Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Estonia as a model for future coalition contributions

Secretary Gates met yesterday at the Pentagon with Jaak Aaviksoo, the Estonian Defense Minister. The Baltic country currently has just under 300 troops in Afghanistan and plans to draw down to a "more sustainable" 170 in coming months, but it perhaps provides a model for how NATO allies and other coalition members can contribute to operations both in South Asia and elsewhere in the future: Aaviksoo apparently pledged support in cyber-warfare and information operations, an area of focus for his country in the wake of 2007 attacks on Estonia's government and public networks by what is thought to have been a loosely-connected army of Russian nationalist hackers. Talinn also plays host to the relatively-new NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, which is responsible for research and training related to cyber-warfare.

Drama about troop contributions and burden-sharing is nothing new for NATO or the various recent warfighting coalitions, and I'm not going to spend a lot of time belaboring the subject. What I think is interesting about this is that it's a concrete example of a smaller country preparing to contribute in the ways for which it is most suited. Estonia doesn't need infantry BCTs, and it's debatable whether Poles and Romanians need to know how to do COIN. If NATO is to survive as a meaningful alliance and a force for stability in out-of-area, expeditionary operations, then we'll need to see an increasing focus on the development of niche capabilities like this. There's even debate among our larger, stronger, and richer allies about how to structure forces; some smart people, for example, are wondering whether the UK might usefully focus on developing conventional deterrence and defense capabilities, patrolling and securing the global commons, and developing forces that are complementary to U.S. land power rather than spending limited resources on duplicative formations like infantry battalions (which, if we're honest, will only ever really supplement U.S. forces rather than providing an independent, expeditionary COIN capability).

And of course this is one of the really difficult things about an alliance, particularly one that is institutionalized through a permanent organizational structure, and especially one that has 29 members: who gets to make the plans? No one country can "save" NATO by itself, and it takes real faith in the alliance (and the commitment of allies) to perhaps set aside self defense-oriented capabilities and reform in the direction of niche capabilities and coalition contributions. Some states and armies, of course, are too small and weak to even imagine that they could defend themselves; Estonia is a good example. But when it comes to the UK, Canada, France, Germany, and so on, how does the Alliance develop a cohesive plan for what capabilities everyone ought to bring to the table?


  1. I totally agree that smaller allies should develop more niche capabilities to support the larger nations who do the brunt of the fighting.

    But I totally disagree that the UK shouldn't have infantry battalions because they only support US operations. Looking beyond the threat of COIN, the UK still requires the ability to put soldiers on the ground in various places - and not just in support of coalition operations. But in light of allied operations, the US is limited by its small professional force (and political challenges in deploying National Guard forces) and I firmly believe that the supplement of UK (and Canadian and Australian forces) is very important. We can't bemoan NATO-member nations not providing soldiers to the fight and then say they should focus on other things. As an American, I don't want the brunt of maneuver/COIN warfare to fall squarely on the shoulders of our forces while everyone else is working logistics and shaping operations.

  2. I would rather Estonia developed a permanent capacity building capability. A dedicated force of 5,000 trainers and emedded advisors that permanently deployed around 1,500 troops around the world in capacity building missions. These could be a combination of civilian and military.

  3. I hardly think Estonia is the right choice for NATO's capacity building force. They've done well with cyber-warfare and should keep at that - especially with the threats that NATO faces on that front (from Russia and China to say nothing of independent operators). Just like the Lithuanians should stick to water purification.

    I'd rather the Germans or French (welcomed back to the fold...) do the capacity building. Not former Soviet-bloc states who could probably use a little more capacity building of their own.

  4. I have to echo Gunslinger here. It doesn't make any sense to build training/advising formations in an army that has no experience fighting on its own. How would Estonia send 1,500 troops to do "capacity building" when they've got less than 300 in Afghanistan today? And how would they help a partner country build capability in infantry operations, for example, when they've got no experience operating that way themselves?

    It's telling that we have U.S. units training European OMLTs in Germany before they deploy.

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