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Ukraine War Spurs NATO to Improve Transport of Military Equipment

BUCHAREST—When France wanted to send Leclerc tanks to bolster the defenses of NATO ally Romania in September, fellow alliance member Germany opposed trucking them across its highways. The problem wasn’t peace protesters or political opposition. It was the heavy French tank-transporters.

The flatbeds’ weight on each axle exceeded the legal limits for most German roads, said government authorities, who proposed a route that Paris deemed unacceptable. Instead, France sent the tanks by rail, delaying the shipment.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed weaknesses and shortcomings across European militaries, from permeable air defenses to insufficient supplies of ammunition. It has also provided painful reminders of a frailty that planners within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have fretted over in recent years: the difficulty of transporting military equipment across the continent.

French soldiers loaded a tank on a train for transport from France to Romania.



Photo:

francois nascimbeni/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

During the Cold War, NATO stood ready to fight the Soviet Union, which meant not only shooting bullets but also delivering them to troops. Alliance members relentlessly staged battle drills and logistics dry-runs using the trucks, train cars, planes and ships at their disposal.

After the U.S.S.R. collapsed, so did that supply infrastructure. Quartermasters and civilian transportation authorities stopped conferring. Western European railways sold off rolling stock designated for wartime. Governments enacted regulations that impeded movement of ammunition, explosives and other dangerous materiel across borders.

NATO expansion into former Warsaw Pact countries, starting in 1999, complicated matters further, because nobody knew which roads or rail lines would be best to use in a crisis. For years, no survey was conducted of critical points such as bridges, tunnels and overpasses in the new NATO nations because nobody saw the need. Any security threat posed by the region’s paucity of high-capacity motorways seemed remote.

Then Russia in 2014 seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and fomented breakaway movements in Ukraine’s east, raising again the specter of war near NATO territory. Europe’s mothballed military-logistics skills needed rediscovering.

U.S. Army Lt. Gen.

Ben Hodges,

who was then the Army’s top commander in Europe, spent four years trying to improve military mobility, arguing defense equipment should move as easily as people do within the European Union’s borderless Schengen Area.

In 2018, when Gen. Hodges retired, NATO created two new command structures, one for European logistics and another for shipments across the Atlantic.

The EU, which avoids direct involvement in combat but strives to help its armed forces operate more efficiently, also began focusing on military mobility. A Dutch-led project within the EU’s European Defense Agency now also includes non-EU NATO members Norway, Canada and the U.S. In a sign of how seriously all sides take mobility, the EU allowed the U.K. to join the project despite frosty post-Brexit relations.

Pål Jonson, defense minister of Sweden, which just took over the EU’s rotating six-month presidency, said enhancing mobility is a vital activity for the EU and NATO—and an area ripe for cooperation. “To live up to Article 5, this is crucial,” he said, referring to the NATO agreement that an attack on any member represents an attack on all of them.

A French cargo plane was loaded for travel to Romania last year.



Photo:

Associated Press

The rush by NATO members to react since Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February has offered a harsh reminder of how much work remains. Arming Kyiv’s forces and buttressing defenses in NATO members nearest to Russia, such as Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, has required lots of ad hoc workarounds to bureaucratic and logistical hurdles, officials say.

“It is time to move from a case-by-case approach towards structural solutions,” said an EU report published in November, titled “Action plan on military mobility 2.0.”

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Days after its publication, NATO Secretary-General

Jens Stoltenberg

met with EU defense ministers to discuss military mobility and logistics, calling it “an important part of NATO-EU cooperation.” Mr. Stoltenberg last month met with EU Commissioner for Internal Markets

Thierry Breton

to advance the alignment.

Those meetings built on increasing recent efforts to overcome longstanding wariness between the two multinational organizations. In times of peace, each saw the other as potentially encroaching on its turf. Now they are trying to make their overlapping security planning and spending more efficient.

The EU invests billions of euros annually in transportation infrastructure, but has rarely made military mobility a concern. The two organizations have begun coordinating plans so that EU funding aligns with needs identified by NATO.

“Progress is being made, but it’s a complex issue,” said Jan Jireš, deputy defense minister of the Czech Republic, which held the EU presidency through last month.

Retired Gen. Hodges says national regulations remain too onerous and governments aren’t sufficiently focused on the problems. “Until I see money being applied to it and real changes, we’re not going to get this fixed,” he said.

Mr. Jireš said his country and its neighbors pose the biggest challenge due to their physical infrastructure. Warsaw Pact tanks and other vehicles were generally smaller and weighed less than their Western counterparts, meaning bridges and overpasses could be designed to support Moscow’s equipment but would collapse under NATO’s land forces.

“Soviet equipment was deliberately lighter,” he said. Now NATO and EU planners are grappling with how to handle structural shortcomings.

Even in longstanding Western NATO members, physical infrastructure is problematic. A French

Renault

tank-transporter hauling a Leclerc exceeds Germany’s weight limit of 12 tons per axle on many roadways, French officials said.

The EU is trying to help eliminate such roadblocks out of self-interest. With the planned accession of EU members Finland and Sweden to NATO, the military alliance will cover more than 96% of the EU’s population. Only Austria, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta will be in the EU and outside NATO.

Together, the two organizations are working to agree on transportation requirements so designs for civilian road, rail and maritime infrastructure can include military needs. They are developing digital customs forms that both civilian and military authorities can access, to permit seamless shipments. They are working to harmonize and streamline what the EU report in November called “complex, lengthy and diverging national rules and procedures.”

Even fiscal rules have needed attention. EU members have exempted from value-added tax and excise duties goods and services linked to collective defense.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged NATO members to continue supporting Ukraine in the war against Russia. He spoke at a meeting of the military alliance’s foreign ministers in Bucharest on Tuesday. Photo: Andrei Pungovschi/AFP/Getty Images

Write to Daniel Michaels at Dan.Michaels@wsj.com

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