12:37 Aug. 8, 2016
Heads of government need to be more responsive to rapidly evolving threats, says general
As NATO soldiers practise how to fight a war in Europe, its political leaders are practising how to react to one.
In the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea two years ago, the world's most powerful military alliance has sharply increased its focus on Europe, shoring up the defences of its worried eastern European members and beginning to think once again about how it might defend them in a scenario it once thought had become unthinkable: a Russian invasion.
But while NATO troops are ready for a rapid reaction on home turf, the heads of government of its member states are not, warns its top military commander.
"It's one of the lessons from Ukraine," says General Denis Mercier, former head of the French air force and now supreme allied commander for transformation, one of the two top military jobs in NATO. "High responsiveness relies on two points. On the military side, it relies on the ability to operate very quickly. But it also relies on responsiveness in political decisions."
To deploy troops for defence and reassurance or to actively fight requires a decision by the North Atlantic Council (NAC), NATO governing political body. But securing consensus to act from its members — particularly in circumstances where events on the ground are murky — has proved to be a sometimes tortuous process.
Other non-military threats, such as cyber crime, where the perpetrators are often obscured, gives another dimension to the scope of NATO remit, he adds. "Now we are facing scenarios where the threshold of the crisis is not clear, hybrid scenarios with non-state or covert actors."
Gen Mercier's command, based in Virginia, is charged with constantly adapting structures and military capabilities within the alliance to keep it strategically and tactically relevant.
Military strategists within NATO have been warning for some time that Russia's entire strategy is focused around creating challenges and provocations that are fluid, hard to read and consequently politically paralysing.
As Russia's intervention in Ukraine showed, tweets and status updates, if analysed correctly, cannot only provide intelligence just as compelling as that from classified sources, but they can also do it quicker.
A list of NATO military shortcomings is being drawn up by the general and his team and will be presented to defence ministers next year. It is likely to recommend more aircraft able to quickly reinforce the alliance's eastern frontier and additional ships to ply the seas around Europe.