Opinion & Analysis

Reshaping Collective Defence Plans and Addressing Open Questions: How NATO is Approaching the Vilnius Summit


On July 11th and 12th, 2023, NATO heads of state and government are convening in Vilnius, Lithuania, for the Alliance’s annual summit, which is very likely to prove a watershed moment in NATO’s recent history for several reasons. To begin with, in light of the ongoing war of attrition in Ukraine, leaders are set to approve the first comprehensive defence plans since the Cold War era, with ambitious rearrangements in terms of military mobility along NATO’s Eastern Flank. Secondly, as far as defence expenditure is concerned, Allied countries will deal with the proposal to turn the 2% ceiling into an investment floor. Thirdly, they will discuss the progress of Ukraine and Sweden’s membership bids, with debates around the opportunity for Kyiv to benefit from a fast-track procedure alongside compromises to encourage Turkey and Hungary to lift their veto on Stockholm’s accession. Lastly, NATO leaders will try to reach a consensus on Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s successor after the latter’s mandate has been extended three times.

This info flash aims at illustrating the areas where NATO allies are meant to deliver at the upcoming summit based on pledges made at previous meetings, as well as the most contentious issues on which consensus seems less likely. It will start by assessing whether commitments made at the 2022 Madrid Summit have been met (section I), followed by an overview of the Alliance’s reshaped defence plans in terms of capacity building and military interoperability along the Eastern Flank (section II). The analysis will then move on to the divisive issues of defence expenditure (section III) and the progress of Ukraine’s and Sweden’s path towards membership (section IV). It will conclude by hinting at the need for NATO to address security challenges beyond the Euro-Atlantic region, hence unpacking its new geographical areas of focus and the defence frameworks established with local partners (section V).

Post-Madrid Progress: Where Does NATO Stand?

NATO has made mixed progress on three major pledges made at the 2022 Madrid Summit on June 29th and 30th: deploying robust combat-ready forces along the Eastern Flank; enhancing collective defence exercises for high-intensity and multi-domain operations; and commitment to NATO’s new Force Model (Monaghan et al., 2023).

As for the first commitment, notwithstanding pledges by the U.S., Canada, the U.K., France, and Germany to scale up existing Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) battlegroups to brigade-size units (NATO, 2022a), no large-scale deployment has yet taken place. An example was German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius’s claim to send a permanent brigade to Lithuania in late June (Associated Press, 2023), following Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda’s call for their deployment. However, considering German combat forces’ readiness and Lithuanian infrastructure’s precariousness, this will unlikely occur anytime soon (Monaghan et al., 2023).

The picture concerning joint exercises is much more positive. Air Defender became the biggest air exercise in NATO’s history: hosted by Germany on June 12th-23rd, 2023, it witnessed the participation of 25 states through 10,000 staff and 250 aircraft (NATO, 2023a). As for maritime exercises, the last iteration of the Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) hosted 50 ships, around 45 aircraft and over 6,000 personnel from 20 nations (NATO, 2023b).

Lastly, NATO’s EFP Battlegroup asserted itself as a combat-ready force during the Iron Wolf exercise on May 8th-20th. 3,500 troops from 13 nations, led by the Lithuanian Iron Wolf Brigade, participated alongside additional forces from the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, Poland and Portugal (MNCNE, 2023).
The new Force Model, designed to replace the NATO Response Force to ensure a larger pool of high-readiness forces and step up short-notice response capabilities (NATO, 2022b), is far from meeting its targets. The ambitious scale of the plans, namely to increase high-readiness units from 40,000 to 300,000 in response to Russia’s warmongering, caught the Allies unprepared about whether they would entail additional costs (Bayer & von der Burchard, 2022). Such a target remains highly unlikely to be achieved by the end of 2023 (Monaghan et al., 2023).

A more long-standing commitment concerns nuclear deterrence capability-building, where Allies displaying the highest credentials are still not on the same page. France continues to pull its forces out of NATO, while Great Britain, whose capabilities have been cut drastically since the end of the Cold War, provides limited options with only one delivery system left. Additionally, discussions to revamp NATO’s air delivery have constantly been postponed: hence, the service merely relies on Allies maintaining aircraft capable of transporting US-supplied freefall bombs (Dorman, 2023).

Read the full publication here 

About the Author 

Jacopo Maria Bosica is a research trainee at Finabel.