Matt Gurney: What NATO really needs? Some old-school "deliverology"
We face solvable problems, and the good news is, we broadly recognize that they need solving. Now we just have to go solve them.
By: Matt Gurney
Last week, in the first of what will be a series of essays (I've got at least two more in me after this one!), I recapped my recent visit to Halifax, Nova Scotia, which hosted the annual Halifax International Security Forum. The forum, put on by Washington-based HFX, is an annual event that brings together military, defence, intelligence, foreign-affairs leaders, and other relevant topic-area experts from across the democratic world. Food and energy security experts, for instance, are currently in great demand, for reasons that ought to be depressingly obvious.
The forum is a packed three-day event, and a mix of on-the-record and off-the-record chats. I've spent the past few days reviewing the notes I took during the conference and re-watching some of the on-the-record sessions (which are available online here). I was particularly interested in comments made during one of the sessions by Andrew Shearer, the director general of Australia's Office of National Intelligence. The on-the-record panel focused on issues of misinformation and disinformation, and how they are weaponized for war and espionage. Shearer also noted that Western nations have had to deal with aggressively coercive diplomacy from the dictatorships and autocracies, including the abduction of citizens, as happened with the two Michaels.
Speaking to the overall situation the allies face, Shearer told the panel moderator: "As an intelligence professional, I guess I'd say we shouldn't be too surprised." He went on to note that while the form of intelligence pressure on the democracies has changed and evolved, it's all still generally the same kind of effort in pursuit of the same goal — infiltrating and pressuring our politics and societies in pursuit of the aggressor's national interest.
Shearer was, of course, bang on. But it was his initial comment that actually stuck with me. "We shouldn't be too surprised." I almost laughed out loud in the ballroom when he said that, and made an immediate note to circle back to that remark later. I knew even then I'd probably hang on a column on it.
The note I jotted down was simply Shearer's name and title, and the approximate time of his remark. I knew I could dig up the video later. But I also jotted down a wry editorial comment of my own: "And yet!"
So that there is no misunderstanding, that shouldn't be taken as a criticism of Shearer. I thought his comments were entirely accurate, and Australia has long had a more mature, serious attitude toward all things pertaining to national security than Canada. In recent months, in a story I admit I'm only aware of in very broad strokes, Australia has been subjected to a series of devastating cyberattacks, mostly aimed at ransoming sensitive health-care information. (The full identifying information of women who have had an abortion was published after a ransom demand was refused — this is a particularly horrifying example, but there are others.) He is entirely right — we shouldn't be surprised. A lot of us aren't.
Still, as I noted in my first column about the Forum in Halifax, we really do have a problem with expectations. We are constantly surprised by things that aren't at all surprising. This is a problem that runs deeper than just our defence and security portfolios, of course; Canadian politicians at every level excel at being shocked by things that were not only predictable, but were often explicitly predicted.
But that was last week's column. As tempting as it is to just rewrite that same damned thesis over and over until it starts sinking in with the people with the power, I'm actually more interested today in a different, related question. Let's assume our expectations stop being a problem. We accept reality as it is, and stop being surprised by the unsurprising. Maybe events just get so relentlessly awful that we are simply forced to accept reality. Maybe — and be still my beating heart — we just decide to take this stuff more seriously because that’s the smart, prudent thing to do.
What do we do then? What actually changes?
It's easy to be cynical and say "Nothing, not a single thing," especially in Canada, the land where extremely loud and worrisome wakeup calls are occasionally briefly commented on before being swiftly forgotten. But there was a topic that kept coming up over and over during the Forum that is worth thinking about, especially given the connection to another recent story we've been covering here at length at The Line: the speed of decision-making, and then, in a separate but related point, turning those decisions into action.
"Deliverology," as it were.
The other recent story alluded to above, of course, is the just-concluded Public Order Emergency Commission proceedings in Ottawa. In our recap of our initial conclusions in our dispatch last weekend, my co-editor Jen Gerson and I carved out a specific passage that was emblematic of decision-making at the federal level. The federal government did not have primary jurisdiction over the various convoy crises that popped up around the country. These were municipal and provincial issues first — the border blockades were complicated, since those are in the federal domain, but the protests largely took place atop provincial or municipal roads and properties. So while a lack of federal action is understandable in the earlier phases of the crises, what remains inexplicable and extremely worrisome is how much obvious confusion there was at the very top of our federal government. The entire federal understanding of what was unfolding quite literally before their eyes, was disorganized, dispersed and confused. "Fog of war" just about covers it, and this was true even roughly two full weeks into the event.
And this is a really interesting case study. I couldn't have asked for a more topical example of exactly what I'm talking about here: the lull between realization and reaction. There were no problems with "expectations" at the top of the federal government in February. Everyone in a position of authority was seized with the urgency of the situation and the need for rapid action. There wasn't any denial, doubt or incomprehension, which are the usual enemies when I write about our expectations being a problem.
