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Central Europe Forces Embrace New Status, Prepare New Roles

September 1999
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

No longer the front line of defense, alliance militaries welcome additional members, train for out-of-area tasks.

The Allied Forces Central Europe Command, once a bastion of Western Europe’s defensive line, is reinventing itself to serve as a key element in alliance operations outside its area of responsibility. It is consolidating with another regional command, incorporating two of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s newest members into its structure, and preparing to serve as a parent headquarters to other alliance commands.

The Central Europe Command has undergone some of the most significant changes confronting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). For decades, its prime task was to serve as the alliance’s main line of defense against a massive land assault by Warsaw Pact forces. With the end of the Cold War, the pact and its threat evaporated, and the command, based in Brunssum, the Netherlands, found itself facing a new set of challenges mirrored in NATO’s changing security role.

New risks and threats have replaced the Cold War menace. Gen. Joachim Spiering, GEA, commander in chief, Allied Forces Central Europe (AFCENT), explains that these potential threats range in an arc from Northern Africa, across the Middle East, through to the Caucuses. Accordingly, NATO’s Southern Command likely will be facing the actual command and control tasks for many future alliance operations.

“Central Europe was the main focus of the antagonism between East and West,” Gen. Spiering relates in a SIGNAL interview. As such, it depended heavily on being reinforced from the outside. The Central Europe region now is rich in resources, manpower and infrastructure. Consequently, it has reversed its role as a “force receiver” to become a force provider. The general explains that the command will be sending trained personnel—individuals, modules and possibly complete staffs—as part of combined joint task force (CJTF) operations.

With the new European security structure, NATO’s Allied Forces Northwestern Europe Command (AFNORTHWEST)—which covers the land areas of the United Kingdom and Norway and the sea areas of the Irish Sea, the English Channel, the North Sea, the Norwegian maritime flank and the Baltic Sea—and AFCENT are effectively merging into a new single command: Allied Forces North Europe (AFNORTH). Also to be headquartered in Brunssum, this new regional command will feature North, Northeast and Central subregional commands. Its total area of responsibility will be four times that of the Central Europe Command, as it will encompass considerable maritime regions. The two original regional commands currently share responsibility for the Baltic Sea area. The changeover is slated for March 2000, with a full operational capability beginning in early April.

Command preparation for its new role of supporting ongoing or future crises already is underway with major structural changes. First and foremost is completing the merger of the two regional headquarters into a single entity. A related task is integrating a newly acquired maritime component into operational planning. And, the command must incorporate two of NATO’s newest members, the Czech Republic and Poland.

Another major task is to help further the development of the CJTF headquarters concept and to prepare its implementation. This effort aims to produce deployable, multinational, multiservice alliance headquarters of variable sizes. They would serve as command and control centers for contingency CJTF operations. As one of three parent CJTF headquarters, the command must build up the necessary trained personnel, hardware and communications and information system elements.

“This is what we are facing for years to come,” Gen. Spiering declares.

Part of the command’s CJTF thrust involves staff training to provide the experience needed to make the CJTF concept viable, with a particular concentration on the alliance’s ability for deployment to or beyond NATO’s periphery. The command would provide the main part of the trained staff functions as well as necessary NATO communications and information systems equipment.

Key to this is the alliance’s deployable communications modules, or DCMs. This new communications concept comprises a set of modules that can be assembled flexibly to allow a mobile headquarters to be linked to subordinate headquarters as well as to the operational force structure. NATO currently is finalizing plans for the implementation phase of this effort, the general relates. The command should have the first of six initial DCMs by mid-2000, with all six operational by 2002. Another group of six would be deployed by 2004.

Gen. Spiering notes that the Czech Republic and Poland do not play an active role in DCMs yet. In years to come, however, the command will want to incorporate them. Currently, their training focuses on achieving interoperability. Their main thrust is to contribute to the NATO integrated air defense, with their second priority being the establishment of a rapid reaction force capability. Along with Hungary, these new NATO members have identified headquarters and units that would contribute to the alliance’s rapid reaction capabilities.

The command will be responsible for setting goals and objectives, and training their main defense forces. This will be achieved through seminars for staff officers and commanders as well as through the component commands for each country’s individual services.

The most pressing need for these new NATO members is to build up noncommissioned officer (NCO) corps, the general offers. The NCO concept is not part of the old Soviet-style military structure that pervaded Warsaw Pact forces, and NATO’s new members must firm up what Gen. Spiering describes as “the backbone of any armed forces.” This will take several years, he points out.

A related need is to overcome the Soviet-style thinking of centralized control by decentralizing responsibilities and competence. This is part of a societywide re-education process in each new alliance country, but the military still retains vestiges of the old doctrine, which must be overcome. In training, these militaries also must be more safety conscious, the general declares. This is especially true in the air forces and the navies, which is also a throwback to the Soviet mentality.

Overcoming these handicaps requires adequate funding. A shortage of money among new NATO member nations makes it difficult for Western-style troop training if forces cannot fuel vehicles or stock necessary spare parts. “They are working hard on that, and I see a lot of progress being made, but it will take years” until their armed forces can overcome these persistent shortcomings, Gen. Spiering states.

Among Partnership for Peace nations, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, the Baltic states and Slovakia all aspire to join NATO, but they have not formally been invited to become members. However, they have been told that “the door is still open,” the general says. He adds that these nations are in a position to create conditions that ease the way for their membership, and they can increase their interoperability with NATO nations without being members. He has seen “very encouraging” signs in all these countries but notes that the same challenges of personnel and training faced by the Czech Republic and Poland apply to the aspiring nations.

