Those 300,000 high-readiness NATO troops? ‘Concept,’ not reality.

REUTERS/Ints Kalnins
Spanish troops attend a celebration ceremony of the 5th anniversary of the Canadian-led NATO enhanced Forward Presence battlegroup in Adazi, Latvia June 15, 2022.

On Monday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced plans to put 300,000 troops at high readiness as part of the “biggest overhaul of our collective defense and deterrence since the Cold War.”

By Wednesday, as NATO leaders gathered at a summit in Madrid, the vast new mobilization appeared to be more fearsome on paper than in reality, more of an aspiration than a dramatic new commitment to defend Europe.

Stoltenberg’s announcement caught the top defense officials of many NATO members off guard, leading them to question which of their forces, if any, were being included in the 300,000 figure.

“Maybe it’s number magic?” said one senior European defense official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about the confusion.

Several senior European security policymakers said they were taken by surprise, with no advance notice of the plan to expand NATO’s quick-response force from its current size of 40,000 in light of the Ukraine war and Russia’s ongoing military threats to NATO territory.

A senior defense official from a different alliance country said its leaders had not been consulted about the figure ahead of time. The official wondered which of his nation’s troops were being counted toward the force – and whether it included personnel from a volunteer national guard who have civilian day jobs.

Asked at a news conference on Wednesday about the mystery of the missing troops, Stoltenberg said the “majority” will be based inside their home countries and will build on existing personnel – code, in some ways, for simply reclassifying troops that currently exist and making them more available for fast deployment under NATO command in the event of a security crisis.

“Of course it requires, as always when you do something in NATO, that allies contribute the forces they have promised to contribute,” he said, not directly addressing why some countries apparently have not yet been asked about stepping up.

Stoltenberg said he hopes to have the expanded rapid force available sometime next year.

A NATO official, speaking on the condition of anonymity per the alliance’s ground rules, said that country-specific numbers still needed pinning down. Even the 300,000 total is theoretical for the moment: “The concept has not been fully worked up yet,” the official said. “We will have to do more to build up the model before we can work out what national commitments can be.”

Even so, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht has already said her country will offer up 15,000 troops – a full division.

The confusion about a hugely expanded force is unrelated to a smaller but perhaps more significant announcement on Wednesday that the alliance will commit brigades of about 3,000 to 5,000 troops to the four member countries that border Russia and are most vulnerable. Though those numbers fell far short of Eastern Europe’s most ambitious requests in the months leading up to the summit, policymakers said they will significantly bolster NATO’s ability to defend Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Baltic leaders said they were satisfied. The units still require some finalization as NATO countries send troops and equipment to the international forces there in the coming months.

A full brigade in each country is about three or four times the number of NATO troops deployed before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. Only a portion of each brigade will be deployed at a time, but equipment will be in place so that the rest of the group can move into combat quickly. Policymakers said the change will shift NATO’s presence in the region from that of a tripwire – a somewhat symbolic presence meant to dissuade the Kremlin from invading – to a real defensive force that could credibly hold back Russian forces long enough for reinforcements to arrive.

U.S. forces will be permanently based in Poland, President Joe Biden announced, a significant change in Washington’s commitment to defending the region.

The alliance’s current rapid-reaction force is intended to be deployable within 15 days. Stoltenberg aims to muster 100,000 troops within 10 days and an additional 200,000 within 30 days.

“It’s very important to have the command structures in place,” Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins said in an interview Wednesday. He praised the goal of the future expansion, even if many details have yet to be filled in.

The 300,000 troop figure would not be the first time Stoltenberg has announced numbers that have as much to do with symbolism as with reality. Throughout the years that former president Donald Trump held office, the secretary general presented defense spending figures calculated to communicate how much commitments had increased since Trump took office in 2017, even though NATO spending had actually started rising after the Russian annexation of Crimea three years earlier. The change was aimed at stroking Trump’s ego and allowing him to take credit for the defense increases.

After he left office, the NATO numbers immediately reverted to the fuller, more accurate calculation that included the final years Barack Obama was president.