The "Very High Readiness Joint Task Force," the 5,000-strong centerpiece of the 2014 NATO summit and the package of measures it produced to counter Russian aggression, would be too vulnerable during its deployment phase to be used in Poland or the Baltic States, two senior NATO generals with close knowledge of the alliance's logistical and military planning told the Financial Times.
Russia's decision to dramatically build up its forces in Kaliningrad — the Baltic enclave between Poland and Lithuania — and substantial military assets in its border territories mean the VJTF would be at risk of being overrun before it was even ready to fight if it tried to set up "east of the Oder [the line of Germany's eastern border]," says one of the generals.
The rapid reaction force's shortcomings are understood to be one of the main reasons why the alliance has decided to base greater numbers of troops permanently along its eastern flank.
At July's Warsaw summit, alliance members are expected to approve a range of measures to better equip NATO for practical territorial defense — not just deterrence. The measures are a sign of how worried NATO has become about conflict with Russia in Europe.
NATO foreign ministers will meet in Brussels this week to begin finalizing agenda items and decisions for the summit.
One of the measures being considered is the basing of four battalions, each contributed by a single NATO member, in the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Poland. According to one senior Polish diplomat, the measure is the "absolute minimum" that is needed.
Although limited in its uses as an effective first-response tool to handle "Article 5" or open war involving a NATO member and triggering a collective response from all 28 allies, the VJTF remains an essential component of defense, alliance officials insist.
"The VJTF is to deal with Article 4 [situations] and that is our intention with it," said Brigadier General Krzysztof Krol, the Polish deputy commander of NATO Multi-National Corps North East. "[But] we take [Article 5] into account in all our planning."
The spearhead is still valuable in preventing Article 4 situations, such as subterfuge, civil unrest or border infractions, from escalating into armed conflict, Gen Krol said. "The plan was developed to react to hybrid threats in our area of operation. Our plans are scalable to the situation," he added.
Read alsoPoland names targets of Russian intelligence servicesNATO officials believe Russia's military plans to use such "hybrid" measures to undermine, manipulate or incite opponents before the outbreak of open state-on-state hostilities. NATO claims these tactics have been on open display in Ukraine.
A spokesperson for the alliance insisted the spearhead was ready for short-notice deployment "in all possible situations," including Article 5 conflict. But, they admitted, Russia's military build-up was complicating the picture.
"Russia has anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, both land and sea-based, as well as combat aircraft based in the Kaliningrad Oblast and other parts of its territory that are able to cover huge areas," the spokesperson said.
"These concentrations of Russian forces pose challenges that we are fully aware of and that we are taking into account in our planning. We are considering these additional dimensions as we strengthen and modernize our deterrence and defense posture, looking to the Warsaw summit. NATO will do whatever is necessary to deter any threat and defend all allies."