Breedlove looks back as he charts NATO’s new path
December 11, 2015
For NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove, the intelligence coming into his headquarters pointed to a watershed moment for European security, but not everyone wanted to see it that way.
In early 2014, there were signs that Russia was deploying troops to Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula, abetting local separatists. Yet across the U.S-led NATO alliance, which was drawing down from a long and costly fight in Afghanistan, there was a reluctance to accept that long-held notions about European security were ready to implode.
“It was a tough time, because nations wanted to do the right thing, but also nations needed to be convinced that this wasn’t a legitimate political movement [in Crimea] or a legitimate political action,” said Breedlove, whose three-year tenure as NATO’s supreme allied commander is drawing to an end.
Now, the NATO military alliance has come full circle. Members generally agree that Russia’s intervention in Ukraine demanded action within the alliance, which has since embarked upon its largest transformation since the end of the Cold War.
At times, critics have called Breedlove, who also serves as head of the U.S. European Command, a bellicose “super hawk,” overly fixated on the Russian threat. To others, Breedlove has been a catalyst for shaking NATO out of a post-Cold War slumber, issuing warnings others wanted to ignore.
“At times Breedlove sounded out of step with officials in Washington, who seemed so concerned about the political implications of the Ukrainian crisis,” said Jonathan Eyal, a security expert with the Royal United Services Institute in London.
In the aftermath of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its continued backing of separatists in Ukraine’s east, NATO has undertaken its most significant reinforcement since the fall of the Berlin Wall. With an eye to its eastern flank, NATO is poised to double the size of its quick-reaction force to 40,000 troops and has established a new “spearhead unit” that can mobilize in 48 hours.
In addition, small staging bases have been set up in the Baltics and southern Europe to aid the flow of forces through the region.
After withdrawing all main battle tanks from the Continent in 2013 and cutting troop numbers, the U.S. Army has brought a brigade’s worth of heavy fighting vehicles back to Europe.
NATO recently granted Breedlove more authority to mobilize troops, a power that will pass down to his successor, who will likely be named in 2016.
Taken together, the actions represent a sharp reversal from the position of the U.S. and its allies only three years ago.
“He certainly has been the military leader of the alliance at a very historic time, where we’ve had the most dramatic changes since Gen. John Galvin, SACEUR at end of Berlin Wall and Warsaw Pact,” said Jorge Benitez, a NATO expert with the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington. “He also has made comments and raised issues, giving him a higher profile than normally we see from a NATO SACEUR and military commanders.”
From blunt statements about the need to halt troop drawdowns in Europe to pointing out areas of insufficient resources, such as intelligence assets and short supplies of precision munitions, Breedlove has “raised some thorny issues in public,” Benitez said.
Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who reports to Breedlove as commander of U.S. Army Europe, credited his boss with being a forceful advocate for getting more military resources and explaining the “changed security dynamic” in Europe to leaders back to U.S.
“He has been damn good at communicating it in a way that makes sense to civilian leaders,” Hodges said. “He hasn’t’ just sat there and sucked his thumb.”
On Twitter, in news conferences and before think tanks, Breedlove has been vocal about what he calls a “revanchist Russia,” causing angst in some Western capitals such as Berlin, where leaders have taken a more cautious tack on Moscow.
Earlier this year, the prominent German magazine Der Spiegel, citing concerns of various unnamed NATO and German diplomats, described Breedlove as a “super hawk,” who was exaggerating the Russia threat and the number of forces it was deploying around Ukraine and undermining diplomacy efforts.
Breedlove dismissed criticism that he ever hyped the Russia threat, characterizing his many public statements as an exercise in truth-telling.
Without getting into specifics, Breedlove acknowledged that his military advice has sometimes run counter to the views of his civilian bosses.
“This has happened more than once in my 2 1/2 years,” he said.
He added: “I feel like I am obligated, obligated to tell my bosses my best military advice and what I think right up to the moment they make a decision. When they make a decision, it is my job to support their decision, unless it is immoral or illegal. That’s an easy throwaway. If it is so opposed to my train of thought, I have recourse. I can resign my commission and move on.”
However, to allies in Poland and the Baltics, Breedlove’s willingness to take a hard line on Russia in such a public manner has been a reassuring message of solidarity, experts say.
