Europe is waking up to a new need to defend itself since Russia invaded Ukraine.
As children in Lithuania headed back to class this autumn, some of their schools were marked with new stickers: Hundreds have been designated as bomb shelters. In Finland, defence forces have been assembling modular military fortifications and practising landing jets on the highways.
Planners from the Baltics in the north to Romania in the south are scrutinising potential military reinforcement routes, planning to fortify bridges and adding military transport functions to civilian airports, more than three dozen military and civilian officials across eight European states told Reuters.
After 25 years of fighting conflicts abroad, the NATO alliance suddenly needs to show the enemy it can respond to a threat anywhere along its border, its top military adviser told Reuters.
It is not ready, he said.
“In many, many nations – not only the eastern flank – but in many, many nations, there are shortfalls in infrastructure,” said Rob Bauer, a Dutch admiral who chairs NATO’s Military Committee.
The European Union said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has increased the urgency of making Europe’s transport infrastructure fit for dual civil and defence use, and it is speeding up funding for projects that support military mobility.
Brussels has allocated 1.6 billion euros ($1.67 billion) to military mobility projects in the bloc for the 2021-2027 period, part of a wider budget of 33.7 billion euros, known as the Connecting Europe Facility, to support key infrastructure projects. The military mobility project is coordinated by the Netherlands.
The budget was cut in negotiations from an initial EU Commission proposal of 6.5 billion euros. Bauer called the available sum “almost nothing” and Raoul Bessems, the top Dutch government official for military mobility, said it will “never be enough.”
In response, a European Commission spokesperson told Reuters a new military mobility plan presented in November will “help European armed forces to respond better, more rapidly and at sufficient scale” to crises at the EU’s external borders.
“We have made an important progress in the last months, but let’s recognise that bottlenecks remain,” said EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell.
Europe’s geopolitical situation has changed drastically since NATO enlarged to the east after the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1991. During the Cold War, Germany was the front line – the country where a battle between east and west would have been fought out.
Today, the scenarios are more complicated, planners say. NATO’s territory has increased dramatically, meaning there is a longer border to protect, more space for potential Russian attacks to happen, a longer distance for military reinforcements to cover, and a wider range of potential attacks – including cyber attacks on infrastructure.
“We do not have enough transport capacity, or infrastructure that enables the rapid movement of NATO forces across Europe.”
Military planners say that while the war has led to more awareness, the funding shortfall reflects a greater concern: Europe’s political mindset, which Bessems said lags behind the reality of all-out war on European soil, and which has not come to terms with the hybrid nature of modern warfare.
“It’s peacetime conditions that apply. And that’s the whole problem,” he told Reuters.
If heavy reinforcements were to arrive from the Atlantic needing to move swiftly east, the obstacles would include a lack of rail capacity, roads that are too narrow and steep, insufficient information about roads and bridges, misaligned rail gauges, and paralysing bureaucracy, said Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general who was commander of the U.S. Army in Europe until 2017 and has been campaigning for better infrastructure for many years.
“We do not have enough transport capacity, or infrastructure that enables the rapid movement of NATO forces across Europe,” he said in an interview. For instance, German railway Deutsche Bahn has enough rail cars to move one and a half armoured brigades simultaneously at one time, “that’s it.”
One armoured brigade comprises around 4,000 soldiers, 90 Abrams tanks, 15 self-propelled, tracked Paladin howitzers (155mm), 150 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles, 500 tracked vehicles and 600 wheeled vehicles and other equipment.
In military terms, planners need ‘redundancy’ – multiple routes to give alternatives if some are taken out. But building roads is the responsibility of national governments, who face competing claims for expensive projects.
“What we have learned from Russia’s war against Ukraine is, we’ve been reminded actually that war is a test of will, and it’s a test of logistics,” Hodges said.
Adomas Buzinskas, deputy chief operating officer at Vilnius municipality, said it took images of people hiding from bombs in Ukraine to focus minds in Lithuania’s capital – once ruled by Moscow but now part of both the European Union and NATO – on its own need for shelters.
The city had redeveloped Soviet-era shelters and nothing was built to replace them. “No one was thinking about that,” he said. “Now it’s obvious – this was not smart.”
The basement of Jeruzales progymnasium, a school on a residential Vilnius street, is a cloakroom where children clamour for coats and shoes at break. It’s also one of 370 locations the city has marked as shelters. Together they could house up to 210,000 people, one third of the city’s population, said Buzinskas.
The cloakroom is designated as a shelter for the neighbourhood, but headmaster Linas Vasarevicius said it would hardly have space for all the school’s 700 pupils.
Finland, which the Soviet Union tried to invade in World War Two and which applied to join NATO earlier this year, has long been honing its independent military readiness. It has set aside an initial 145 million euros ($141 million) to begin fencing critical parts of its border with Russia – until now just a conceptual line in vast forests.
To rehearse for the possibility of another attempted invasion by Russia, it’s building different types of fortifications around the country using sandbags filled with rock dust and modular elements in concrete and wood, designed by the defence forces to be built and moved quickly.
“We build them strong, ugly and fast,” said Jouko Viitala, head of special projects at infrastructure builder GRK.
Helsinki fears retaliation for its NATO application could come in the form of Russia sending masses of migrants to the border, as the EU accused Belarus of doing in 2021, when Minsk distributed Belarusian visas in the Middle East and thousands of migrants got stuck on the Polish-Belarussian border.