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Interview
Admiral Forbes: Last SACLANT
 

( NATO)


Admiral Ian Forbes was acting Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic (SACLANT) between October 2002 and June this year and deputy SACLANT for the ten months before that. As acting SACLANT he oversaw the transformation of the Allied Command Atlantic, the only NATO command in North America, into the Allied CommandTransformation (ACT). In a distinguished 38-year career in the Royal Navy, Admiral Forbes was engaged in active operations off Iceland, the Falklands, in the Gulf and in the Adriatic, including both NATO's air campaigns over Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999. He also served as Chief of Staff to Carl Bildt at the Office of the High Representative in Sarajevo in 1996 and 1997.

 
One of the greatest changes to NATO's command structure has been the creation of a Strategic Command for Transformation in place of the Supreme Allied Command, Atlantic (SACLANT). What is the significance of this change and how will the new command be structured?

A transformational process akin to that which has been taking place in the United States is essential to modernise the Alliance's capabilities and ensure that they stay consistent with US military thinking and development. This process should result in a leaner and more efficient command structure enabling us to provide more futuristic and more creative solutions to the new security challenges that we face and, in particular, those emanating from beyond our traditional area of operations. Underpinning this process is the establishment of the NATO Response Force (NRF). This is the platform for delivering the necessary military capabilities. We in the Allied Command Transformation (ACT), as SACLANT is going to be called, will provide support to the NRF, providing the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR), General James Jones, with the future capabilities that he will need to ensure that it can operate in a fully joint, integrated and coordinated way, either independently or in the context of a coalition of the willing. The ACT is to be a headquarters devoted to the constant study of the future and of change, which, given the pace of technological progress, is crucial to war fighting. Similar structures already exist in the United States and we would hope to replicate their transformational mentality and become a forcing agent for change in all Allied militaries.

Some Europeans were alarmed when they learned of the imminent demise of SACLANT, since it has traditionally been seen as a physical representation of the transatlantic link. Is this justified?

"Alarmed" is a strong word. Losing the one NATO headquarters on US soil, which is a profound expression of the transatlantic link, was certainly concerning. However, any examination of SACLANT's contribution to the Alliance in the new security environment would have raised questions about its utility, unless it could be used to help the Alliance move beyond its traditional area of operations. Transformation is a very powerful rationale for a strategic headquarters and a critical process for the Alliance. In my view, the ACT will in the future be an extremely powerful organ for strengthening the transatlantic link, which is in itself critical to transatlantic security. Europeans have no need to be alarmed. Setting up the ACT to work more closely with US transformational thinking is a real opportunity. Indeed, the ACT should become a more influential command as a result of the structure that we're putting in place than SACLANT was during the past decade.

Military transformation is a complex concept. What do you understand by it?

Transformation means different things to different people. I believe that it is, above all, about true jointness at the front line, where land, sea and air capabilities are totally integrated, allowing for operations involving simultaneous rather than sequential activities to produce a rapid war-winning effect. We got a vivid indication of this in practice in Iraq and with it some idea of where US military thinking has moved in recent years in terms of vision, precision and lethality, all deployed in a truly networked way. It made for the very high tempo campaign we saw in Iraq, redefining the way operations will be conducted in the future. Transformation is also everything that underpins joint and integrated operations, including education, training and acquisitions' programmes. It is managing the future in a joint and combined way that cuts intellectually, culturally and practically across the entire spectrum. It's an ongoing process designed to enable us to operate faster, quicker and with more effect on the battlefield. Very much what we saw in Iraq. And very much what the NRF will have to put in place.

How will NATO's Transformational and Operational Commands work together in practice?

The rationale behind the creation of the ACT is that it is a supporting command to both SACEUR and SHAPE, the operational command. Together with SACEUR, we will be responsible for ensuring that NATO has a pool of forces in the form of the NRF that are readily deployable, sustainable and able to undertake missions beyond NATO's traditional area of operations to deal with threats wherever they arise. We've already been working on this for the past 10 to 12 months and our interaction with SHAPE has been a very positive experience enabling us to agree who should do what and how. We will be able to bring to SHAPE new ideas and new technologies as well as command element training, products that are going to be essential for the NRF to function effectively and intelligently.

Given the differences in military spending between the United States and its NATO Allies, is it possible to bridge the capabilities gap? And, if it is, how will the new Allied Command Transformation seek to achieve this?

