NATO’s capabilities

  • Last updated: 09 Nov. 2015 13:21

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.

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)

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 Summit in Chicago, Allied 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. At the September 2014 Summit in Wales, Allies further enhanced their ability to meet the demands of the three essential core tasks,  while dealing with an acute financial crisis and responding to evolving geo-strategic challenges.

By working together in NATO, Alliance members are better able to ensure the security of their citizens 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 refined 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). This guidance is due to be updated in June 2015.

    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 Allies and the Alliance collectively, thereby guiding national and collective capability development.

    Very short-term and critical capability shortfalls that arise during operations are tackled by a separate mechanism. Urgent operational requirements are raised by the operational commands, scrutinised by the Military Committee and the relevant budget committees and put to the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s principal political decision-making body, for consideration.

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    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 NATO European populations , territories and forces against ballistic missile attack as a core element of its collective defence, which contributes to the indivisible security of the Alliance;
    • further develop its capacity to defend against the threat of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons;
    • 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 countries;
    • enhance the capacity to detect and defend against international terrorism, including through enhanced analysis of the threat, more consultations with 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;
    • continue to review its 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 regularly 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 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 include 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

    In light of growing military requirements, developing capabilities becomes more complex and therefore in many cases more expensive. As a result, multinational cooperation offers a viable solution to deliver critical capabilities in a cost-effective manner. For certain high-end key capabilities Allies may in fact only be able to obtain them if they work together to develop and acquire them. Smart Defence is NATO’s approach for bringing multinational cooperation to the forefront of Allies’ capability delivery efforts.

    Since its formal inception at the 2012 Chicago Summit Smart Defence has started to promote and reinvigorate a culture of multinational cooperation, which has and will continue to enable NATO to meet the challenges it will face in 2020 and beyond. Since Chicago, Allies have already successfully concluded a series of concrete Smart Defence projects, which delivered needed capabilities more effectively and efficiently through the formula of doing things together instead of doing them alone.

    Developing greater European military capabilities through multinational cooperation will continue to 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 works 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. Concurrently, Smart Defence also contributes toward maintaining a strong defence industry in Europe by making the fullest possible use of defence industrial cooperation across the Alliance. Moving forward NATO will continue to support Allies in their endeavour to exploit the full potential multinational capability delivery offers.

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    Connected Forces Initiative

    At the 2012 Chicago Summit, Allied leaders set the goal of ‘NATO Forces 2020’. This is designed to be a coherent set of deployable, interoperable and sustainable forces equipped, trained, exercised and commanded so as to be able to meet NATO’s level of ambition and able to operate together and with partners in any environment. The Connected Forces Initiative (CFI) is essential to ensure that the Alliance remains well prepared to undertake the full range of its missions, as well as to address future challenges wherever they may arise. It also reinforces the message that NATO is displaying its capability and resolve in the light of a changing and unpredictable security environment. The implementation of CFI is one of the key means to deliver NATO Forces 2020 and to enable the training and exercise elements of NATO’s Readiness Action Plan (RAP).

    At the 2014 Wales Summit, Allied leaders endorsed six key CFI measures: an updated NATO Education, Training, Exercise and Evaluation Policy; a broader NATO Training Concept from 2015 to 2020; a high-visibility exercise (“Trident Juncture 2015”); a major NATO exercise programme from 2016 onwards and a Special Operations Component Command headquarters under the operational command of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR).

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    Framework Nations Initiative

    In June 2014, NATO Defence Ministers agreed a Framework Nations Concept, which sees groups of countries coming together for two purposes. First, to maintain current capabilities and to act as a foundation for the coherent development of new capabilities in the medium to long term. This builds on the notions of multinational development of capabilities that are at the heart of Smart Defence and the ideas associated with groups of countries coming together to produce themSecond, as a mechanism for collective training and exercises in order to prepare groupings of forces. For example, those Allies that maintain a broad spectrum of capabilities provide a framework for other Allies to “plug” into.

