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A radically new Command Structure for NATO

Air Vice-Marshal Andrew Vallance explains how NATO's Command Structure has been revamped to meet the security demands of the 21st century.

ACT inauguration: Allied Command Transformation has the lead in transforming the Alliance militarily (© NATO)

At last year's Prague Summit, Alliance leaders committed themselves to transforming the Alliance. As part of this they directed that NATO’s military command arrangements should be streamlined to provide "a leaner, more efficient, effective and deployable command structure with a view to meeting the operational requirements for the full range of Alliance missions". Seven months later – following intensive work by the Military Committee, the Senior Officials’ Group from the nations and the Strategic Commands – the revised command arrangements were agreed by Alliance defence ministers. The resulting new NATO Command Structure marks what is perhaps the most important development in the Alliance’s military organisation since NATO’s creation more than 50 years ago.

The existence of a comprehensive military command and control structure continues to distinguish NATO from all other multinational military organisations. Fully operational in peacetime, the NATO Command Structure permits the Alliance to undertake the complete spectrum of military activities, from small-scale peacekeeping tasks to large-scale high-intensity operations. Of equal importance, it provides the essential foundations that underpin such activities. These include not only developing the combined (multinational) and joint (multi-service) doctrines, procedures and plans for the conduct of operations, but also the key enabling elements which ensure that forces from Alliance and Partner nations can operate together in a truly integrated fashion. In short, the NATO Command Structure provides the means for melding an otherwise disparate collection of people and equipment drawn from many different nations, into a cohesive, integrated and effective military instrument capable of undertaking any mission, no matter how demanding.

The new NATO Command Structure is perhaps the most important development in the Alliance's military organisation since NATO's creation

The new NATO Command Structure is replacing a command structure that was itself considered a major step forward when introduced in 1999. Based on early post-Cold War experiences, the 1999 NATO Command Structure was designed to cope with the expanding range of Alliance missions, including in particular peacekeeping; to promote the development of the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) concept; to foster links with strategic partners and to help facilitate the development of the European Security and Defence Identity. Based like all of its predecessors primarily on a geographic division of responsibilities, it divided the Alliance’s area of responsibility into two Strategic Commands with broadly comparable tasks: Allied Command Europe (ACE) and Allied Command Atlantic (ACLANT). Subordinate to the Strategic Commands were seven second level-of-command headquarters. Allied Command Europe also possessed a third level of command with a total of eleven headquarters, each with geographic affiliations. And it was divided into two regions: AFNORTH and AFSOUTH, each of which contained a subordinate Air Component Command and Naval Component Command, plus a number of Joint Sub-Regional Commands (three in the Northern Region and four in the Southern Region). Allied Command Atlantic was divided into three regions: EASTLANT, WESTLANT and SOUTHLANT, and had two Combatant Commands STRIKFLTLANT and SUBACLANT. The 1999 NATO Command Structure consisted of 20 headquarters, which was, nevertheless, a marked reduction from the previous total of 65 and an important advance.

However, it soon became apparent that further major organisational development was needed. The Alliance’s growing territorial security reduced static defence needs, while NATO’s increasingly proactive approach to crisis management demanded enhanced deployability, flexibility, responsiveness and robustness (that is the extent to which a headquarters is able to undertake operations from within its own peacetime resources). Inter-related with this was the recognition that NATO had areas of interest beyond its traditional area of responsibility. Force-structure developments (particularly the creation of land force and maritime high-readiness headquarters), the evolving relationship with the European Union and the need to close the capability gap between the United States and its Allies added further reasons for change. At the same time, growing budgetary and manpower pressures increased the need to improve efficiency through institutional reform. All this was dramatically reinforced by the paradigm shift in the strategic outlook in the wake of 9/11, NATO’s subsequent participation in the US-led “war on terror” and its growing concern with the threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It was the cumulative impact of such factors that led to the watershed Prague Summit. The elaboration of the Prague framework into the new NATO Command Structure marked an almost total departure from previous organisational approaches and set NATO development on a far more ambitious trajectory than at any stage in its history.

Functionality rather than geography

At the heart of this organisational metamorphosis has been the concept of using functionality rather than geography as the basic rationale for Alliance command arrangements. Geographic approaches to organisation in any context carry with them the danger of fragmentation as each organisational entity seeks to develop "stand-alone" capabilities. This leads to widespread functional duplication and wasted resources. Moreover, parallel staffs tend to develop parallel positions on a variety of issues, and reconciling such positions can often absorb time and effort without adding much value. In contrast, functionality-based approaches to organisation help to promote integration, harmonisation and cohesion. They eliminate the risk of unnecessary duplication and replication within the organisation, streamline workflows and focus and expedite staff action. This in turn permits a greater workload to be managed by a smaller workforce. During the Cold War, when conditions were static and communications limited, a functionality-based approach to NATO command arrangements was impractical. However, in today’s far more dynamic, fluid and resource-conscious strategic environment, in which secure, real-time, global, mass data transfer is readily available, such an approach is essential.