February was an example of a different issue: realizing there was a crisis but not really knowing what to do about it, or whose job it was to do it, and wasting a lot of precious time trying to figure it all out. When days and even hours count, governments can't spend weeks or months figuring out what to do. But that’s what happened during the convoys, and during COVID, and other incidents I could rattle off. Does anyone think it won't happen again next time, whatever that threat may be?
And some version of that concern came up over and over in Halifax. And not just among Canadians. The world is changing very quickly and even when we recognize a problem, we aren't moving fast enough to keep up. So on top of our expectations, we've got another challenge: response times. They're just too damned long.
I hope the readers will forgive me for being a little vague in this next section; some of the conversations I'm thinking of here were in off-the-record sessions. Rather than trying to splice together any specific quote or anecdote, I'll just wrap it all up under the theme of "There are things we should be doing now that we weren't, and things we should have been doing a long time ago that we only started on way too late."
An obvious example? The rush to get Europe off of Russian fossil fuels and on to either locally generated renewables or energy imports from allies and friendly nations. (If only there was a "business case" for Canada doing more. Sigh.) Another fascinating example that came up was air defences. Two decades of post-Cold-War-style thinking among the allies has led to widespread neglect among the NATO countries of air-defence weapons. Why bother? The Taliban didn't have an air force, right?
Most countries have fighter jets and inventories of air-to-air missiles suitable for their planes. However, across the alliance, there are very few ground-based air-defence systems suited to shooting down not just attacking aircraft, but incoming cruise missiles and drones.
Drones pose a particular challenge. They fly slow and low and are highly manoeuvrable, plus they are so cheap that they can be a true asymmetrical weapon: you'll go broke real quick firing million-dollar missiles at a drone that costs your enemy $50,000 or so. And your enemy may send a few hundred at once in a swarm that simply overwhelms your defences. It's not that drones are unbeatable. The opposite is true: drones are easily destroyed, if you have the right defences available.
We don't, though. Oops.
The NATO powers actually had a preview of this element of the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia during the 2020 conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, where drones were used to devastating effect. Every military affairs watcher I know sat up a bit straighter after watching what the Azeris did to Armenia, with shocking speed. Swarms of drones first killed Armenia's air defences and then went to work on Armenian ground forces. The U.S. and NATO allies have been studying that conflict, and considering how to adapt our own strategies, for both offence and defence. But right now, nine months into the Ukraine war and two years after the conflict in the Caucuses, there still aren't enough NATO systems available even for our own needs, let alone to share with Ukraine. Russia keeps hammering away at critical Ukrainian civilian infrastructure and the Ukrainians keep begging for help, but we have nothing to send. To be clear, a few systems have been sent to Ukraine, which include not just the weapons but the radars and computers necessary to detect and engage targets. But they can only be delivered as fast as they can be built. There is no real production pipeline here, and certainly no pre-stocked inventories in NATO armouries.
The issue that got the most attention, though, is related but distinct to the one above. It's ammunition. Nothing fancier than bullets, rockets and other projectiles.
Much of the discussion of this was off the record, but suffice it to say that NATO war planners have worried for years that any actual conflict would burn through ammunition faster than we can produce it. The armaments industries of the West have been "right-sized" in the post-Cold-War era and cannot rapidly spin up to higher rates of production. One particularly startling figure was the rate of expenditure for 155mm artillery shells, a figure that has also been recently reported in the New York Times. The United States can make 15,000 155mm shells a month. Ukraine, in periods of high-intensity combat, has been firing as many as seven thousand shells a day. NATO does have large stockpiles of ammunition, or did, when the war began. But many national stockpiles were barely half what they should have been on paper, and supplying Ukraine is rapidly burning through NATO's war stocks. South Korea recently sold the United States 100,000 shells, which is obviously helpful. The U.S. intends to donate those to Ukraine. But ammunition, and not just 155mm shells, is a critical priority.
We've known that for months. Some in NATO would have known it when the war between Ukraine and Russia was an unpleasant worry. And we're still trying to figure out what to do about it. The answer is easy: make more bullets, more shells, more rockets, more anti-tank-missiles and more air-defence systems. But knowing what to do and actually being any good at doing it is a problem we have in Canada, and, sadly, it appears, across NATO.
Like I said last time, I'm not a defeatist. Especially for stuff like this — these are the simplest kinds of problems to solve. Where there is government cash, the private sector will find ways to meet the demand. Time is not on our side, though. Not only must we supply Ukraine, we also must then modernize and restock NATO's own forces, which have transferred numerous weapons and huge quantities of ammunition to Ukraine. These are solvable problems, and the good news is, we broadly recognize that they need solving.
Now we just have to go solve them. And that's proving harder than any of us would have hoped.
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