    Countering improvised explosive devices

    The improvised explosive device (IED) has proven to be the weapon of choice for non-conventional adversarial forces. Although the ISAF operation is coming to a close, NATO must remain prepared to counter IEDs in any land or maritime operation involving asymmetrical threats, in which force protection will remain a paramount priority. Institutionalising counter-IED lessons learned across the last two decades of operations, NATO’s ambitious Counter-IED Action Plan has increased its focus on capabilities for attacking threat networks behind these destructive devices. Although developed in the C-IED context, such capabilities can also contribute to counter-piracy, counter-proliferation and counter-terrorism operations.

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    Improving air- and sealift capabilities

    Air- and sealift capabilities are a key enabler for operations which allow forces and equipment to be deployed quickly to wherever they are needed. While there is significant procurement nationally, many Allies have pooled resources, including with partner countries, to acquire new capacities through commercial arrangements or through purchase, to give them access to additional transport to swiftly move troops, equipment and supplies across the globe.

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    Collective logistics contracts

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

    Missile defence

    In the context of a broader response to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, NATO has already been pursuing an Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence Programme since 2005. This Programme is aimed at protecting deployed Allied forces against ballistic missile threats with ranges up to 3,000 kilometres. In 2010, it delivered an interim capability to protect troops in a specific area against short-range and some medium-range ballistic missiles.

    At the 2010 Lisbon Summit, NATO leaders decided to expand this 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. The dialogue with Russia on missile defence cooperation is currently suspended.

    At the 2012 Chicago Summit, Allies declared an Interim NATO ballistic missile defence (BMD) capability as an initial step to establish NATO's missile defence system, which will protect all NATO European populations, territory and forces against the increasing threats posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles.

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    Cyber defence

    NATO’s cyber defence capability for the protection of its own networks is the NATO Computer Incident Response Capability (NCIRC), which provides centralised cyber defence support to the NATO sites. NATO continues to invest in follow-on requirements to the NCIRC following the NATO capability development and procurement procedures.

    NATO defines also, through the NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP), cyber defence capability targets for the member countries’ implementation of national cyber defence capabilities to facilitate an Alliance-wide and common approach to cyber defence capability developments. Relevant parts of the new cyber defence policy will be taken into account in subsequent NDPP cycles.

    Cyber defence has also been integrated into NATO’s Smart Defence initiative, endorsed at the 2012 Chicago Summit. As such, Smart Defence is meant to enable countries to work together to develop and maintain capabilities they could not afford to develop or procure alone, and to free resources for developing other capabilities. Such Smart Defence projects in cyber defence, so far, are the Malware Information Sharing Platform (MISP), the Smart Defence Multinational Cyber Defence Capability Development (MN CD2) project and the Multinational Cyber Defence Education and Training (MN CD E&T) project.

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    Stabilisation and reconstruction

    The Alliance’s experience with crisis-response operations has shown the importance of stabilisation and reconstruction which are activities undertaken in fragile states or in conflict or post-conflict situations to promote security, development and good governance in key sectors. 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. It will be important in this context for the Alliance to seek, in accordance with the Comprehensive Approach Action Plan, unity of effort with the other members of the international community, in particular its strategic partners, the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU).

    To this end, NATO must have the ability to plan for, employ, and coordinate civilian as well as military crisis-management capabilities that countries provide for agreed Allied missions. NATO’s defence planning therefore also includes non-military capabilities and expertise to complement the military support to stabilisation operations and reconstruction efforts. These non-military capabilities are sought from existing and planned means in national inventories of those countries that are willing to make them available.   

  • Critical long-term enabling capabilities

    Information superiority is a key enabling element in the battlespace 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.

    Federated Mission Networking

    The Afghanistan Mission Network is a single federated network which improves information-sharing by easing the information flow and creating better situational awareness among countries participating in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). This is seen as the model for future multinational networking.

    Taking into consideration best practices and lessons learned from its implementation, a Federated Mission Networking framework is now being developed, which will underpin the Alliance’s ability to connect its information systems and operate effectively together, including with partners, on training, exercises and operations.

