Baltic Sea

NATO expands its rapid reaction force to over 300,000 soldiers

  • NATO wants to increase the size of its rapid reaction force more than sevenfold.
  • The measure is intended to reassure members who share a border with Russia.
  • Without foreign help, some NATO countries could quickly be overwhelmed by a Russian attack.

    NATO will soon increase the size of its Response Force, a multinational package of air, land and sea forces designed to come to the aid of frontline nations. Following Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the move will increase troop strength from 40,000 to “well over” 300,000, the largest accumulation of NATO forces since the end of the Cold War.

    At a NATO conference in Madrid on June 27, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the expansion. “We will reinforce our battlegroups in the eastern part of the alliance up to brigade level. We will reshape the NATO Response Force… and increase the number of our High Readiness Forces… to well over 300,000.”

    A U.S. Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter is unloaded from a C-5M Super Galaxy transport at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, 2017. In an emergency, NATO forces could flood a crisis area with forces by air and sea.

    AFPGetty Images

    “NATO established its High Readiness Response Force (the NRF) in 2002 and reinforced it in 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea,” said Sean Monaghan, visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Popular mechanics. “It was first deployed in a collective defense and deterrent role after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February.

    “The NRF is designed to respond to crises within 5 to 30 days. Within the NRF there is a very high readiness ‘spearhead’ element that can be deployed in 2-7 days. These are constantly exercised by NATO to maintain its operational readiness and credibility as a deterrent.”

    2017 NATO deployed four battalion-sized battlegroups in frontline states including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland — states bordering or close to Russia. NATO doubled that commitment after Russia invaded Ukraine. “The NRF was activated after the Russian invasion in February,” explains Monaghan, “with 500 French command troops deployed to Romania and other nations including Britain, the US and Germany to reinforce NATO’s presence in its member states in Eastern Europe to strengthen.”

    Bulgaria cav stryker
    The NATO battle group in Bulgaria includes a US Army cavalry force mounted in Stryker armored infantry vehicles, as shown here.


    In all, the NRF sent four more combat groups to Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, in total eight in use throughout Europe. Each battalion consists of 800 to 4,000 military personnel, with supporting tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery and helicopters. Each combat group is, on average, a third the size of a Russian Brigade Tactical Group, the basic action unit of the Russian ground forces. used in Russia 110 Tactical Brigade Groups when invading Ukraine.

    The NATO Response Force is constantly training to achieve a high level of readiness. The most recent exercise, Monaghan explains, was Exercise Cold Response 2022, which took place in Norway and involved 30,000 troops from 27 member countries.

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    The invasion of Ukraine and the forthcoming expansion of NATO to include Sweden and Finland both increase the territory the alliance must protect and tensions for existing members in Russia’s neighborhood. Sweden and Russia border the Baltic Sea. The Swedish coast, including the island of Gotland, is vulnerable to Russian naval action, from a blockade to an amphibious invasion. Finland’s situation is even more precarious because of this 832 miles long land border with Russia. Russia invaded Finland in 1940killed over 19,000 Finns and forced the country to cede 11 percent of its territory to Moscow.

    NATO military exercise on Gotland
    A convoy of US Marines training on the Swedish island of Gotland in June 2022.

    Agency AnadoluGetty Images

    Meanwhile, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia warn that they must station NATO forces in their territories to avoid Russian aggression. All three Baltic states are relatively small and could quickly face a major Russian attack. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, warned this week that without more NATO troops stationed in their country, the capital Tallinn could quickly be “erased from the map”.

    Stoltenberg’s comments indicate that the alliance plans to triple the size of NATO’s battlegroups from battalion to brigade size. A NATO brigade would be far better placed to resist a Russian invasion, although still outnumbered. The goal would be to hold out until more NATO forces from the alliance’s Follow-On Forces Group arrive to help turn the tide.

    A multinational approach to defense is great when it works, but there are downsides, Monaghan explains. “Deployment of the NRF requires consensus among allies – this is one of the reasons it has not been deployed to date. It also means that NATO’s deterrence depends on the threat of deploying troops quickly in crises, and keeping forces on high readiness is costly.”

    NATO wields brave dragon
    British troops, part of the NATO Task Force in Estonia, during an exercise at Tapa Central Training Area, April 2022.

    Ben Birchall – PA PicturesGetty Images

    Monaghan believes that NATO “is likely to change its deterrence model at Madrid from ‘deterrence by reinforcement’ to more forward-positioned forces that can form a ‘front line defence'”. with the promise to be deployed quickly in the event of a crisis. “Forward Defense”, on the other hand, would station larger forces in potential crisis areas to ward off attacks from the outset and repel them if necessary.

    In addition to the NRF, there are other mechanisms to strengthen NATO member states. The UK leads the Joint Expeditionary Force, or JEF, consisting of the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland and the Baltic States. The United States could also act on its own, moving ships, planes and ground forces to the Atlantic or to bases in Europe in a crisis.

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