NATO’s capabilities

  • Last updated: 02 Sep. 2016 10:28

NATO constantly reviews and transforms its policies, capabilities and structures to ensure that it can continue to address current and future challenges to the freedom and security of its members. Presently, Allied forces are required to carry out a wide range of missions across several continents; the Alliance needs to ensure that its armed forces remain modern, deployable, and capable of sustained operations.

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’s modern defence posture is based on an effective combination of cutting-edge capabilities and forces trained to work together seamlessly.
  • The 2010 Strategic Concept identifies collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security as the essential core tasks that NATO must continue to fulfil to assure the security of its members. In the Strategic Concept, deterrence, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and ballistic missile defence capabilities, remains a core element of NATO’s overall strategy.
  • Allies agreed to develop and maintain the capabilities needed to carry out all associated missions, where appropriate using multinational approaches and innovative solutions.
  • At the 2012 Chicago Summit, Allied leaders confirmed that the NATO Defence Planning Process would continue to be the primary means to identify and prioritise required capabilities and to promote their development and acquisition,
  • At the 2014 Wales Summit, at a time of continuing difficult global financial conditions, Allies agreed to further enhance their ability to meet these commitments and introduce a range of measures to respond to the new and emerging geo-strategic security environment.
  • At the 2016 Warsaw Summit, Allied leaders confirmed their commitment to delivering heavier and more high-end forces and capabilities, as well as more forces at higher readiness.
  • Meeting immediate and long-term challenges

    The Allies provided political guidance in 2015 to refine further the overarching aims and objectives of the 2010 Strategic Concept by establishing what they expect the Alliance to be able to do in broad quantitative and qualitative terms, especially in the prevailing geo-strategic security environment.  By setting the related priorities, this guidance mandates the delivery of the required capabilities through the NATO Defence Planning Process.

    The NATO Defence Planning Process

    The NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP) aims to harmonise national and Alliance defence planning activities; it details how the aims and objectives of the Alliance as set out in the political guidance are to be met.  By setting targets for implementation by Allies, either individually or together, it guides both national and collective capability development.

    In the course of planning and carrying out operations, operational commands may identify capabilities that are required immediately.  These urgent operational requirements are not dealt with through the NDPP, but are ‘fast-tracked’ through the Military Committee and relevant budget committees, and finally submitted for consideration by the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s principal political decision-making body.

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  • Current objectives

    With the adoption of the 2010 Strategic Concept, Alliance leaders committed to ensuring 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;
    • further 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 partner 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 it 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, Alliance leaders are continuously assessing and reviewing the capabilities needed to conduct the full range of NATO missions.

    At the Chicago Summit in May 2012, Alliance leaders made a pledge to improve the NATO’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.  New initiatives were introduced to aid the realisation of this goal, including the delivery of required capabilities using the multinational approaches of ‘Smart Defence’ and the use of the Connected Forces Initiative to ensure that the Alliance remains well prepared to undertake the full range of its missions and address future challenges.

    At the Wales Summit in September 2014, Alliance leaders reaffirmed their strong commitment to collective defence and to ensuring security and assurance for all Allies; they agreed a coherent and comprehensive package of measures – the Readiness Action Plan (RAP) – to meet the need for assurance and to adapt the Alliance’s military strategic posture to respond to changes in the geo-strategic security environment.  They also pledged to reverse the trend of declining defence budgets.

    At the Warsaw Summit in July 2016, Alliance leaders committed to continuing to deliver on key capabilities, including Ballistic Missile Defence, Joint Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance, and Alliance Ground Surveillance. They also recognised cyberspace as a new operational domain, in addition to land, air and sea, to enable better protection of NATO’s networks, missions and operations. Allies pledged to strengthen and enhance the cyber defences of national networks and infrastructure, and committed to boosting their resilience to improve civil preparedness.

    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.

    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, 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

    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.  The implementation of CFI is one of the key means to deliver NATO Forces 2020 and to enable the training and exercise elements of the RAP.

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    Framework Nations Concept

    NATO defence ministers agreed a Framework Nations Concept in June 2014, which sees groups of countries coming together for two purposes. Firstly, 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 themSecondly, 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

    As seen in Afghanistan and elsewhere, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have proven to be the weapon of choice for non-conventional adversarial forces. NATO must be 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 counter-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 and 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 during redeployment from theatres of operation, such as Kosovo or Afghanistan, to optimise the use of multinational capabilities. In June 2015, 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 been pursuing an Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence Programme since 2005. This Programme aims  to protect 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.

    At the 2016 Warsaw Summit, Allies declared Initial Operational Capability of NATO BMD, which offers a stronger capability to defend Alliance populations, territory, and forces across southern NATO Europe against a potential ballistic missile attack.

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    Cyber defence

    Cyber threats and attacks are becoming more common, sophisticated, and damaging. The Alliance is faced with an evolving, complex threat environment. State and non-state actors can use cyber attacks in the context of military operations. In recent events, cyber attacks have been part of hybrid warfare.

    NATO and its Allies rely on strong and resilient cyber defences to fulfil the Alliance’s core tasks of collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security. 

    NATO needs to be prepared to defend its networks and operations against the growing sophistication of the cyber threats and attacks it faces.

    Allies reaffirmed at the 2016 Warsaw Summit NATO’s defensive mandate and recognised cyberspace as a domain of operations in which NATO must defend itself as effectively as it does in the air, on land and at sea.

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    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. 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 efforts. 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 and the European Union.

    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 contributing to NATO-led efforts in Afghanistan. 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, 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 to support the coordinated collection, processing, and sharing within NATO of ISR material gathered by the future Alliance Ground Surveillance system, the current NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (NAEW&C Force) and Allies’ own ISR assets. In early 2016, NATO defence ministers declared an initial operational JISR capability centred on enhancing the situational awareness of NATO’s highest readiness forces. An enduring JISR capability is now being developed in a phased approach; ongoing work will further improve on and build synergy in the management of Allies’ diverse inputs and capabilities for NATO’s 360 degree situational awareness. This capability will become operational in 2017 and will be complemented in some cases by Allies’ contributions in kind.

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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. 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. Production of the first AGS aircraft began in December 2013. Its first flight was successfully conducted in December 2015 and a second one took place in Palmdale, California on 17 June 2016. This capability will become operational in 2017 and will be complemented in some cases by Allies’ contributions in kind.

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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

    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 the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), it is able to begin deployment 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, namely 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 make NATO resource and financial management more efficient.

    At the 2014 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

    Alliance maritime capabilities have an enduring value and an important cross-cutting contribution to Alliance 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. It sets out the four areas in which maritime forces play a key role:  deterrence and collective defence; crisis management; cooperative security; and maritime security.  In the current security context, the Alliance’s naval forces provide essential contributions to assurance measures and situational awareness.

    The Alliance continues to implement its maritime strategy through capability development, an extensive programme of maritime exercises and training, and the enhancement of cooperation between NATO and its partners, as well as other international actors, including the European Union. NATO’s activity in the Aegean Sea and NATO’s maritime presence in the Mediterranean through Operation Sea Guardian, a broader non-Article 5 Maritime Security Operation, are examples of how NATO's naval forces contribute to helping address numerous security challenges.

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