When a NATO operation or mission is deemed necessary, NATO member and partner countries volunteer personnel, equipment, and resources for the mission. These national contributions operate under the aegis of the Alliance.
NATO is an alliance of 28 sovereign countries, which does not possess military forces of its own. While personnel serving in a NATO operation are often referred to collectively as “NATO forces”, they are actually multinational forces composed of individuals, formations and equipment drawn from NATO member countries and, in some cases, partner countries or other troop-contributing countries.
The procedure for staffing an operation or mission is often referred to as “force generation”. This procedure ensures that Alliance operations or missions have the manpower and materials required to achieve set objectives.
- NATO is an alliance of 28 sovereign countries which does not possess military forces of its own.
- Personnel serving in a NATO operation are referred to as "NATO forces", but are multinational forces from NATO countries and, in some cases, partner or other troop-contributing countries.
- "Force generation" is the procedure that ensures NATO operations or missions have the manpower and materials required to achieve set objectives.
- National capitals take the final decision on whether to contribute to a NATO-led operation or mission.
- Allied Command Operations, commanded by the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR), is responsible for executing all NATO operations and missions, and the Deputy SACEUR coordinates troop contributions.
The final decision on whether to contribute troops and equipment to a NATO-led operation or mission is taken by national capitals, which communicate continuously with NATO through their permanent diplomatic missions, national military representation, or partnership liaison teams.
When a NATO operation or mission is deemed necessary, NATO’s military authorities draft a concept of operations – referred to as a CONOPS – which outlines the troop and equipment requirements necessary to meet the operations’ or mission’s objectives. Upon approval of the concept of operations and the release of a “Force Activation Directive” by the North Atlantic Council, Allied Command Operations (ACO), led by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, initiates the force generation and activation process.
In general, the force generation process follows a standard procedure. For a given operation or mission, a list of personnel and equipment requirements (the Combined Joint Statement of Requirements), is produced by ACO and sent to NATO member countries and, in some cases, partner countries.
National offers to provide personnel are addressed during conferences attended by representatives from NATO and partner countries. These conferences take place on an ad hoc basis as required. For example, a force generation conference will take place prior to the start of a new operation or mission, or if there are significant changes in an ongoing operation. In addition to these conferences, an annual conference is held for all operations and missions, the Global Force Generation Conference.
Contributions by individual countries, both NATO members and partners, are subject to their overall national capacity, taking into account prior commitments, force size, structure, and activity level. Every contribution, whether big or small, is valuable and contributes to the success of the operation or mission.
In many cases, NATO or partner countries will commit complete or formed units to operations or missions. A country may volunteer to send a complete battle group, which – in the case of ground forces – could include infantry personnel, an armoured reconnaissance element, an artillery battery to provide fire support, and service support personnel.
Countries that provide leadership for an entire operation or mission, or take responsibility for central elements, are identified as “lead.” For example, the lead country for a given operation or mission might provide the command element and a significant part of the forces, and will also be responsible for filling the remainder of the force required.
Although NATO as an Alliance does own and maintain some specialised equipment, such as the AWACS aircraft and strategic communications equipment, troop-contributing countries generally commit the equipment necessary to support their personnel in pursuit of operational objectives.
It is during the force generation process that caveats are stated. While national contributions to NATO operations are expected to operate under the Alliance’s chain of command, the provision of forces by NATO and partner countries is sometimes conditional on factors such as geography, logistics, time, rules of engagement, or command status. Known as “caveats,” these conditions can restrict NATO commanders by limiting their flexibility to respond to situations on the ground. For this reason, the Alliance seeks national contributions with as few caveats as possible.
Provincial Reconstruction Teams
Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), such as those established in Afghanistan under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), constitute an exception to the normal force generation process. In contrast to traditional military operations, PRTs are interdisciplinary. That is, they are comprised of development workers, military forces, diplomats and civilian police, who work to extend the authority of the central Afghan government in remote areas, and to facilitate development and reconstruction.
Because of the unique combination of personnel, NATO is involved in generating forces for the military component of a PRT, while it is the responsibility of the contributing country to staff the civilian components. As a result, PRTs are a hybrid of personnel who fall under either NATO or national chains of command.
Coordinating troop contributions for non-NATO operations
Over the years, the Alliance has developed significant expertise in coordinating troop contributions for multinational operations. In the past, it has offered this expertise in support of non-NATO operations.
Under the Berlin Plus agreement, the Alliance cooperates closely with the European Union (EU) in the resourcing of selected operations. When requested by the EU, NATO’s Deputy SACEUR and his staff provide support in coordinating member countries’ troop contributions. For example, the Deputy SACEUR was identified as operational commander for Operation Althea, the EU-led operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and was responsible for force generation.
NATO also provided force generation support to Germany and the Netherlands, during their leadership of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force in 2003 in Afghanistan, prior to its conversion into a NATO-led operation.
In determining troop contributions, ACO engages with the Military Committee, the North Atlantic Council, and individual countries, all of which have critical roles to play in bringing Alliance operations and missions to reality.
ACO, commanded by SACEUR, is responsible for executing all Alliance operations and missions. The Deputy SACEUR and his staff coordinate troop contributions.
For much of NATO’s history, the Alliance’s primary operational commitment was focused on the former border between East and West Germany. For over 40 years, NATO strategists spoke of medium and long-term “force plans” rather than “force generation” for specific operations. This was because during that time, the Alliance maintained static, “conventional” forces in former West Germany, poised for an attack from the former Soviet Union.
Beginning 1986, conventional forces were reduced and, following the end of the Cold War, bases of individual NATO countries in Germany were largely dismantled or converted to other use, although some remain functional to this day.
NATO’s first major land expeditionary operation took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a result of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords. The NATO force generation process, which is still in use today, was developed during the NATO-led operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and later in Kosovo.
Transforming to meet operational needs
While the core procedures for contributing troops and equipment remain valid, the process has been refined in tandem with NATO’s transformation. At their May 2002 meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, NATO foreign ministers decided that: "To carry out the full range of its missions, NATO must be able to field forces that can move quickly to wherever they are needed, sustain operations over distance and time, and achieve their objectives."
NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan in 2003 posed a number of new problems for force generation. It soon became apparent that the nature of the mission was different from previous tasks. Greater flexibility was needed in types and numbers of forces, from rotation to rotation, and from area to area. In addition, with many countries moving to smaller, more highly trained and highly equipped forces, it became unrealistic to expect large standing commitments from individual countries.
The procedure for staffing an operation or mission was made more responsive to operational requirements. Communication between NATO commanders and member/partner countries was improved, allowing potential troop-contributing countries to be better informed about evolving operational requirements.
The first Global Force Generation Conference was held in November 2003; Prior to this, force generation meetings had been called on an ad hoc basis as required. During this annual conference, troop and resource requirements for all NATO-led operations and missions are addressed at the same time.
While ad hoc meetings are still necessary to address immediate needs, rolling numerous meetings into one facilitates improved coordination between and within troop-contributing countries and NATO military authorities.
Lastly, NATO military planners are taking a longer view of force generation. While developments in operations, as well as political developments within troop-contributing countries, prohibit definitive troop and material commitments far into the future, NATO military planners are looking beyond immediate needs, which allows both the Alliance and troop-contributing countries to plan their resources better.