Old Concept, New Packaging: NATO’s Latest Rapid Response Force

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On Friday at the NATO summit in Wales, alliance leaders solidified plans for the formation of a rapid response force in Eastern Europe. The purpose of the new force is to deter Russian aggression. In the event deterrence fails, the force will serve as a fire brigade of sorts, helping to delay a potential Russian attack against a NATO member until reinforcements can arrive and influence the battle.

The rationale behind the new force is far more political than it is military. It’s being created solely in response to Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine Crisis. Since the beginning of the crisis, Russia’s military has moved and operated with impunity. First in Crimea and now in the eastern Ukraine. Although Ukraine is not a NATO member, Russian actions have caused a number of NATO’s eastern members to grow concerned. The new rapid reaction force is being tailored to address and temper the concerns of some member nations while sending a message about alliance unity to Russia.

The force’s usefulness in a potential future conflict with Russia is very limited. By definition, a rapid reaction force is centered on mobility rather than firepower. Therefore, it has to be light, and effective anti-tank weaponry will be in very limited supply.  In all likelihood, the force will be facing heavy maneuver Russian forces in a future conflict. The Russian’s are firm believers in combined arms. One look at the Russian army’s history and current day doctrine confirm this. Any force that NATO puts in the field to confront the Russians needs to be tank heavy instead of light and mobile.

This is not NATO’s first attempt at a fire brigade. The alliance has fielded rapid reaction forces in the past and at present has one operational. The first force was created by Allied Command Europe (ACE) and designated as the ACE Mobile Force (AMF). On paper, the idea behind the AMF was to be deployed anywhere in theater to show NATO solidarity and resist aggression against member states. In reality, AMF’s purpose was to reinforce the Northern or Southern flanks ( Norway and Turkey respectively) in a time of general war against the Warsaw Pact. AMF was a brigade sized land force with an attached air component. It survived the end of the Cold War, and made its first deployment (the air component) to Turkey during Operation Desert Storm to conduct surveillance of Turkey’s border with Iraq. In 1999, AMF was dispatched to the Balkans during the Kosovo Crisis. AMF hung on until 31 October, 2002 when it was disbanded and replaced by the new NATO Response Force.

NATO Response Force (NRF) was a different animal all together. The force was significantly larger than AMF, numbering 17,000 when it achieved an IOC in 2004. Defending member states was one of NRF’s intended missions. However, it was designed specifically to support NATO “Missions.” The deployments have mostly been outside of Europe. It assisted with security during the Iraqi elections that followed the end of major combat operations. NRF also deployed to provide humanitarian relief in Afghanistan, Pakistan and even to the United States in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Details about the new rapid reaction force should be coming this week. Given what’s taking place in the Ukraine, it is safe to assume that NATO will be prioritizing the creation and deployment of this force.

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