No More Sanctuary: NATO Must Prepare for War at Home


Jun 24, 2024

The Very High Readiness Joint Task Force 2019 and the 4th Infantry Brigade conducted a river crossing near Rena in Norway as part of Exercise Trident Juncture 2019, photo by Bundeswehr/Allied Joint Force Command Naples

The Very High Readiness Joint Task Force 2019 and the 4th Infantry Brigade conduct a river crossing near Rena, Norway, as part of Exercise Trident Juncture 2019

Photo by Bundeswehr/Allied Joint Force Command Naples

This piece is part of a commentary series on the upcoming NATO summit in Washington in which RAND researchers explore important strategic questions for the alliance as NATO confronts a historic moment, navigating both promise and peril.

NATO is grappling with a 21st-century reimagining of the threat that first galvanised its creation in 1949: the prospect of war directly threatening its citizens where they live and work. Yet too many nations still lack robust plans, organisations, legislative powers, or capabilities for tackling preparedness challenges or securing their homelands against shocks or attack.

Gone is the comforting notion that wars happen far from home. As NATO leaders have acknowledged in recent summits and its revised Strategic Concept, the alliance now faces direct and pressing threats. Even still, too many policymakers—let alone members of the public—cling to the idea that any future conflict involving NATO would primarily occur on its fringes, impacting only the border regions of eastern Europe or the frozen High North.

Instead, countries in western and central Europe, as well as the United States and Canada, face a mounting threat of direct attack on their homelands. The combination of age-old tactics with new technologies offers hostile actors such as Russia or China new ways to sabotage, disrupt, or damage the complex and vulnerable systems upon which allied societies depend, especially in a shooting war.

Distance no longer offers much protection. For all its struggles in Ukraine, Russia still has the bombers, the ballistic and cruise missiles, and the submarines to hit targets thousands of miles from its own territory. Russian doctrine prepares for a “strategic operation to destruction of critically important targets” attacking the underlying infrastructure and industrial base that enables NATO governments and militaries to function, and seeking to demoralise their populations.

Countries in western and central Europe, as well as the United States and Canada, face a mounting threat of direct attack on their homelands.

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New technologies such as drones only expand this threat. Real-world experience shows how even a cheap quadcopter can cause chaos at airports or endanger other infrastructure. The war in Ukraine has underscored the importance of integrated air and missile defence, and the limited capacity of NATO countries in this regard; Kyiv is currently one of the most heavily defended areas of airspace in Europe, and yet still struggles to defend against massed airstrikes without burning through a limited supply of interceptors that are slow and expensive to replenish.

On the ground, Russian special forces and intelligence train for a wartime campaign of sabotage, assassinations, terror, false flag attacks, and other direct actions on NATO territory. This is not hypothetical, but rather an intensification of covert and deniable actions already underway. Russian agents are currently accused of orchestrating a low-level campaign of sabotage, intelligence-gathering, and arson attacks against U.S. and European businesses involved in supporting Ukraine.

Furthermore, non-kinetic capabilities offer new ways to target vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure. The United States and other allies have already spoken against Chinese efforts to prepare mass cyber-attacks on electricity, water, and transportation systems. Russia already uses electronic warfare capabilities to jam GPS signals, affecting civilian airliners or shipping. It has also hacked communication satellites and tested anti-satellite missiles that could cause a cascade of collisions and debris in Earth orbit.

Such direct threats could also trigger a cascade of second- and third-order effects aimed at paralysing, overwhelming, or intimidating allied governments. Risks include public disorder, distraction of military forces from their warfighting tasks, a breakdown of trust in the state or alliance's ability to protect its citizens, reduced will to fight, and shocks to the global economy.

Often overlooked, Article 3 of the Washington Treaty already obliges NATO members to undertake necessary domestic activities to prepare themselves for crisis and conflict. New allies Finland and Sweden bring a rich history of emergency preparedness and resilience planning. Others have recently made resilience a higher priority, especially in the face of COVID, climate change, and energy shocks.

Overall, the issue of resilience is not as prominent in NATO's collective activities as it should be, despite being a vital enabler of capacity and will to fight. More, then, could be done at this level—building on the good work of NATO officials and the Resilience Committee, but empowering them with the additional political support and resources needed to meet the scale of the challenge.

A good starting point would be plans, priorities, and metrics. Leaders could agree to set up a central process for identifying resilience requirements and measure progress against them, akin to the NATO Defence Planning Process for traditional military capabilities. The alliance could similarly do more to share information on risks to resilience and help build a common threat assessment. It could also leverage the expertise of NATO Centres of Excellence and the joint NATO-EU Hybrid Centre in Helsinki.

NATO could also support training and education on resilience topics. This would build on the recent work of the Partnership for Peace consortium to develop a guidance curriculum for national institutions. It could include a bigger resilience and homeland security element in exercises to increase their realism and challenge—building on models such as Ex Trident Juncture in Norway, an early example of stress-testing “Total Defence.” It could also bring in more of the private sector and civilian agencies to participate, and engage with them more broadly to understand their role in a crisis.

Finally, the alliance could help pool resources to tackle shared challenges. It could leverage the new NATO Innovation Fund and the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic to finance R&D into technologies relevant to resilience, and accelerate implementation of the Defence Production Action Plan to build industrial readiness and capacity. It should also continue to work closely with the EU, building on the recommendations of the EU-NATO Task Force (PDF) on Resilience of Critical Infrastructure, and leveraging EU strengths in areas such as infrastructure spending.

All these actions, and more, would help to ensure that NATO has a credible defence and deterrence against the mounting threats to the resilience of its infrastructure, its economies, and its societies—providing the strong foundation at home from which to project military power against external threats.

James Black is assistant director of defence and security at RAND Europe.