NATO - North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Improving NATO’s capabilities

A Spanish parachutist jumps out of the plane over the military camp at Bize near the Albanian capital Tirana Sunday, August 18, 1998. The parachutist takes  part in the N.A.T.O. Cooperative Assembly «98  Partnership for Peace" in Albania. Pictures made available at August 20, 1998.  (AP PHOTO/Andreas Noll)

NATO has been engaged in continuous transformation for many years to ensure that it has the policies, capabilities and structures required to deal with current and future challenges, including the collective defence of its members. With Allied forces militarily engaged across several continents, the Alliance needs to ensure that its armed forces remain modern, deployable and sustainable.

The 2010 Strategic Concept sets out NATO’s strategic priorities and defines the Organization’s vision of Euro-Atlantic security for the next decade. It provides an analysis of the strategic environment and a framework for all Alliance capability development planning disciplines and intelligence, identifying the kinds of operations the Alliance must be able to perform and setting the context in which capability development takes place.

At the May 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago, Alliance leaders reaffirmed their determination to ensure that NATO retains and develops the capabilities necessary to perform its essential core tasks: collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security – and thereby to play an essential role promoting security in the world. This responsibility needs to be met while dealing with an acute financial crisis and responding to evolving geo-strategic challenges.

By working together through NATO, Alliance members are better able to ensure the security of their citizens – and to do so far more effectively and efficiently – than would be possible by acting alone. Over the past six decades, they have cooperated closely together, have made firm commitments and taken a range of initiatives to strengthen capabilities in key areas.

  • Meeting immediate and long-term challenges

    The objectives of the 2010 Strategic Concept are further specified by the 2011 Political Guidance. This Political Guidance establishes in broad terms what the Alliance should be able to do, how much it should be able to do, and sets priorities, thereby guiding procurement and other key activities in the context of the NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP).

    The NATO Defence Planning Process

    The NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP) provides a framework within which national and Alliance processes can be harmonised to meet Alliance objectives. It establishes in detail how to meet the mandates of the Political Guidance and sets targets for nations and the Alliance collectively, thereby guiding national and collective capability development.

    Implemented in a four-year cycle, the NDPP seeks forces and capabilities that are deployable, sustainable and can contribute to Alliance missions. The forces provided by Allies have to be able to operate together in a multinational context, prepared, trained, equipped and supported to contribute to the full range of missions, including in distant and remote areas.

    Defence planning has a short- to long-term perspective, including with respect to identifying requirements, the development and delivery of capabilities, the adjustment of military and civilian structures, personnel issues, equipment procurement and the development of new technologies.

    On the other hand, very short-term and critical capability shortfalls that arise on operations are tackled through a mechanism whereby urgent operational requirements are raised by the operational commands, scrutinised by the Military Committee and relevant budget committees and put to the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s principal political decision-making body, for consideration as need be.

    Current objectives

    With the adoption of the 2010 Strategic Concept, Alliance leaders committed to ensure that NATO has the full range of capabilities necessary to deter and defend against any threat to the safety and security of Allies’ populations. Therefore the Alliance will:

    • maintain an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces;
    • maintain the ability to sustain concurrent major joint operations and several smaller operations for collective defence and crisis response, including at strategic distance;
    • develop and maintain robust, mobile and deployable conventional forces to carry out both its Article 5 responsibilities and expeditionary operations, including with the NATO Response Force;
    • carry out the necessary training, exercises, contingency planning and information exchange for assuring its defence against the full range of conventional and emerging security challenges, and provide appropriate visible assurance and reinforcement for all Allies;
    • ensure the broadest possible participation of Allies in collective defence planning on nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces, and in command, control and consultation arrangements;
    • develop the capability to defend Allies’ populations and territories against ballistic missile attack as a core element of its collective defence, which contributes to the indivisible security of the Alliance;
    • actively seek cooperation on missile defence with Russia and other Euro-Atlantic partners;
    • further develop NATO’s capacity to defend against the threat of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction;
    • develop further its ability to prevent, detect, defend against and recover from cyber attacks, including by using the NATO planning process to enhance and coordinate national cyber defence capabilities, bringing all NATO bodies under centralised cyber protection, and better integrating NATO cyber awareness, warning and response with member nations;
    • enhance the capacity to detect and defend against international terrorism, including through enhanced analysis of the threat, more consultations with our partners, and the development of appropriate military capabilities, including to help train local forces to fight terrorism themselves;
    • develop the capacity to contribute to energy security, including protection of critical energy infrastructure and transit areas and lines, cooperation with partners, and consultations among Allies on the basis of strategic assessments and contingency planning;
    • ensure that the Alliance is at the front edge in assessing the security impact of emerging technologies, and that military planning takes the potential threats into account;
    • sustain the necessary levels of defence spending, so that its armed forces are sufficiently resourced;
    • continue to review NATO’s overall posture in deterring and defending against the full range of threats to the Alliance, taking into account changes to the evolving international security environment.
  • Prioritising capabilities

