Steve MacBeth is a retired officer from the Canadian Forces. He recently transitioned to New Zealand and serves in the New Zealand Defence Force. He has deployed to Bosnia, completed three tours of duty in Khandahar, Afghanistan and most recently, as the Battle Group Commander of the NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group in Latvia. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Targeting North Atlantic Treaty Organization Article 5: Assessing Enhanced Forward Presence as a Below War Threshold Response

Date Originally Written:  August 20, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  November 25, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Article 5 does not provide the agility for forward deployed forces to effectively respond to challenges below the threshold of war. These challenges are also known as Grey Zone activities. This paper is a summation of a chapter the author wrote for publication at the NATO Staff College in Rome, regarding NATO in the Grey Zone, which was edited Dr Howard Coombes, Royal Military College of Canada.

Summary:  Russia has been careful, for the most part, to avoid direct confrontation with NATO. The Russian focus on indirect mechanisms targets the weaknesses of NATO’s conventional response and highlights the requirement to revisit Article 5 within context of the deployed enhanced Forward Presence Activities. Conflict through competitive and Grey Zone activities is omnipresent and does not follow the template that Article 5 was designed for[1] .

Text:  U.S. Army Major General Eric J. Wesley, Commander, U.S. Army Futures Command, has noted that western militaries and governments may need to adjust between a “continuum of conflict” that denotes “war” and “peace” to an age of constant competition and covert pressure punctuated by short violent overt struggle[2]. The Chief of the Russian General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov reflected upon this approach for the Russian military journal VPK in 2013. “Methods of conflict,” wrote Gerasimov, have changed, and now involve “the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian and other non-military measures.” All of this, he said, could be supplemented by utilizing the local populace as a fifth column and by “concealed” armed forces[3]. These actions demonstrate a Russian philosophy of achieving political objectives by employing a combination of attributable/non-attributable military and other actions. Operating under the threshold of traditional warfare, these adversarial behaviours, known as Grey Zone activities, deliberately target the weaknesses of the traditional NATO responses.

Reactions to aggression are governed by Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Article 5 provides the Alliance’s collective defence paradigm, stating an “attack on one is an attack on all,” signaling the shared intent to deal with armed aggression vigorously[4]. Article 5 does not address Grey Zone activities that demand rapid, unified decision making and action. NATO crisis response is predicated on a system that acts in a predictable and deliberate manner to deal with overt aggression. Though NATO has recognized the Grey Zone there has been little adaption to this threat and NATO has not demonstrated that it is prepared to act decisively in the case of a Russian Grey Zone incursion. The NATO forces positioned to deter potential Russian aggression on the Alliance’s eastern flank are the enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battle groups. This military commitment is structured and authorized to counter overt Article 5 threats. Paradoxically, the most likely danger they may encounter are Grey Zone challenges. Combine this capability to likely threat mismatch with the speed at which political and military decisions are required during crisis, like a limited Russian incursion with pre-conditions set by Grey Zone actions, and NATO may not be able to react effectively. Consequently, it may be time for NATO to re-visit its current Article 5 deterrence activities, in the context of Grey Zone activities. This re-visit would acknowledge the Eastern NATO nations require every opportunity to answer any form of threat to their security and fully enable the NATO forces arrayed within their countries.

Presently, the enhanced Forward Presence is an ‘activity’ and not an NATO mission. The forces remain under national control for all, but specifically pre-agreed tasks and lack common funding resources. For all intents and purposes NATO missions, with the exceptions of “operational limitations,” indicating national caveats or activities in which a contributing nation will not participate, contribute to a single military force under a unified NATO command structure. In the eFP context, this unified command structure does not exist. Outside of an invocation of an Article 5 response, the various elements of the eFP battle groups remain under national command. The Russian determination of conflict leans towards a state of constant, below the threshold of war competition utilizing deception, information, proxies, and avoiding attributable action. Russian efforts are focussed on NATO’s greatest vulnerability and, at times, source of frustration, lengthy centralized deliberation. At the best of times this need for consensus creates slow decision making and resultantly a diminution of strategic, operational, and tactical agility[6]. If the Russian trend of Grey Zone actions continue, Article 5 responses by the Alliance may become irrelevant due to this slowness of decision making. For the eFP battlegroups, which can react to conventional threats, the Grey Zone poses difficult challenges, which were not fully recognized when the eFP concept was originally proposed and implemented[7].

The Baltic countries are strengthened by having eFP forces garrisoned within their nations, but there is a capability gap in providing Article 5 deterrence. The lack of authority for eFP battle groups to compete below the threshold of conflict leaves Baltic allies uncertain if and how NATO can support them. Enhanced Forward Presence battle groups are not currently able to deal with Grey Zone eventualities. Consequently, in several important aspects, the Alliance response remains handicapped. Bringing about achieving rapid consensus for a crisis response operations in the face of an ambiguous attack, or in response to ostensibly unrelated low-level provocations, like those imbued in the Grey Zone, will not be an easy task in the current framework[8].


[1] M. Zapfe. “Hybrid Threats and NATO’s Forward Presence”, Centre of Security Studies Policy Perspectives, Vol. 4, No. 7, 2016, pp. 1-4.

[2] E. Wesley, “Future Concept Centre Commander Perspectives – Let’s Talk Multi-Domain Operations”, Modern War Institute Podcast., 2019. (accessed 15 March 2020)

[3] V. Gerasimov, “The Value of Science in Prediction”, Trans. R. Coalson, Military-Industrial Kurier, 2013, pp.

[4] “The North Atlantic Treaty Washington D.C. – 4 April 1949”, NATO, last modified 10 April 2019. (accessed 22 May 2020).

[5] The eFP Battle Group is an ad hoc grouping based upon an armoured or infantry battalion, which is normally commanded by a lieutenant-colonel (NATO O-4). It usually consists of a headquarters, a combination of integral and attached armour and infantry subunits, with their integral sustainment, elements. Also included are combat support organizations, which provide immediate tactical assistance, in the form of reconnaissance, mobility, counter-mobility or direct and indirect fire support, to combat elements. Additional sustainment elements may be attached as it is deemed necessary. eFP battle groups are integrated into host nation brigades. “Factsheet: NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence”, NATO, 2017. (accessed 12 July 2020); C. Leuprecht. “The enhanced Forward Presence: innovating NATO’s deployment model for collective defence – NDC Policy Brief No. 22”, Rome, NATO Defense College, 2019, p. 3.

[6] J. Deni, “NATO’s Presence in the East: Necessary But Still Not Sufficient”, War on The Rocks Commentary, 2017. (accessed 10 April 2020).

[7] For a synopsis of the apparent benefits of the eFP see C. Leuprecht. “The enhanced Forward Presence: innovating NATO’s deployment model for collective defence – NDC Policy Brief No. 22”, Rome, NATO Defense College, 2019.

[8] J. Deni, “The Paradox at the Heart of NATO’s Return to Article 5”, RUSI Newsbrief, Vol. 39, No. 10, 2019, p. 2. (accessed April 15 2020).