By using a functionality-based approach to elaborate the Prague framework, NATO has produced a fundamental realignment, rationalisation and re-distribution of its military tasks in light of the new security environment. Like the 1999 NATO Command Structure, the 2003 NATO Command Structure is framed around two Strategic Commands. That, however, is largely where the similarity ends. All NATO’s operational functionality is concentrated into just one Strategic Command – Allied Command Operations or ACO – now responsible for all of the NATO area of responsibility. But in a fast-moving world it is never enough to concentrate solely on the “here and now”; it is essential to look to the future. That is the role of Allied Command Transformation or ACT, which has the lead for military efforts towards transforming the Alliance. In practice, the division of functionality is not as clear-cut as this simple generalisation suggests. Indeed, the capabilities of both Strategic Commands are integrated and intrinsically inter-dependent. Leadership responsibilities are shared between the Strategic Commands, but for almost every issue or task, one Strategic Command is in the lead, while the other acts in support. A special task force was given the job of elaborating this groundbreaking functional realignment into organisational terms. Adapting for military usage advanced business process review techniques taken from best industrial and commercial practice, the task force produced in six months the internal structures and personnel requirements for virtually all the new NATO Command Structure entities. The outcome will be a far more rational distribution of tasks between and within the Strategic Commands, a truly integrated Bi-Strategic Command organisation and a major reduction in staff, particularly in the higher ranks.

At first glance, Allied Command Operations resembles its principal predecessor, Allied Command Europe. It continues to have three levels of command; to be headquartered at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers, Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium; and to be commanded by the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR). That said, the reference to Europe in both SHAPE and SACEUR is now taken to imply in Europe, rather than for, Europe, reflecting the much wider geographic responsibilities. Moreover, the radical realignment of functionalities between the levels of command makes Allied Command Operations very different from Allied Command Europe.

Under the new arrangements SHAPE’s overriding focus is to provide strategic advice "upwards" to NATO Headquarters, and strategic direction "downwards" to the ACO second level-of-command headquarters. This in itself marks an important step forward, removing an ambiguity originally created in 1995 when the IFOR operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina was controlled directly from Mons. SHAPE will now direct the three new "operational" headquarters at the second level of command that will be responsible for controlling all future Alliance operations. These are the two Joint Force Commands headquartered at Brunssum, The Netherlands, and in Naples, Italy, respectively and the Joint Headquarters based in Lisbon, Portugal. Each Joint Force Command must be capable of undertaking the complete spectrum of Alliance operations, including the provision of a land-based CJTF headquarters. In contrast, the Joint Headquarters, a more limited but still robust headquarters, will be focused on commanding CJTFs from a maritime platform. The functionality principle has also been extended to the six ACO “Component Command” headquarters at the third level of command, two each for air, land and maritime forces, in Izmir, Turkey, Ramstein, Germany, Madrid, Spain, Heidelberg, Germany, Naples, Italy, and Northwood, United Kingdom respectively. These Component Command headquarters provide a flexible pool of command assets expert in their respective environments, and any one of them could be employed under any second level-of-command headquarters.

Functional rationalisation within Allied Command Operations will extend far beyond the major organisational blocks and, indeed, will be intrinsic throughout the organisation. All ACO headquarters will transition to the same, so-called “J-code” division of staff responsibilities and organisational structure to ensure mutual compatibility and streamlined workflows between the levels of command, and each will draw upon the expertise of the others. This will have the greatest impact at SHAPE, which at present is not organised along “J-code” lines. Functionality is being driven down to the lowest practical level of command, leading to a major reduction in the SHAPE staff and a major growth in the "robustness" of the operational headquarters.


Perhaps the greatest single operational initiative being taken is the creation of the NATO Response Force (NRF). Up to brigade size in terms of its land force element, and with complementary-sized air and naval components, the NRF is being established to give the Alliance an unprecedented crisis response capability. Commanded by a Deployable Joint Task Force Headquarters, the NRF will permit NATO to make a rapid military response and thus perhaps defuse a developing crisis during its early stages. Failing that, an NRF once deployed could be “grown” into a much larger and more sustained CJTF if the situation demanded. Moreover, by setting stringent deployability and responsiveness requirements to the NATO nations, and also demanding much enhanced capabilities in many areas, the NRF will also act as a key driver for Alliance transformation. As a result, both Strategic Commands are engaged in NRF development.