    Given the evolving geo-strategic environment, NATO leaders are continually assessing and reviewing the capabilities needed to conduct the full range of the Alliance’s missions.

    At the Chicago Summit in May 2012, NATO leaders made a pledge to improve the Alliance’s planning processes and specific capabilities in pursuit of the “NATO Forces 2020” goal. The vision for NATO forces in 2020 and beyond is one of modern, tightly connected forces equipped, trained, exercised and commanded so that they can operate together and with partners in any environment.

    This constitutes what has been coined the “Chicago Defence Package”, which aims to ensure the Alliance has all the requisite capabilities to implement the 2010 Strategic Concept and the 2011 Political Guidance. The package is based largely on existing plans and programmes and a realistic projection of resources. It therefore provides a renewed focus and mandate to ensure that in the competition for resources the most urgent capabilities are delivered.

    The Chicago Defence Package consists of a mix of new and existing initiatives. The new initiatives consist of Smart Defence and the Connected Forces Initiative; the existing initiatives include the Lisbon Summit package focused on the Alliance’s most pressing capability needs; the ongoing reform of Alliance structures and processes; and the NATO Defence Planning Process, mentioned previously.

    Smart Defence

    As technology grows more expensive and defence budgets are under pressure, there are key capabilities which many Allies can only obtain if they work together to develop and acquire them. Smart Defence is the opportunity for a renewed culture of cooperation in which multinational collaboration is given new prominence as an effective and efficient option for developing critical capabilities.

    The decisions of Allies in Chicago to take forward specific multinational projects, including for better protection of troops, better surveillance and better training will enhance NATO’s ability to meet the challenges faced in 2020 and beyond. Developing greater European military capabilities will strengthen the transatlantic link, enhance the security of all Allies and foster an equitable sharing of the burdens, benefits and responsibilities of Alliance membership. In this context, NATO will work closely with the European Union (EU), utilising agreed mechanisms, to ensure that Smart Defence and the EU's Pooling and Sharing initiative are complementary and mutually reinforcing. Maintaining a strong defence industry in Europe and making the fullest possible use of the potential of defence industrial cooperation across the Alliance also remain an essential condition for delivering the capabilities needed for 2020 and beyond.

    Connected Forces Initiative

    NATO is also taking steps to enhance the linkages between its forces, and with partner countries as well. The 2011 NATO operation over Libya showed the importance of such connections; as soon as the political decision was taken to initiate the NATO mission, Alliance pilots were flying wing to wing with each other, and with pilots from non-NATO European and Arab partner countries.

    The aim is to build on such success through the Connected Forces Initiative. This initiative seeks to expand education and training of personnel, complementing in this way essential national efforts. It will also enhance exercises, strengthen the bonds between the NATO Command Structure, the NATO Force Structure, and national headquarters and reinforce the NATO Response Force so that it can play a greater role in helping Alliance forces to operate together and to contribute to NATO’s deterrence and defence posture. As much as possible, NATO will also step up connections with partners, so that all can act together, when desired.

    Priority capability requirements

    At the Lisbon Summit in 2010, recognising the economic and fiscal climate, Allies endorsed a package of capabilities representing the Alliance’s most pressing capability needs. It was developed to help the Alliance meet the demands of ongoing operations, face emerging challenges and acquire key enabling capabilities.