This is the $64,000 dollar question. Most people view the capabilities gap exclusively in terms of equipment. While, undoubtedly, this is a large element of the gap, capability also embraces other matters, such as education, doctrine, training and innovative and imaginative thinking. For instance, at the Qatar Command Centre for the Iraq War, none of the technology was older than six months, illustrating the sort of change that is demanded of such operations in today's world. What is key here is a common thought process. We need to be able to think in the same way to be able to be educated together, train together and ultimately fight together. Indeed, that is going to be an early focus of the ACT. From June through to December, we will be introducing a new doctrinal process to ensure that we are thinking in the same way, which will be facilitated by war-gaming and education. Concerning acquisitions, we're going to be looking at fast-tracking capability packages in line with the Prague Capabilities Commitment to bring rapidly on stream emerging technologies and ideas that are going to be crucial to the NRF.

Traditionally, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic and the Commander-in-Chief of the US Joint Forces Command have been one and the same person. How will the future Allied Command Transformation interact with the US Joint Forces Command?

A key element of the ACT will be its relationship with the US Joint Forces Command, which is also the US agent for transformational change. We have a longstanding, close and deepening relationship with US Joint Forces Command and with the change of command in June, the personal link with the Commander of the US Joint Forces Command will be re-established. This link will be crucial to ensuring that both commands generate new ideas and identify new ways of operating to underpin interoperability as the NRF is taken forward on both sides of the Atlantic.

The recent Iraq war was one of the most spectacular military campaigns ever fought. What are the immediate military implications of this campaign for NATO and for the Allied Command Transformation?

Both the United States and the United Kingdom are currently analysing the campaign to learn as much as possible from it. Although it is too early to draw final conclusions, preliminary research would appear to vindicate NATO's Prague Capabilities Commitment, that is the importance of investing in areas such as strategic airlift, tanker support, precision weapons, ground surveillance, and chemical and biological defence. The fields of special focus identified at the Prague Summit were absolutely spot on. The other preliminary conclusion concerns the intellectual gap that needs to be bridged. Iraq involved new and innovative approaches in all areas, a faster speed of action, extremely quick targeting in an integrated battle space as well as tremendous strategic lift and movement. All of these elements are going to be crucial for the NRF in the future. Bracketing the ACT together with the US Joint Forces Command, which is very much the United States' lessons-learned command, is going to be extremely valuable to the Alliance. We will be delivering an initial capability in June and will be taking immediate steps to ensure that via war gaming and seminars the lessons of Iraq are rapidly brought home by our prospective NRF commanders.

Seven Central and East European countries were invited to begin NATO accession talks in Prague. How will the Allied Command Transformation help these countries reform their militaries?

SHAPE and SACEUR will obviously take the lead here. But we will be providing a supporting function to ensure that transformational ideas are brought into the reform process early. This includes issues such as command, control, communications and computing, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4 ISR), as well as a more expeditionary approach and improvements in integrating forces. We will effectively be helping them buy into a transformational process early, which is critical to interoperability.

How best can NATO contribute to the war on terror?

Collectively, the Alliance has been working on this issue for the past twelve months, though obviously it goes beyond the ACT. Agreement to operate out of area and the fact that NATO is now taking on a fundamental role in Afghanistan is a significant symbol of the Alliance's commitment to combat terrorism beyond its traditional area. We are also putting in place other aspects, such as improving the exchange of information and enhancing capabilities to contribute to consequence management. All of these have been bracketed together in a new counter-terrorism concept that the Alliance has embraced where deterrence, disruption, defence and protection are the key principles. That was unveiled at the Prague Summit and work has been on-going since then. The key expression of this will be the NRF, and how and where we deploy it.

The year in which you have been acting SACLANT has been one of the most eventful and traumatic in the Alliance's history. What have you learned from this experience and how does it bode for NATO's future?

Today's strategic environment is very different from that before 9/11. That is a statement of the obvious, but one that is worth repeating. In the United States, the change can be seen in all areas of policy-making, and especially in military matters and homeland defence. A dynamic transformational process is under way to adapt to deal with new security threats and the United States is clearly well advanced in this approach particularly in the field of military capabilities. Iraq showed us that. But NATO leaders collectively recognised the need for similar change at Prague and both the decision to move beyond NATO's traditional area and to modernise capabilities are crucial for the Alliance's future. Prague mandated new capabilities: the Prague Capabilities Commitment; the NRF; and the reform of the Command Structure. The ACT is a critical piece of the new command structure and will be up and running with an initial capability in June. Achieving this has virtually required a transformational process in itself, but we are ready to deliver and I have every confidence we can play a big part in bringing a transformational mentality to the Alliance. In turn, this will underpin NRF capability and credibility, providing us with an Alliance better able to meet the threats and challenges of the 21st century.

 Admiral Forbes spoke with NATO Review Editor Christopher Bennett while still acting SACLANT.

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