Two reasons why the NATO Spearhead still matters

Earlier this year, YPFP Brussels, with the support of NATO, challenged our members to make concrete proposals for the best use of NATO’s expeditionary forces. The backdrop was the 2014 NATO Wales Summit where outgoing Secretary-General Rasmussen launched NATO's new spearhead force (VJTF – Very High Readiness Joint Task Force). NATO’s rapid response force dates back to 2006, but with the advent of the new VJTF significantly improved the Alliance's ability to intervene quickly in evolving security challenges.

A year into the Spearhead Force build-up we have seen significant steps made by the Alliance to reduce force response time, yet in the wake of terror threats and an ongoing Syrian civil war where NATO is playing a marginal role, pundits are again asking, what is the point of a VJTF if political will to deploy it is lacking? Håvard Sandvik, Director, Security and Defence Programming argues that the Spearhead helps NATO in two key ways, likely to reappear in the context of next year's Warsaw Summit. 


Firstly, responding to the Russian incursion in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO allies to the East have been staunch supporters of stationing permanent NATO forces in their countries as a tripwire warning to President Putin. Forbidden by the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe which regulates U.S. and Russian troop deployment in Europe since the end of the Cold War, key allies like Germany are disinterested in further adding fuel to Putin´s fire. At the same time, the Ukraine crisis has made clear to the alliance that Russia is happy to use the conditions of Russian minorities as an excuse to illegally occupy entire sections of their sovereign neighbours. The rapid set-up of the VJTF as a 3,000-troop strong spearhead force to complement the Rapid Response Force, established in 2006, means that NATO can respond to crisis situations by air, sea and land within two to three days. Although the force was doubtlessly in planning prior to the unrest in Ukraine, Putin´s incursion has made it important for NATO to refine its rapid response force capabilities. The force is supported by so-called NATO Force Integration Units facilities (NFIUs) which are located in key Eastern NATO allies. In this sense the Spearhead Force provides NATO with a credible collective defence response capability, without going as far as permanently stationing NATO troops in Allied countries. 

The force was also vital to efforts for Eastern European Allies to increase defence spending, responding to concerns over burden sharing within the Alliance. The centerpiece of the Wales Summit and a challenge which has burdened NATO since its founding means that while some Allies, notably the U.S. but also traditionally the UK and France have footed a larger part of the defence spending bill, while other, especially new allies to the East have dragged their feet in reforming their forces and increasing defence spending. The VJTF and the NFIUs were key concessions to the Eastern Allies and since they were implemented several of the Baltic States, the Czech Republic and Poland have increased defence spending on expeditionary forces which can be used in a NATO context.

In the context of de-escalation in the case of Ukraine and the NATO Secretary-General asking that the dispute over NATO member Turkey´s downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M bomber, observers are quick to ask what role the VJTF force can actually play. Critics note that even though the first NATO Rapid Response Force was set up back in 2006, it has never been used in a collective defence response. As several YPFP members also pointed out, the force is not simply at the disposal of the NATO Supreme Commander in Europe, but can only been deployed following a NAC decision. This means that though deployment time is short, the time needed to make a political consensus decision might delay deployment. Those who simply judge the Spearhead Force on the basis of its deployment rate is mistaken. The force serves two important objectives; it adds credibility to NATO response to a resurgent Russia and gives Eastern allies more of a reason to buy into a NATO which for years has focused on counter-terrorism and out-of-area missions to the South and East.

Håvard Sandvik, Director, Security and Defence Programming, YPFP Brussels

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

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