    Afghan Mission Network

    NATO is creating a single federated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) network to improve information sharing by easing the information flow and creating better situational awareness among countries participating in ISAF operations. The capability continues to be developed in an incremental fashion with additional functionality being added each year.

    Countering improvised explosive devices

    Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) are the cause of many casualties in Afghanistan. NATO has launched an ambitious Counter-IED Action Plan, led by Allied Command Transformation, fostering collaboration inside and outside NATO. The Action Plan combines short-term measures in support of ISAF with long-term capability development for future contingencies. Work is ongoing at different levels (including initiatives to collate and share intelligence, improved training, new technical capabilities and cooperation with other international organisations) to implement measures that will help protect troops against IEDs and address the insurgent networks behind these destructive devices.

    Improving air- and sea-lift capabilities

    Air-and sea-lift capabilities are a key enabler for operations – so that forces and equipment can be deployed quickly to wherever they are needed. While there is significant ongoing procurement at a national level, many Allies have also pooled resources, including with partner countries, to acquire new capacities through commercial arrangements or through purchase, giving them access to additional transport to swiftly move troops, equipment and supplies across the globe.

    Collective logistics contracts

    To improve effectiveness, NATO is examining procedures for the development and administration of rapidly usable contracts, including for medical support, with repayment by countries when used. More broadly, collective logistics is being implemented by NATO in Kosovo and Afghanistan for redeployment to optimise the use of multinational capabilities. Additionally, in June 2013, Exercise Capable Logistician brought together a large number of logisticians from member and partner countries to work on improving interoperability.

    Dealing with evolving and emerging threats
    Missile defence

    In the context of a broader response to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, NATO is pursuing a Theatre Missile Defence Programme aimed at protecting deployed Alliance forces against ballistic missile threats with ranges up to 3,000 kilometres. The Alliance has an interim capability to protect troops in a specific area against short-range and some medium-range ballistic missiles.

    At the Lisbon Summit, NATO leaders decided to expand the Theatre Missile Defence Programme to include protection of NATO European populations and territories and at the same time invited Russia to cooperate on missile defence and to share in its benefits.

    At the Chicago Summit, NATO leaders declared an interim ballistic missile defence capability as an initial step to establish NATO's missile defence system, which will protect all NATO European territories, populations and forces against the increasing threats posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles.

    Cyber defence

    In June 2011, NATO adopted a revised policy on cyber defence and its related action plan. NATO’s fundamental cyber defence responsibility is to defend NATO’s own communication and information systems. To this end, NATO will continue to develop and to strengthen its cyber security and cyber defence The Alliance is also prepared, upon request, to coordinate assistance if an Ally or Allies are victims of a cyber attack. In June 2013, at their first-ever meeting dedicated to cyber defence, NATO defence ministers agreed that the Alliance’s cyber defence capability should be fully operational by the autumn. This includes the establishment of Rapid Reaction Teams to help protect NATO’s own systems.

    Stabilisation and reconstruction

    The Alliance’s experience with crisis response operations has shown the importance of stabilisation and reconstruction – activities undertaken in fragile states or in conflict or post-conflict situations to promote security, development and good governance in key sectors. In modern conflicts, conventional military means are often not sufficient to re-establish stable, self-sustaining peace. The primary responsibilities for such activities normally lie with other actors, but the Alliance has established political guidelines that will help to improve its involvement in stabilisation and reconstruction.

    Critical long-term enabling capabilities

    Information superiority is a key enabling element in the battle space and helps commanders at every level make the best decisions, creating the circumstances for success at less risk and greater speed. NATO will therefore continue to develop and acquire a range of networked information systems (Automated Information Systems) that support the two Strategic Commands. They cover a number of domains, including, land, air, maritime, intelligence, logistics and the common operating picture, with a view to enabling more informed and effective, holistic oversight, decision-making and command and control.

