24 July 2019

US request for allied support in the Persian Gulf crisis/Consolidating NATO’s stance and the adoption of the Alliance’s first ever Space Policy

Gheorghe Tibil

George Tibil in Brussels | The US request for allied support in the Persian Gulf crisis, emergent and disruptive technologies, the Alliance’s cooperation with the European Union, the consolidation of NATO’s stance of deterrence and defence and the allied commitment in Afghanistan were the main subjects of discussion from the second day of the NATO ministerial summit in Brussels.

Image source: Mediafax

Because of the ever-increasing importance of new technologies, allied ministers evaluated its implications in the areas of defence and security, in a special session which included the EU’s High Representative, Federica Mogherini, and counterparts in Finland and Sweden. “These technologies bring challenges and opportunities for all us and they could be a promising area for the future NATO-EU cooperation,” said the NATO secretary general. The manners in which NATO’s defence planning process can be used to encourage allies to invest in then new technologies, gain access to latest-generation capabilities and ensure the interoperability of allied forces were also assessed.

The analysis of these disruptive technologies’ impact on NATO’s objectives and policies, focusing on their influence on deterrence and defence, represents a recent topical development for military authorities and political committees. This evolution was mainly caused by the increasingly consistent investments Russia and China made into cutting-edge weaponry and military technology innovation. The areas most considered are artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons systems, space systems, communications and new missile technologies, with an emphasis on hypersonic and quantic technologies.

In the context of recent transatlantic disputes on restricting the access of US actors to the new initiatives started by the European Defence Fund, NATO gives special attention to its cooperation with the EU in the area of defence technologies, with the final objective of ensuring complementarity between the defensive means developed by the two organizations. For the secretary general, “it is important that these new instruments – PESCO and the European Defence Fund – do not create new barriers between our defence industries (European and US). We must work together, not least to address the technological challenges we face”.

Beyond the bureaucratic jargon specific to the NATO-EU cooperation, used in periodic progress reports on the subject, the topic is particularly current, as the main European states have increasingly more consistent tendencies to emancipate themselves strategically, while Washington has also hardened its stance on these efforts. In these conditions, NATO’s leadership announced its expectation to continue intensifying collaboration with the Union in the areas of security and defence, based on the key-principles repeatedly outlined by Stoltenberg: synchronizing efforts, complementarity, coherence, transparency and avoiding duplicate efforts and competition.

In direct connection to the same subject, ministers approved the Alliance’s first-ever space policy. Due to the rising importance of outer space for the Alliance’s defence capabilities, a decision was taken at the NATO Summit in July 2018 to draft a comprehensive allied policy on the subject. As potential space race opponents (Russia and China especially…) are developing and operationalizing ever-more sophisticated space technologies, which can restrict the allies’ access and liberty to operate in the outer space, Stoltenberg highlighted the Alliance’s need to concentrate on ways to protect allied interests, by “increasing NATO’s vigilance and resilience in space”. Following the pattern already used in regards to cyber technologies, a decision to define the outer space as a NATO operative domain is expected to be adopted in the near future.

Strengthening NATO’s stance on deterrence and defence towards implementing the decisions adopted at the July 2018 Summit, including the NATO Readiness Initiative, was another important topic of discussions at the summit. In this regard, the secretary general restated the progress achieved in implementing the “Initiative of the Four Thirties” (30 mechanized battalions, 30 aviation squadrons and 30 war ships, ready to be deployed within less than 30 days), which grants the Alliance military forces with solid capabilities ready to intervene at a short notice, in response to potential crisis situations. Until now, 75% of the initiative’s necessary forces and military capabilities were rallied, with 100% expected to be ensured by the end of the year. On the same topic, there are proceedings on operationalizing the SACEUR area of responsibility, in order for military authorities to achieve the capability to design and support fighting means which would ensure the completion of strategic and operational objectives set by NATO’s leadership.

Defence ministers also met in the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) format to discuss the evolution of the security situation in Afghanistan, the state and perspectives of NATO’s training, assistance and counselling mission, and also the allies and their partner’s contributions to the mission. Almost two decades after the beginning of NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan (the largest and longest operation in the Alliance’s history), an end-date or a strategy to wrap up its commitment in the country are far from being outlined. The main negative evolutions concern the precarious security situation on the ground, the force of the Taliban insurgency and its control over an important part of the territory, corruption in the Afghan institutions, the complex electoral calendar and the increasingly complicated regional context, with negative influences from Russia and Iran on the Afghan matter.

As for the positives, we can mention some progress registered in initiating and carrying out peace talks with the Taliban, in order to shape a negotiated solution for the conflict, conducted through the US special representative for the case, Ambassador Z. Khalilzad. For Stoltenberg, although “the security situation remains serious”, NATO sees an “unique opportunity for peace”. In this context, the allies are fully supporting US efforts to find a peaceful solution in Afghanistan, and NATO’s continuous commitment is essentially in favour of creating peace conditions. On the other hand, the Taliban’s refusal to directly negotiate with authorities in Kabul (a negotiation conditioned until now by the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan) complicates the perspectives of the peace process. As a result, both the Taliban and government forces are seeking to strengthen their stances in case of potential direct negotiations, which causes the continuation of skirmishes on the ground.

In these conditions, we do not currently have a clear perspective towards an eventual reduction or termination of the mission, which has approximately 16,000 troops deployed at the moment. Furthermore, international final aid to strengthen Afghan security forces will continue until 2024, with a financing of USD1 billion per year, as was decided at the July 2018 summit. In this moment, it hard to imagine the autonomous evolution of Afghan forces in the absence of international support, even in an optimistic scenario where inter-Afghan peace negotiations end with a comprehensive and durable agreement between the two sides.

With one of the most important troop contributions (nearly 800 soldiers, being the sixth-largest contributor to the mission after the US, Germany, UK, Italy and Georgia), Romania is directly concerned with the evolution of the allied commitment in Afghanistan and the cautious planning currently carried out by allied military authorities on the subject. Regarding the future process of finalizing the mission, NATO continues to insist on the importance of applying a strategy based on the expression “Together in, together out”, rejecting the option of a unilateral retreat, not coordinated with other allies.

The United States requested allied support in the Persian Gulf crisis

The growth of NATO’s contribution to the efforts of the anti-ISIS global coalition and the NATO mission in Iraq was another subject addressed within the mission. In this context, although it was never part of the meeting’s official agenda, the Middle East crisis and the potential conflict between the US and Iran was addressed in official discussions and bilateral meetings which took place during the ministerial reunion. Stoltenberg presented information he was given by the US defence secretary and also discussed the constant intelligence exchange carried out within NATO regarding evolutions in the region. At the same time, he presented the serious concern expressed by the allies with regards to Iran’s actions and their support for American efforts to de-escalate the tensions.

On the same subject, the US defence secretary talked to the press about the American approach to the Persian Gulf crisis, requesting allied support to ensure freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, deter Iran’s support of terrorist groups and a continuation of its nuclear ambitions. He insisted on the economic and diplomatic aspect of the strategy used by the US at the moment and requested the involvement of allies in actions to convince Tehran on the necessity to return to a diplomatic approach, in order to avoid a military conflict. At the same time, he announced the US authorities’ decision to present the allies a detailed briefing, in the first part of July, in order to inform them of Iran’s recent actions to escalate the crisis, including attacks on US commercial ships. He expressed belief that some of the allies will join the naval coalition that the US is currently trying to assemble in the Gulf region, in order to solve the crisis generated by aggressive actions carried out by authorities in Tehran.

Translated by Ionut Preda