Will special ops keep NATO relevant?

Will special ops keep NATO relevant?

NATO’s top military commander announced today the formation of a new headquarters designed to help coordinate the special forces of alliance members:

The new [NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ)] will enable the special forces of these nations to better train, plan, and work together. As [Supreme Allied Commander James]  Stavridis noted during the opening ceremony, "I expect this to be a venue for ideas about equipment and technology. We can share and learn from each other.” Additionally, NSHQ acts as the coordinator for all Special Forces across NATO operations by directing the activities of Special Operations Component Commands. The new headquarters, which accommodates about 200 personnel will be the centrepiece of NATO Special Operations well into the 21st Century.

This Associated Press account of the announcement casts it almost entirely in the context of NATO’s challenging fiscal environment:

In a ceremony in Mons, Belgium, NATO’s supreme commander Adm. James Stavridis said the new command centre will ensure that the national contingents continue to develop their capabilities by training together.

The move comes as NATO is reforming its forces across the alliance. NATO’s new philosophy of "smart defence" calls on members to share resources and equipment in order to reduce duplication.

"The ultimate point of smart defence is to build connections," Stavridis said at the opening ceremony.

Twenty of NATO’s 28 member countries have cut their defence budgets since the Europe’s financial crisis began in 2008. Military spending, which has already shrunk 15 per cent in the past decade, is set to plunge further as part of the austerity measures implemented by many European governments to cope with the continent’s debt crisis…

Austerity is an important part of the story here, but so too is the alliance’s hunt for new ways of keeping its members operationally engaged with each other. As I’ve noted here in the past, NATO is facing an imminent lull in activity as the Afghanistan mission winds down. A new report by the NATO Defense College makes the point succinctly:

NATO’s operational tempo is decreasing: the training mission in Iraq was terminated in 2011; the Alliance is set to move KFOR [its Kosovo mission] to a deterrent presence posture; the counter-piracy and counter-terrorism missions, Operation Ocean Shield and Operative Active Endeavor respectively, have been reduced; most importantly, in 2014 the NATO-led combat mission in Afghanistan–the Alliance’s major operational commitment–will become history and the Alliance will start leading a training mission. This situation presents NATO with the strategic problem of identifying other fields of mutual interest outside the context of ISAF, to engage its partners and keep them interested in maintaining this engagement with the Alliance.

The huge stabilization missions that have been the alliance’s post-Cold War bread-and-butter are disappearing. Whether any new ones (in Syria perhaps?) will emerge is anyone’s guess. In this environment, the alliance faces the real prospect of becoming non-operational. NATO’s bid to get more deeply involved in special-forces operations—which will almost certainly continue—is at least as much about keeping the alliance relevant as it is about saving its members money.