NATO’s military mobility still falls short

NATO cannot strengthen its eastern flank fast enough. The European military transport rail and road network still faces enormous bottlenecks. “The further east you get, the bigger the problems.”

By Lennart Hofman and Laurens Groeneveld | 24 June 2022

What’s the news?

  • Due to bottlenecks in the European military transport network, NATO cannot strengthen its eastern flank fast enough.
  • An ambitious project, led by the Netherlands since 2018, has hardly yielded any results yet.
  • Logistical and procedural bottlenecks, such as poor roads and weak bridges, now hinder the supply of military equipment from ports across Europe to the east.

A roaring locomotive makes its way across the marshalling yard in Montzen, Belgium, just south of the tri-border area (where Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands meet). The weathered track squeaks and creaks. Bells from a small level crossing ring frantically. As the colossus slowly moves out of sight, the air is dusty and hot.

This stretch of railway is part of the Montzen route, built during the First World War by the German occupiers of Belgium to connect the port of Antwerp with the Ruhr area. The railway line curves around the Netherlands, which, being a neutral country, refused the transport of German weapons and army units across its territory.

At the Montzen marshalling yard, freight cars are still being sorted and repaired to this day. Until 1957, passenger trains also stopped there, but the passenger station, a kilometre away, is now a ruin among bushes and popular with “urban explorers”, who visit dilapidated buildings as a hobby.

Yet history is repeating itself here. Since the end of last year, four new marshalling tracks for trains up to 740 meters long have been under construction alongside the main through line. The three tracks already laid on a bed of spotless gravel stand out starkly against the weathered surroundings. This is no ordinary railway project. Half of the construction costs are being met by European Union funds, and the aim is to quickly transport military equipment, such as tanks and artillery, from Western Europe to the east. This railway is one of nine main routes or ‘corridors’ for military transport through Europe, designated by the European Commission.

In April 2022, 340 million euros were divided among 22 projects along these routes, which should facilitate both civilian freight traffic and military transport. As during the First World War, the Montzen route is now required for this purpose.

Despite the war in Ukraine, Europe feels too little urgency to improve its military transport network, says retired NATO Lieutenant General Ben Hodges.

There is no time to lose. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, there is a growing awareness that military mobility is crucial to European security. Not all rail tracks, roads and bridges are suitable for military transports. There is also not enough rolling stock to transport military vehicles and other equipment by rail. Complex regulations, which often differ from one member state to another, cause additional delays.

A project led by the Netherlands to improve this situation has hardly yielded any results after four years, The Investigative Desk, a group of specialised investigative journalists based in the Netherlands, discovered. 

Strategic land strip

“The further east you get, the bigger the problems,” says Ben Hodges, former commander of the US forces in Europe. “We have to show that we are capable of moving troops as fast, or faster, than the Russians. Getting NATO units deep into Romania, or into the Suwalki corridor,” the narrow, strategic strip of land where Poland borders Lithuania. And we need to do that now, says Hodges. “That’s how we show that we are prepared, so that Russia doesn’t make a terrible miscalculation and start a war. We can’t send that kind of signal enough now.

During the Cold War, there was ample transportation equipment. Many bridges in Germany still display yellow signs with bridge classifications, which indicate the maximum weight of a passing military vehicle. Every year, large-scale exercises were held with these signs.

But since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and the implosion of the Soviet Union two years later, Europe lost its feeling of urgency for defence matters. Railways were rapidly privatised. NATO continued to expand eastwards, but its European member states failed to investment in strengthening roads, bridges, and railways.

After the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, this became a growing concern in NATO, says Jan Broeks, a former NATO staff officer and closely involved in military mobility. “We saw then that the Russians could move large units within 72 hours. And we absolutely could not. If we had wanted to send Spanish units of the NATO Intervention Force to Lithuania by road, it would have taken a month due to bureaucracy. A tourist does it in two days,” Broeks said.

Each member state is responsible for the passage of military equipment through its territory. And each member state has different requirements. Until recently, a military convoy in the Netherlands and several federal states in Germany was not allowed to drive on Sundays. The lack of uniformity in the infrastructure is also an obstacle, says Ben Hodges. Railway lines sometimes do not connect, for example between Poland and Lithuania, and when they do, as in France, Germany and Poland, differences in voltage can cause problems.

A major study led by Hodges last year drew a harsh conclusion: Europe, while seeing the need for military mobility, is “nowhere near” able to overcome its “challenges” in this area.

The Netherlands as transit country

In August 2017, Dutch Defence Minister Jeanine Hennis visited her American counterpart James Mattis in Washington. They agreed that the logistical and procedural obstacles in Europe had to be addressed. The Netherlands is an important military transit country. In consultation with her top defence officials, Hennis decided to take the lead. NATO and the individual armed forces would draw up requirements for improvements of the transport network, after which the EU and the member states would finance and realise them.