    Air Command and Control

    NATO is putting into place a fully interoperable, automated and integrated Air Command and Control System (ACCS). It will provide for real-time command and control, as well as mission planning and associated functions. It will also have the potential for air and missile defence tasks.

    Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance

    NATO needs a Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (JISR) capability that will provide for the coordinated collection, processing, dissemination and sharing within NATO of ISR material gathered by the future Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system, the current NATO Airborne Early-Warning and Control force (AWACS) and national ISR assets. While NATO is delivering a critical JISR capability in ISAF, an enduring JISR capability, which has yet to be fully defined, has to be developed over the coming years.

    Alliance Ground Surveillance

    The Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system is a key element of transformation and an essential enabling capability for forces across the full spectrum of NATO’s current and future operations and missions. The AGS will be an airborne, stand-off ground surveillance system that can detect and track vehicles, such as tanks, trucks or helicopters, moving on or near the ground, in all weather conditions. The AGS airborne vehicle acquisition contract was signed during the 2012 Chicago Summit.

    Other initiatives

    The NATO Response Force

    The NATO Response Force (NRF) is a technologically advanced, multinational force made up of land, air, maritime and special forces components that the Alliance can deploy quickly to wherever it is needed. It has the overarching purpose of being able to provide a rapid military response to an emerging crisis, whether for collective defence purposes or for other crisis response operations. It is also a driving engine of NATO’s military transformation.

    Aviation modernisation programmes

    The Alliance will continue to develop its capabilities in the field of air traffic management (ATM) and engage in civil aviation modernisation plans in Europe (Single European Sky ATM Research) and North America (NextGen). The aim is threefold: to ensure safe access to airspace; ensure effective delivery of services; and ensure civil-military interoperability in order to safeguard military mission effectiveness at global level and the ability to conduct the full range of NATO operations, including the airspace integration of unmanned aircraft systems.

    Energy security

    At the Chicago Summit in May 2012, Allies recognised that a stable and reliable energy supply, diversification of routes, suppliers and energy resources, and the interconnectivity of energy networks remain of critical importance. While these issues are primarily the responsibility of national governments and other international organisations concerned, NATO closely follows relevant developments in energy security. NATO's Strategic Concept states that the Alliance will “develop the capacity to contribute to energy security, including protection of critical energy infrastructure and transit areas and lines, cooperation with partners, and consultations among Allies on the basis of strategic assessments and contingency planning.” In addition, NATO works towards significantly improving the energy efficiency of Allied military forces.

    Reforming NATO’s structures

    The Defence Package approved at the Chicago Summit stressed the importance of pursuing the reform of NATO structures and procedures. The need for NATO to function in an effective and efficient way is all the more necessary as defence budgets are declining in most member countries.

    The Alliance has fundamentally reformed its military command structure to ensure that it is more effective, leaner and affordable. The transition to the new structure took place in December 2012, opening the way to an entity that is more agile, flexible and better able to deploy headquarters for remote operations as well as to protect Alliance territory. In the same spirit, a major reform of NATO’s agencies was conducted and in July 2012 four new NATO organisations were established, rationalising and consolidating functions and responsibilities of nine NATO Agencies related to Support, Communications and Information, Procurement, and Science and Technology. NATO Headquarters has also been reformed, including with regard to intelligence-sharing and production, the establishment of a division responsible for emerging security challenges, and a significant reduction in the number and responsibilities of committees.


At the Munich Security Conference

02 Feb. 2013

NATO Secretary General's video blog

  • Play audio At the Munich Security Conference

    02 Feb. 2013

    NATO Secretary General's video blog

  • Play audio Strategic Sea-lift at Minimum Cost

    05 Jun. 2012

    The ARK Project is a multinational, Danish-led pool of ships that ensures stable charter costs for sea-lift in the event of a crisis or war. In order to minimise costs the ships are chartered to the civilian market when not needed for military transport.

Last updated: 15-Oct-2013 15:09


Countering Terrorism 05 Sep. 2011 The essence of NATO's role in the fight against terrorism is protecting people. NATO offers a unique range of assets to the international community. This Briefing explains the scope and type of activities NATO is undertaking to fight the scourge of terrorism.