“He has shown a great deal of skill in managing the different constituencies and walking that fine line,” Benitez said. “You can’t make everyone happy, but he’s shown the skills of alliance management.”
Charting a new course
When Breedlove arrived at his headquarters in Mons, Belgium, in the spring of 2013, occupying the desk of the original SACEUR, Gen. Dwight D Eisenhower, NATO was fighting to stay relevant.
The U.S. military was downsizing in Europe. The combat mission in Afghanistan, the glue that held NATO together for more than a decade, was ending. Europe was secure, and the Islamic State group had not yet emerged as a major force on NATO’s doorstep in Syria and Iraq. NATO appeared antiquated.
Upon taking command in May 2103, Breedlove assembled his top officers, took stock and then laid out a vision for transforming the way NATO’s militaries work together.
“What we sat down to face is how do we build the next NATO? What is it that becomes our focus?” Breedlove said.
He sought to move away from the counterinsurgency mind-set that prevailed during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and to relearn how to conduct high-end military operations involving all elements of military. A new training regime was to be put into place, one centered on rebuilding NATO’s collective defense capabilities with large-scale war games not attempted in nearly two decades.
“So we decided that was the way we should keep the glue in our military contingent together,” he said.
But without any obvious threat, what wasn’t clear was whether there would be the energy inside NATO to generate troops, funding and a strategic commitment to such a shift.
Less than a year later, Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, where the West says Moscow continues to back separatist fighters in the country’s eastern region.
The earlier NATO focus on getting back to traditional collective defense proved prescient.
“That was a moment, an important moment in my tenure as SACEUR,” Breedlove said. “The fact that we had a major nation in the European landmass that was actually crossing an internally recognized border and beginning to apply force, that was sort of a watershed moment.”
For NATO, Russia’s deployment in Ukraine of hybrid warfare techniques — a mix of unconventional tactics designed to mask direct involvement in a military campaign, such as mobilizing troops without national uniforms — introduced a new dilemma.
“We had to work through the issue of exposing to the world this hybrid warfare, convincing because there were many nations in the West that were unconvinced that Russia was in there,” Breedlove said.
In August 2014, Breedlove’s military headquarters took an unusual step when it released to the public satellite images that it said showed Russian combat forces engaged in military operations in Ukraine. Some of the pictures showed Russian self-propelled artillery units moving in a convoy through the Ukrainian countryside.
“I think that was one of his key moments and showed he is willing to be creative and innovate,” said Benitez, the Atlantic Council expert.
Breedlove came into NATO command in an unusual fashion. A major figure inside the Air Force — an F-16 fighter pilot, former vice chief of staff of the Air Force and commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe — he wasn’t the White House’s initial choice to take over the job of EUCOM chief and SACEUR from retiring Adm. James Stavridis.
The White House wanted Marine Gen. John Allen — then the commander of the war in Afghanistan — as his replacement. But Allen's nomination got held up in connection with an investigation into email exchanges with Jill Kelley, a Florida socialite at the center of the scandal that ended the career of then-CIA Director David Petraeus.
Allen eventually pulled himself out of contention for SACEUR, opting for retirement. Breedlove was tapped in his place.
The job marked Breedlove’s eighth Europe assignment and a third four-star post, which is something of a rarity.
But for the longtime air commander, moving to NATO was a step outside his comfort zone. He found himself on new terrain, operating at the highest military and diplomatic levels and occupying Eisenhower’s old wooden desk.
“The gravitas of it is very overwhelming, to be honest. You look at his bust, you look at his desk, and you’re like, ‘Don’t mess this up.’ ”
“I think every time you get a new job, if there is not a little bit of fear you are probably in the wrong place,” he added.
If serving as SACEUR carries the weight of history, Breedlove’s long apprenticeship in assorted commands in Europe was a form of preparation, he said.
When the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended, Breedlove was driving in the direction of Germany’s border with Czechoslovakia, heading for his wife’s favorite crystal shop. Cars were driving in the opposite direction, away from the Czech border, and he turned on the car radio to find out what was going on.
“That sets the stage for how I see NATO and how I see Europe,” Breedlove said. “I was a Cold War warrior.”