The Defense and Security Conference 2024 examines European defense and NATO

The Royal Institute of International Affairs hosted a debate on European defense in an uncertain environment during the Defense and Security Conference 2024 at London’s Chatham House on February 27, with dignitaries questioning Europe’s security status after the invasion of Ukrainein the context of a plenary session to be held on file.

The war in Ukraine

Joannenke Balfoort, director of Security and Defense Policy for the EU’s European External Action Service, gave voice to many who work in the political heart of the European Union when she said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “was wake up call. We are awake now.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had negative effects on Finland, which had also caused changes.

Esa Pulkinnen, permanent secretary for Finland’s Ministry of Defense said that for decades he had been working to bring Finland into NATO, but only after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 opened the door for Finland to join the Alliance.

Major General Sir Nick Borton, commander of the Allied Rapid Reaction Force, warned against trying to draw lessons prematurely from the war in Ukraine, citing as examples the views expressed by commentators about the relevance of tanks in modern warfare and the effectiveness of offensive helicopters.

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Both of these systems, Borton described, had been dismissed as ineffective early in the war, but later proved highly regarded. So far, Ukraine has endured two years under Russian attack, and in a prolonged occupation that length of time could represent only a fraction of the total length of the war.

Borton dealt with the reaction of the observer community in Ukraine, learning short-term lessons by working at NATO, developing new war plans with a niche for each NATO force, using role specializations and geography to step up to a variety of missions.

On the future resolution of the conflict, the panel expressed different perspectives. Pulkinnen echoed the sentiments of other speakers at Defense and Security 2024, where expressions were made about Russia’s ability to be defeated, based on significantly higher economic power and defense resources among a subset of NATO Allies.

Pulkinnen suggested that this sentiment was true if Russia was not serious about negotiations to end the war. He went on to highlight the difference between enforcement between Ukraine, which is facing an existential crisis, and Russia, which is engaged in a war of choice that could end at any time, and that the gap between those two positions would leave the Russia more willing than Ukraine to seek resolution of the conflict.

Borton echoed the sentiments of other strategic thinkers, acknowledging that all wars end in negotiations, but added that Russia is not at the point where it has lost so many troops that it is likely to consider such action, though he said Russia has suffered 350,000 casualties and was currently on the defensive.

Sub-specialization at the national level within NATO

After a question from the audience about the possibility of national sub-specializations within NATO, the participants expressed a mixture of opinions.

NATO war plans recognize certain roles and geographic specialties from nations, according to Borton, who added that almost no nation in NATO had all the military capabilities it could use and that as there were fewer NATO Corps headquarters of NATO nations, it was inevitable that nations would organize together for operations.

He added that an assessment of NATO allies’ ability to outspend Russia on defense based on greater economic strength would assume some sort of combined spending.

Balfoort acknowledged that joint spending is desirable, but that a focus on national subspecialties may not reflect the actual composition of the NATO Alliance, where some nations lack expertise.

The inherent difficulties in a NATO-wide embrace of sub-specialties were also acknowledged by Jonathan Hoyle, vice president and chief executive of Lockheed Martin for Europe, but argued that there was still potential for gains in the High North and Baltic theaters.

Ruth Harris, director of the defense and security research group at RAND Europe, reflected on the geopolitical implications of any cuts in capabilities resulting from subspecializations or other collaboration, saying that the likely effect on the US would be to make the US nervous and that this moment, this is not a desirable reaction.

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