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    Air Command and Control

    NATO is implementing a fully interoperable Air Command and Control System (ACCS), which will provide for the first time a fully integrated set of tools to support the conduct of all air operations in both real-time and non-real-time environments. ACCS will make available the capability to plan, direct, task, coordinate, supervise, assess and report on the operation of all allocated air assets in peace, crisis and conflict.

    The system is composed of both static and deployable elements with equipment that will be used both within the NATO Command Structure and in individual Allies. With the further inclusion of command and control functionality for ballistic missile defence (BMD), a fully integrated system for air and missile defence at the tactical level will be fielded.

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    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 (NAEW&C Force) and nationally supplied ISR assets. While NATO is delivering a critical JISR capability in ISAF, an enduring JISR capability is being developed in a phased approach, starting with the implementation of an initial operational capability on time for the NATO Response Force 2016.

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    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, and production of the first AGS aircraft began in December 2013.

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    NATO Airborne Warning & Control System

    As one of the most visible and tangible examples of what cooperation between Allies can achieve, the NATO Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS) provides NATO-owned and operated airborne command and control, air and maritime surveillance, and battlespace management capability. AWACS has continuously proven itself a critical asset over Libya and Afghanistan, and most recently safeguarding the Alliance’s eastern perimeter.

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  • 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 Operations Forces (SOF) 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. In light of the changing security environment to the east and south of the Alliance’s borders – and following up on initiatives taken at the NATO Summit in Wales in September 2014 – defence ministers decided on 5 February 2015 to enhance the NRF by creating a spearhead force within it. Known as a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), it will be able to deploy at very short notice, particularly on the periphery of NATO’s territory.

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    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; effective delivery of services; and 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

    Allies recognise 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 contributes to energy security in various ways NATO raises strategic awareness through political discussions and intelligence-sharing, further develops its competence to contribute to the protection of critical energy infrastructure, improves the energy efficiency of military forces, enhances its training and education efforts, and engages with partner countries and other international organisations.

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    Reforming NATO’s structures

    The Alliance’s military command structure is being transformed into a leaner, more effective and affordable structure. Agencies reform aims to enhance efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of capabilities and services, to achieve greater synergies between similar functions and to increase transparency and accountability. In line with the 2010 Strategic Concept, over the last few years the Alliance has been engaged in a process of continual reform by streamlining structures, improving working methods and maximising efficiency. 

    The new structure reached initial operational capability in December 2013, opening the way to an entity that is more agile, flexible and better able to deploy on operations, including Article 5 contingencies..

    A major reform of NATO’s agencies was conducted with a view to consolidating and rationalising various services and programmes and ensuring more effective and efficient service and capability delivery.

    NATO Headquarters has also been reformed, including with regard to a smaller but more efficient International Staff, intelligence-sharing and production, and a significant reduction in the number of committees. Furthermore, the transition to the new NATO headquarters will enable further improvements to efficiency and effectiveness of the Alliance.

    Resource reform in the area of programming, transparency, accountability and information management has also helped making NATO resource and financial management more efficient.

    At the Wales Summit, further work was tasked in the areas of delivery of common-funded capabilities, reform governance and financial transparency and accountability.

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    Maritime security

    In January 2011, NATO adopted the Alliance Maritime Strategy. Consistent with the 2010 Strategic Concept, the Strategy sets out ways in which NATO's unique maritime power can be used to address critical security challenges.

    There are four areas in which NATO's maritime forces can contribute to Alliance security. The first three are the "core tasks" of NATO, as defined by the Alliance’s Strategic Concept: deterrence and collective defence; crisis management; and cooperative security. In addition, the Maritime Strategy sets out a fourth area: maritime security. This includes surveillance, information sharing, maritime interdiction, and contributions to energy security, including the protection of critical infrastructure.

    As a major deliverable for its Wales Summit in September 2014, the Alliance will now implement its Maritime Strategy. This ambitious endeavour encompasses a complete revamping of NATO’s maritime assets, an extensive programme of maritime exercises and training, and the enhancement of cooperation between NATO and its partners, as well as other international actors, in particular the European Union.

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