In March 2018, this EU Action Plan on Military Mobility was made public. It promised, among other things, suggestions for simplification of customs formalities for military operations and an inventory of weaknesses in the nine ‘corridors’. These main routes overlap almost entirely with the so-called Trans-European Transport Network (TET) for civilian freight traffic.

Details about the weaknesses remain secret for military-strategic reasons, but from the allocation of European subsidies, it is possible to identify a number of them, such as the Smejkalka bridge on the D1 motorway, which connects the Czech cities of Prague and Brno, and several bridges along the A2 motorway between Poznan and Warsaw, Poland.

‘Military Schengen’

In conjunction with the action plan, the EU also announced a project for stimulating intra-European military cooperation, called Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). Military Mobility quickly became PESCO’s ‘flagship’. Under Dutch leadership, the 24 participating member states – and since last year the US, Canada and Norway – are aiming to streamline ‘their’ corridors and form a frictionless ‘military Schengen’.

Early last year, the Netherlands was the first member state to adopt a National Military Mobility Plan, which promises the construction of three corridors plus three logistical transhipment points (‘hubs’). Again, details are not public, but presumably the ports of Rotterdam and Vlissingen, and Eemshaven in Groningen are part of it. In recent years, the authorities there have been training for the arrival of mainly US military equipment. The Betuwe Route can also be used because it is suitable for the wider trains used by the military. Since last year, the military has a support centre in Eemshaven – a so-called Permanent Military Object (PMO) – where the loading and unloading of ships for military transport can be coordinated.

Initially, 6.5 billion euros of European money was considered necessary to solve the logistical problems. After fierce rounds of budget cuts caused by Brexit and the pandemic, 1.7 billion euros remained. At the beginning of April this year, the first 340 million euros were allocated. Apart from the new marshalling tracks in Montzen, that money will go, among other things, to improving a runway at Poland’s Rzeszow Airport near the Ukrainian border, a crucial link in Western arms shipments to Ukraine. The port of Koper in Slovenia will receive 20 million euros to improve its accessibility. Tapa, Estonia’s largest military base, will also get better connections.

No urgency

Europe is “making an extra effort,” says Jan Broeks, “but not fast enough and it’s more words than deeds.” Of the four goals that the EU Foreign Affairs Council hoped to achieve by the end of 2019 – and which were adopted in the PESCO project – only two have been met. Many participating countries have not yet completed a national military mobility plan and acquiring permission for cross-border transports still takes more than five working days.

Brigadier Henny Bouman, who heads this PESCO project, says that not all 27 participating countries are “equally active” in this. As chair, the Netherlands wants to “set a good example,” he writes in an e-mail response to questions. But “[the] countries have to do it themselves, after all it’s mainly about improvements on a national level”.

According to retired Lieutenant General Hodges, government leaders are not sufficiently aware of the urgency of the problems. Even countries on NATO’s eastern flank are not tackling them as energetically as you might expect, he says. Rail Baltica, a project to connect the railways in Poland and Lithuania, is years behind schedule. “And if we want to improve the infrastructure in Romania, it must make itself attractive to invest in infrastructure. Countries should not think that others will solve it for them.

According to Hodges, it does not help either that of the 6.5 billion euros initially earmarked, so little remains. “The reasons for this, such as the pandemic, are understandable. Still, safety should be a priority.”

EU leaders, individually and collectively, agree that military mobility must be significantly improved. But for the equipment now on its way to Ukraine, it’s too late, says Hodges. “From conversations with logistics experts, I didn’t get the impression that things are already improving,” he says. According to Hodges Deutsche Bahn, for example, one of the largest rail carriers of heavy equipment in Europe, can only transport the heavy equipment of one and a half tank brigades – a few hundred tanks and other armoured vehicles on railway trucks – at a time. “Far too little.” Five brigades is the minimum, he says. And if it can’t be done by rail, then it has to be done by road in special trucks. But there is a glaring shortage of that too.

On top of that, most of the transport network is vulnerable to cyber-attacks, Hodges says. The operation of switches, but also entire seaports, could possibly be paralysed.

A revised version of the EU Action Plan on Military Mobility will follow at the end of this year. It will include initiatives on digitalisation, increasing ‘cyber resilience’ of transport routes, and the use of artificial intelligence for logistics nodes.

The four tracks under construction at the marshalling yard in Montzen, Belgium, will be finished by then. Once the tracks have been laid, overhead lines, signals and connections to the European Train Control System will follow: the safety system that is being rolled out along all European freight corridors. In June 2024, the track must be completely ready for use. It will then be one of the first tangible results of a long and protracted process to make Europe more resilient.

This article was published NRC (in Dutch) on June 24th 2022. 

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