Integrating the Czech Republic and Poland into NATO operations poses a unique set of challenges. Both nations have managed the transition to a democracy with civilian control of the military, but years of work remain to bring their forces up to par and interoperate with their NATO counterparts. Nonetheless, Gen. Spiering believes that they can achieve their goals given the proper commitment to adequate funding.

He cites his native Germany as an example of a latecomer to NATO becoming an integral element in just a few years. The Federal Republic took about 10 to 12 years from its date of entry to become fully interoperable and compatible with the other allies, although Germany had better starting conditions than the former Warsaw Pact nations. A great deal depends on how much the Czech and Polish societies are willing to invest in this endeavor, and both countries have a large number of competing priorities, especially economic ones.

The general believes that they must strike the right balance in their budget priorities, but he is not hesitant about the importance of a strong military to their future security. “I would always advocate for them to give the armed forces what they require, and this is rather costly,” he says. “However, it would be utterly unrealistic to demand that the military would be number one on their list. They had been suffering for more than 40 years from the communist regime, and to get rid of whatever the regime left in terms of economical, political and educational infrastructure requires a lot of rebuilding, and it costs a lot of money. We are part of that rebuilding, but certainly not the one that a responsible government could put at the top of the list.”

The general offers that he is worried about “the lack of predictability” in mid- and long-term budgeting for these nations. A major concern is whether the percentage of defense spending in the nations’ gross domestic product is high enough. In many cases, funding includes requisite earnings from the sale of military infrastructure items, which always contains an element of risk.

Many longtime NATO nations, including some under the command’s responsibility, have fallen behind significantly in their military funding. These may require “major efforts to rectify that,” the general says.

National budget priorities plague many NATO militaries, and Gen. Spiering allows that this is a major concern among all senior alliance military planners. “Most NATO governments thought they could cash in the so-called ‘peace dividend,’” he relates. “But, there never was a peace dividend. We could see in [the operation in] Kosovo that some of the European allies of the United States have fallen back considerably and, in some areas, have lost their capability to fully contribute in a major allied operation. This needs to be rectified.

“The Kosovo operation is perhaps a sharp reminder that we should get our priorities right—in other words, not to allow the military to fall back too far,” he concludes.

The general also warns against an emerging technology gap among various NATO members. This gap particularly is notable between the United States and Europe as well as within Europe itself. Rather than lower the bar, Gen. Spiering maintains that Europeans must pool their resources and research capabilities to elevate their technology level. This move, which can only come with a European security identity, is overdue, he emphasizes. The continent must start with a common security and foreign policy, which is still lacking.

“The United States is certainly, by far, the strongest contributor,” to NATO military operations, Gen. Spiering says. “There are certain functional areas where it provides capabilities that nobody other than the United States has.”

The end of the Cold War has not eliminated uncertainty in Russia, as various political forces vie for power. However, AFCENT does not anticipate a renewal of the land confrontation that characterized that era. The general assures that the command “does not have contingency plans” for a renewed chill that could ensue with the rise to power of a militant Russian nationalist, for example. “To be honest, we don’t believe that we should have [these plans] at this time, despite the fact that the Russians chose to withdraw from all the NATO structures that they were in.

“Despite that, we as NATO should not be discouraged,” the general emphasizes. “We should invite them; we should continue our dialog with the Russians because we must look beyond today and tomorrow; we should look at the more distant future.

“We have a common future in Europe, and Russia must play a responsible and active part in that. I don’t regard Russia to be an enemy; I don’t have any antagonistic feelings; I don’t think they are an imminent threat,” Gen. Spiering states. “I regard them to be partners for NATO in the future; that we can only build together with them, not against them.”

The only problem Gen. Spiering foresees would emerge from prolonged and deepening economic crises accompanied by political unrest in the post-Yeltsin era. An unstable situation might produce a strongly anti-Western individual who would be tempted to use Russia’s nuclear weapons to blackmail the West—not to launch them, but to coerce the West with a nuclear form of old-fashioned saber rattling, the general suggests. If this same type of leader sought to re-establish Russian military might to menace Europe, NATO would have many months, “time enough to take precautionary countermeasures,” to prepare a major joint military operation, the general maintains. He does not see a need to establish forward bases in the new and aspiring NATO nations.

During the Kosovo operation, AFCENT provided individual reinforcements to support headquarters Allied Forces Southern Europe (AFSOUTH); headquarters Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) in Skopje, Macedonia; and headquarters Allied Command Europe Mobile Force/Land (AMFL) in Albania. These individuals included many staff officers and senior NCOs as well as other experts. This effort also featured technical support for communications, including two mobile communications and information system modules and two transportable satellite terminals—one of each in Skopje and Albania.

The emerging regional command shares many of the same communications requirements as the entire alliance. Gen. Spiering cites the need for an Allied Command Europe (ACE)-wide command, control and communications system. While this will be costly, he believes it is necessary to link all the diverse command and service systems.

For example, by the time the new Regional Command North is stood up, it will have consolidated approximately 10 different national and service command, control and information systems. Making all these compatible in one integrated system will be necessary until a coherent ACE-wide system is introduced. Enabling this interim solution requires a significant number of new interfaces and plug-in systems.

Infrastructure changes necessary for AFNORTH’s command, control and information system to be fully operational will not be ready until the end of 2002. The command will be fully functional, however, by March 2000 with its interim fixes, the general emphasizes.