Transformation represents an extremely demanding challenge for the Alliance. Although the basic task of transformation is to expedite Alliance capability development and interoperability, it is far more ambitious – in terms of scale, scope and pace – than any similar programme in Alliance history. In developing the transformation concept, the Alliance used as its starting point the US Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) model, the internal change engine for the US forces. Drawing on this, NATO defined the following five main transformation “pillars”: Strategic Concepts, Doctrine and Policy Development; Requirements, Capabilities, Planning and Implementation; Joint and Combined Future Capabilities, Research and Technology; Joint Experimentation, Exercises and Assessment; and Joint Education and Training.

The first four pillars are intended to work together to identify, develop and document transformational concepts and strategies. Of these, the second pillar will be the delivery vehicle for selected transformational concepts, while the fourth and fifth pillars will coordinate and implement the outputs from the other pillars in training and exercises. NATO’s transformation will not be a one-time event; it will be an ongoing development process to ensure that the Alliance remains at the military “cutting edge”.

Hence the importance of having a dedicated Command tasked with leading this effort. The second Strategic Command, Allied Command Transformation, is headquartered in the United States in Norfolk, Virginia, a location that not only helps to keep the transatlantic link strong, but also permits it to engage directly with USJFCOM, which is headquartered nearby. An entirely new organisational structure – consisting of four main elements – has been developed to allow Allied Command Transformation to support the various transformation pillars. The Strategic Concepts, Policy and Requirements element, is being undertaken partly by the newly established ACT Staff Element in Europe. Joint Concept Development, the second main ACT element, will be centred on the Joint Warfare Centre in Stavanger, Norway, linked to the Joint Analysis and Lessons Learned Centre in Monsanto, Portugal, and the Joint Force Training Centre in Bydgoszcz, Poland. The Future Capabilities, Research and Development element includes the Undersea Research Centre in La Spezia, Italy, but will also link into other national and international research institutions. A NATO maritime interdiction operational training centre in Greece, associated with ACT, is also envisaged. The final element – Education – includes the NATO Defense College in Rome, Italy, the NATO School at Oberammergau, Germany, and the NATO Communications and Information System School at Latina, Italy. Each of these elements will be integrated into the head office organisation in Norfolk, Virginia. Through that, they will be linked into both those NATO agencies and bodies and the various National “Centres of Excellence” involved in promoting Alliance transformation and USJFCOM.

Speeding change

Early delivery will be a key criterion for success of the new NATO Command Structure, and thus implementation is now proceeding apace. Allied Command Transformation and Allied Command Operations were formally inaugurated on 19 June and 1 September 2003 respectively. 19 June 2003 also saw the transfer of the former ACLANT operational headquarters to (the then) Allied Command Europe, and tasking authority for the NATO School to Allied Command Transformation. These were the simplest aspects of what will be an extremely challenging task. Many headquarters from the 1999 NATO Command Structure will have to be deactivated, while several entirely new entities must be created, some from scratch. The massive functional realignment that must take place will be realised initially through cross-staff working in which management chains will change but people will remain in their current locations. The use of seconded "Voluntary National Contribution" personnel will help to bridge the gap, but the pressure is on to complete the transition to the new NATO Command Structure within three years. Ultimately, a progressive migration of personnel will take place, within and between the various headquarters. As with any organisation, NATO’s most important resource is its people, and a major effort is being made to smooth the transition and reduce to the minimum the inevitable disruption that will flow from such a far-ranging reorganisation.

That all this must be accomplished without degrading NATO’s capability to conduct current operations (by forces such as SFOR, KFOR and ISAF IV), while also promoting further partnership initiatives and integrating seven new members, is an indication of the scale of the challenge that the Alliance has set itself. That challenge is both real and unavoidable. If NATO is to remain relevant, it must keep pace with rapidly evolving international defence and security needs. As the only international organisation capable of undertaking the full spectrum of military operations it has a unique role to play in ensuring security, one which will arguably be even more important in the future than it has been to date. That role benefits not only its member nations and Partners, but also the wider international community by providing the means needed for forces from many nations to operate together effectively. It can only do that if both the organisation itself and the nations of which it is composed, embrace fully this transforming challenge. In the meantime, both Strategic Commands are driving hard to ensure the most rapid transition to the new structure and the earliest practical delivery of the products required of it.

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