we can only have 1,600 soldiers on our soil.’” In reality, that meant that NATO would be unable to use that member state, which the NATO official declined to identify, for passage.
Since then, NATO has made impressive progress. It has tripled the size of its 13-year-old NATO Response Force (NRF), which can muster up to 40,000 troops and is, at least in theory, able to deploy quickly to new NATO member states as well as old ones. And all of its member states have agreed to pre-clearance—the military version of a green card for troops and equipment—although it is not clear how the system will work in practice. As the NATO official reports, “some countries say ‘we don’t need any advance notice for pre-clearance,’ while others say they need four to five days’ notice.” According to the official, in most of NATO’s eastern-facing countries, getting the clearance would be a matter of five days or fewer, although one country—he declined to specify which one—still requires more time.
And so, although Hodges and his fellow commanders know how fast their troops can physically move, they have little idea whether crossing borders will take five days, two days, or perhaps just hours. “An official [in an eastern European NATO member state] told me, ‘I hope we can get this [clearance] done quickly,’” Hodges reports. “But you can’t plan based on hopes and wishes.”
SACEUR, NATO’s Supreme Allied Command in Europe, does, however, have clearance for access to Polish and Baltic airspace. And according to a NATO spokesperson, almost all NATO member states now have legislation in place for the deployment of the alliance’s 5,000-man VJTF rapid response force, usually referred to as the Spearhead Force. The VJTF, established at the 2014 Wales Summit, is NATO’s rapid response to any attack on a member state’s territory. It operates on a rotational basis and does not have a permanent home. The reaction time of the quickest units of the VJTF will be measured in hours, and the first troops will deploy to the crisis area within 48 hours.
In late May, the Spearhead Force conducted a 2,500-man Brilliant Jump exercise, which focused on the logistics of moving from Spain to Poland within four days. It succeeded, but the question is what will happen when more new NATO members’ borders, and larger numbers of troops, are involved. Estonia, for one, is trying to speed up diplomatic clearance. “[At the end of May] I had a regular Baltic defense ministers’ meeting with my Latvian and Lithuanian colleagues, where we also discussed how to achieve progress in making the Allied troops movement in the Baltic region simpler and faster,” Estonian Defense Minister Hannes Hanso told me. “We agreed to continue the work on simplifying the relevant procedures and regulations. Estonia has already eased its regulations about requesting the entry permissions for military vessels and aircraft.” According to the new regulations, the permission must be granted within seven working days, though Hanso says that in practice the procedure usually takes only a few days, and in urgent cases the permit can be issued within hours.
But military commanders, hoping for more progress—and more uniform progress across Europe—are arguing for an EU-inspired military Schengen. The Schengen Agreement, in place since 1996, allows passport-free passage between the 28 European countries that are part of the arrangement. (Of the EU’s member states, only the United Kingdom and Ireland have opted out, and several relatively recent EU members, including Romania, are waiting to join.) Hodges, to build the case, carries with him a chart showing the logistical challenges of transporting troops and equipment that he shows to decision-makers. The chart, classified for government use only, shows nine of NATO’s 29 member states, including Poland and Turkey, requiring 15 days or more for diplomatic clearance.
With a military Schengen in place, NATO troops and equipment would be able to cross NATO borders to their destination the same way EU citizens do: without having to show permits.
Should a war break out, SACEUR Curtis Scaparrotti and his fellow NATO commanders would, of course, be free to move their troops across NATO borders without diplomatic clearance. “All nations have signed up to these crisis-response measures, so we don’t expect any hold-ups in a crisis,” says the NATO spokesperson, adding that “an early entry force will be able to deploy within a couple of hours, supported by the national forces and the VJTF.” But many commanders and analysts, including Brezinski, argue that peacetime red tape is affecting planning and preparations for such contingencies, which in turn affects deterrence. “Only by regular exercises involving the movement of large numbers of troops and equipment can you minimize the logistical grit and confusion that inevitably accompanies the fog of war,” Brzezinski told me.
Indeed, when it comes to logistics, the lack of a military Schengen may put Russia at an advantage over NATO. “The Russians can quickly move their troops around inside Russia,” notes Hodges. “We’re surprised every time they do a snap exercise, and we can’t surprise them with snap exercises of our own.”“
Now, at least part of this is a product of NATO’s expansion circa 2000. When, back in the 1980s, I commanded a multi-national unit in direct support of HQ Allied Forces Central Europe (in Brunssum in the Netherlands) my sub units were located in both Germany and the Netherlands and one of them was “mobile” ~ transportable, at least, and it moved, apparently seamlessly between Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. I say “apparently seamlessly” because there were records that had to be kept and forms to be filled out at regular intervals to make things work, but there was, also, a well known, clearly understood and workable process in place ~ but the alliance was smaller, the Central Region was smaller still, HQs were less cumbersome, staffs were better trained, and so on.
This is a serious, operational matter (logistics always is) that could put troops and whole countries at risk. It will, I am sure, take a good deal of hard staff work to put right ~ the very thing well trained, professional soldiers are supposed to be able to do, well. It is not just “peacetime red tape” as the Atlantic Council’s Ian Brzezinski suggests. It is all part and parcel of national sovereignty, exactly what NATO is protecting, and while some sort of “NATO Schengen Agreement” would be a great idea there are less onerous things that can, I am sure, be put in place now, especially in the Baltic region.
Part of the problem is possibly because not all NATO members are EU members (Canada, Norway and the USA, for example) and not all those who are European NATO and EU members are participants in the Schengen agreement, and rules in the EU will, no doubt, require that non-Schengen members cannot gain any “advantage” over signatories to the treaty and so on … all very, very difficult and destined to keep regiments of lawyers and staff officers arguing for years.
Moving forces is a complex business without having to contend with unforecasted border controls. Borders have been there for centuries, NATO has been there for decades, this problem is not new and while the solution is, no doubt, difficult and complex, it is doable and it needs doing soon.