When the leaders of the transatlantic alliance come together at the Munich Security Conference this week, it is important that they recognise that winding down military operations in Afghanistan and Syria is not the be-all and end-all for NATO allies. In Syria, the grim seemingly endless war, the humanitarian crisis that it has provoked, the survival of a Russian-backed dictator: all these are the ingredients of a major unfolding tragedy about which we can do little. The atrocities, unchecked and unpunished, have exposed the weakness of the West to engage meaningfully in a Middle East war that despite its horrors remains marginal to most Western countries.
If the West wants to show its mettle it has to demonstrate that it is able to shrewdly manage the resources of the military, set priorities and prepare for the wars of the 21st century. Yet political decision-makers are tangled up in often ill-informed debates about the “where” and “when” of future showdowns rather than the “how”. How to deliver results quickly and effectively on the battlefield, how to move troops swiftly into position, how to keep an army technically alert to cyber and electronic attack. How to stay fleet of foot. In short, the US and its allies must focus on the engine-room of war: logistics, logistics, logistics.
No one understood this better than the pioneer of 20th-century tank warfare, J.F.C. Fuller who made high claims for the role of technology, but also of speed, in combat. In a conflict between advanced armies, he argued, victory would go to the side that saved time, because “time is a controlling factor in war.” Napoleon also grasped this and spent as much time thinking about supply lines as the order of battle. It was also a logistical oversight – not providing enough rations for his troops and winter horseshoes for their stallions – that would prove to be Napoleon’s downfall during his 1812 invasion of Russia.
The battle against ISIS is an important one and valuable lessons have been learned, not just for the Special Forces. But the primary task of defence planning has to be to prepare resources for war against a militarily advanced opponent. In some ways, it is irrelevant whether that enemy is Russia, China, Iran or some other hostile challenger. The underpinning issues remain the same and they have to be solved. First and foremost: military mobility and the problems related to infrastructure capacity. As a former US army commander and a global military fuel supplier, we both understand the enormous importance of reliable supply chains: be it the fuel that powers air bombardment and helps speed vehicles towards their goals or the provisions that allow warships to stay at sea for longer. Even the most prepared forces will be ineffective if they can’t reach the front line in time.
Russian aggression in the Sea of Azov, where it seized three Ukrainian naval vessels late last year, is a reminder that we need to take deterrence capability in the Black Sea region more seriously. Take Romania, home to a US Air Force base and one thousand troops. In the event of a military flashpoint in or around Romania, NATO reinforcements would have to come from the North and the West over the Carpathian Mountains. Without highways and rail networks to move heavy equipment over the Carpathians quickly, our deterrence capability in Romania and Bulgaria will be limited.
That is why we need to be thinking more about how to strengthen and improve European bridges, highways, rail networks as well as airports and seaports to allow quicker ground movement. NATO’s European members have been criticised – and rightly so – for not spending 2% of their GDP on defence. As the Alliance faces new challenges, it also needs to become more flexible, more creative. There are ways that NATO members can contribute, for example by improving infrastructure and freedom of movement as well as providing ammunition and fuel. Money spent in these areas should count towards the 2% defence spending target. We should also work towards reducing red tape within NATO member states relating to the supply of fuel and other essential goods provided to Alliance army bases.
Let us not get bogged down with doctrinal arguments for and against surges in Syria and Afghanistan. What counts in the war of the 21st century is mobility, an ever-present awareness of how an enemy can paralyse Western armies, mess up co-ordination between multi-national forces and score at the very least a propaganda success against the West. Logistics is a practical, military science. It needs to be taken seriously and to be properly funded by governments. If they neglect to do this, a once-powerful alliance will end up looking weak and in disarray.