NATO's European Army

Overview of the Report

(1) The eruption of the Ukraine crisis in February 2022 brought large-scale land warfare back to Europe, ringing alarm bells for European governments. The prevailing notion, until then, was that major ground forces and mobility capabilities would not be central in future conflicts. This belief persisted even after Russia’s occupation of Crimea and its involvement in separatist activities in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

However, the Ukraine crisis shattered this perception, compelling European countries to confront the need for robust land forces. As a result, post-2014, some European militaries initiated plans to bolster their capabilities for major land operations, but they still face critical deficiencies in various aspects essential for high-intensity warfare.

(2) The Ukraine crisis prompted European countries to establish a new type of army. At the NATO summit in Madrid in June 2022, the allies collectively recognized the strategic threat posed by the Ukrainian crisis as the most significant and immediate peril to their security. Consequently, NATO adopted a new strategic concept and a mission to enhance deterrence and defense posture.

The NATO New Force Model (NFM) was designed to ensure highly-ready forces, surpassing the capabilities of the NATO Rapid Response Force (NRF). Thus, the recapitalization of European ground forces has become a prominent priority for NATO’s European allies.

(3) Emerging plans for major European ground forces are now in the spotlight. The question is whether European allies are genuinely committed to making the necessary investments to develop more capable and integrated ground forces compared to their response after the 2014 conflict in Ukraine.

This paper critically assesses crucial elements of the emerging programs and capability development of major European ground forces, focusing on those allies most likely to face contingencies on NATO’s northern and eastern flanks. Recognizing that any high-intensity conflict in Europe will likely be multi-domain, the future European Army must be prepared for this eventuality.

2. Active Measures of the European Army

The analysis provides a nuanced perspective on the European Army’s progress, with some positive strides including:

First, the European Army is candid about acknowledging its weaknesses, such as issues with overrunning, limited training, and aging equipment. This realization sparked debates and discussions about activating reserves, building up capabilities, and restoring combat effectiveness, considering the combat attrition witnessed in Ukraine.

Second, recognizing the need for improvement, the European Army prioritizes the enhancement of defense infrastructure, including training areas and industrial production capabilities for replenishing stocks.

Third, investments in rocket artillery and surface-to-surface strike systems offer improved targeting at greater distances, allowing engagement of enemy logistics, headquarters, and forces beyond the rear. However, realizing the full potential of these systems hinges on better training and integration with intelligence and command and control capabilities.

Fourth, investments in ground-based air defense (GBAD) are addressing a long-standing weakness in European armed forces. GBAD systems can protect various potential targets, but careful consideration of interoperability and ammunition needs during high-intensity warfare is essential, as the conflict in Ukraine has shown.

3. Challenges Facing the European Army

While the implementation of the European Army Construction has faced its share of challenges:

First, while there is general support for NFM at the political-strategic level, practical alignment between national policy, capacity development programs, and NATO planning remains uncertain. Different threat assessments of Russia may lead to varied land modernization plans among countries. Additionally, maintaining focus on capability needs is crucial, even as the fighting intensity in Ukraine diminishes.

Second, NATO member states must clarify their contributions to NFM and announce their land commitments, promoting alliance cohesion, deterrence against Russia, and accountability for commitments made.

Third, increasing the size of European armies has proven challenging due to national planning and issues related to manning, supply, and force design. Innovation and sustained budget increases are essential to overcome these hurdles.

Fourth, multinational forces must be considered in the deployment of NFM, but this introduces complexities as countries may have varying levels of confidence in certain partners, leading to potential risks.

Fifth, the assessment criteria for rapid readiness need careful evaluation to produce a unified warfighting capability across the alliance.

Sixth, finding the optimal balance between maneuver formations, Combat Support (CS), and Combat Service Support (CSS) remains critical. Decisions must be made regarding the assignment of CS and CSS to NATO ranks or keeping them at the national level, considering the challenges of rapid deployment and sustainment.

Seventh, sufficient funding is required to fully implement ambitious development plans, which may necessitate tough financial tradeoffs between personnel, weapons systems, logistics, and digitization.

Eighth, German leadership will play a key role in driving the development of European land warfare capabilities, given Berlin’s claim to provide the core of Europe’s conventional capabilities and the urgency to counter the Russian threat.