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NATO Must Revamp Wartime Command Structure

Posted by Lucja Swiatkowski Cannon on

Our Paul McLeary is traveling with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to the NATO Summit in Brussels this week so we’ll be providing in-depth alliance coverage leading up to RIAT and Farnborough and during President Trump’s European visit. Tomorrow, we’re publishing another NATO piece by Michael Matlaga of CSIS. In keeping with all that, we offer this intriguing call for changes to NATO’s command and control system.

Sen. John McCain identified this as a key effort for the summit in a statement Tuesday. He also reminded us of what really matters in the current atmosphere: “I hope that during the upcoming summit we will continue to see progress on command structure reforms, new initiatives aimed at countering terrorism and enhancing readiness, and renewed support for the Open Door policy through accession talks with Macedonia. These developments will send a stronger message of NATO’s commitment to collective defense than any tweet.” Read on to relish author Lucja Swiatkowski Cannon’s arguments on NATO C2. The Editor.

This week’s meeting of NATO heads of state and government in Brussels will discuss goals of reform of the NATO command structure and increased resources for cybersecurity. But it is not planning to discuss the most important issue – compatibility between the military commands of different countries within NATO, particularly those of the former Warsaw Pact. These commands contain elements of the old Soviet system that are problematic for NATO, especially during the time of war or crisis.

The Soviet system of military command was described by Ryszard Kuklinski, a Polish military liaison between Soviet and Polish General Commands who became an American spy and defected to the United States in 1981. The Soviets stripped the Warsaw Pact countries of control over their own armed forces and therefore of their national sovereignty. This was formalized in a document, “Statute of the United Armed Forces and the Organs for directing them in Time of War.” The key characteristic of this structure was dual command of the armed forces.  In time of war or the threat of war, command over the East European forces was taken over by the Soviet General Staff, without permission or even knowledge of the East European communist governments.

Democratic transformations after collapse of the Warsaw Pact established a civilian control of the military and abolished dual command structures. However, power struggles between the entrenched communist elites and outside reformers resulted in uneven progress in different countries and sometimes a regression.

In 2014, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, known for his Russian sympathies and Soviet-educated advisers, brought back a dual command structure for the Polish armed forces. Komorowski’s Bureau of National Security signed a cooperation agreement with the National Security Council of the Russian Federation on 1 February 2011. Apparently as a result of this collaboration, he re-established a dual command structure. Such a structure lacks clear lines of authority and has two centers of competing commands, impacting military effectiveness. At worst, it could result in an attempt to take over the command of the Polish armed forces by hostile agents at a time of a crisis or war.

The current conservative government of the Law and Justice Party wants to reestablish a unified command.  But the proponents of the dual system are defending it vigorously and they found an ally in President Andrzej Duda, who must sign any legislation. While he concedes that the current system is chaotic and supports some modifications, he wants to retain the essence of the dual system.  The standoff on these issues between Poland’s president and Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz resulted in his dismissal in January.

The new minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, recently presented his own proposal on the reform of the command structure. It eliminates the most egregious features of the dual system – numerous layers of military bureaucracy for time of war and peace. It concentrates key authority in the Chief of General Staff in time of peace. The Chief of General Staff will be under the political authority of the Minister of Defense in time of peace and the president in time of war. 

In time of war, the Chief of General Staff would automatically become the Supreme War Commander without waiting for President’s nomination as previously.  However, he would still command Polish forces, such as Army, Navy, Air Force and Special Units, through the General Commander for peacetime and Operational Commander for wartime, thus retaining the essence of the old dual system. Therefore, he would be only a liaison between political authorities and operations of the armed forces.  In addition, these commanders are nominated by the president who would be tempted to bypass the Chief of General Staff during wartime.

The current government is aware of this weakness and plans to abolish them sometime in the future.  But this is not soon enough. It only has a short time to the next election and is under intense attack from the leftist opposition and the European Union.  Further reforms in this area are not a priority and failure to enact them, would automatically preserve the dual command system, vulnerable to confusion or interference in the most decisive moments of a crisis.

The Russian strategy of hybrid warfare aims to gain the ability to strike a decisive blow at the enemy:  that is to destroy NATO ability to command its own forces and sow confusion in its ranks.  The Russian military is creating special units whose goal is to destroy political and military command centers at every level.  In case of Russian success in this task, the war could be over before Western troops get out of the barracks.

The performance of Polish and East European forces at a time of war and crisis depends not only on their numbers and technological modernization but also the effectiveness of their own commands and their cooperation with NATO. The uncertainty, vulnerability and confusion that can result from dual command controls and their incompatibility with NATO seriously hamper the East European forces. The NATO summit should review the command structures of its members and their compatibility at a time of war. It should not be confronted with this issue at a time of an existential crisis.

Lucja Swiatkowski Cannon is a longtime analyst of NATO, nuclear weapons and related strategic issues. She’s been a senior investment advisor for much of the last 15 years.

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