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Transforming NATO's military structures

General James L. Jones examines how the Alliance has reformed its military structures since the Prague Summit and the development of the NATO Response Force.

NRF in action: NATO forces must be prepared to deploy to, and sustain themselves in, any location in the world (© Shape)

NATO is at an historic crossroads. Immensely successful in fulfilling the mission for which it was created, the Alliance now faces new challenges and risks in an evolving international security environment. With risk, there comes opportunity and NATO has embarked upon an ambitious transformation and renewal process to ensure that it is as equipped to deal with today's and tomorrow's challenges as it was with those of the Cold War. This includes the streamlining of the NATO Command Structure and the creation of a NATO Response force.

The international security environment is continually evolving and new threats are emerging that are qualitatively and quantitatively different from the conventional and traditional challenges of the 20th century. In recognition of threats such as those posed by radical fundamentalism, international terrorism and transnational criminal networks, Allied leaders agreed at the Prague Summit in November 2002 to implement sweeping and historic changes to the way that NATO operates.

The transformation process that was set in motion at Prague represents a new vision for NATO and a radical shift away from the Alliance's original core objective, namely the defence of Western Europe from the Soviet threat. As the nature of the threat has changed from that posed by the Soviet Union's enormous conventional and nuclear forces, it has become necessary to restructure Alliance militaries and to prepare them for the unconventional and asymmetric threats NATO members face today. In the words of former NATO Secretary General, Lord Robertson: "This is not business as usual, but the emergence of a new and modernised NATO, fit for the challenges of the new century."

This necessary transformation bridges the physical and conceptual differences between two different eras of warfare. During the Cold War, the Alliance focused on mass and firepower in preparation for the expected war of attrition - any unit or capability offered by a member state would have helped deter the enemy. Today's forces have to be agile, proactive and manoeuvrable on a battlefield with no clear front lines. During the Cold War, Allied forces would have fought close to home and relied on national logistics located only a short distance from the battlefield. Today, NATO forces must be prepared to deploy to, and sustain themselves in, any location in the world.

A new Command Structure

One of the Prague Summit's most important decisions was to streamline the NATO Command Structure 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". NATO deactivated the Supreme Allied Command, Atlantic, based in Norfolk, Virginia, and vested all operational responsibilities under the Allied Command for Operations (ACO), formerly the Allied Command Europe, based in Mons, Belgium. The new Allied Command for Transformation (ACT) was simultaneously activated in Norfolk, Virginia, and is responsible for the Alliance's military transformation. In addition, a third joint command was created in Lisbon, Portugal. This was formally inaugurated in March 2004 and will form the basis for a sea-based Combined Joint Task Force. Twelve subordinate regional headquarters are to be deactivated in the next few years.

The results already emerging from these changes are impressive. Overlapping and confusing lines of authority have been cleared up as all operations now fall under the ACO. A clear division of labour has been established between the ACO and the newly formed ACT: ACO defines the standards that units will have to meet to be included for service in a NATO command and ACT develops the necessary training for these units. Both ACO and ACT will certify whether units meet necessary standards. By vesting all operational responsibilities in one command and focusing the second strategic command on the challenges of on-going transformation and improving the interoperability of member nations, NATO has postured itself for continuous transformation to meet the ever-evolving challenges of today's security environment.

NATO Response Force

The second groundbreaking change arising from the Prague Summit was the decision to create a NATO Response Force (NRF), that is a technologically advanced, flexible, deployable, interoperable and sustainable force. It was to include land, sea and air elements and be ready to move quickly wherever it was needed, as decided by the North Atlantic Council, NATO's highest decision-making body. This clear guidance - something any military commander wants to receive - provided Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) with the authority to craft the NRF into a truly transformational force and one which gives the Alliance significant new military capabilities.

Once the NRF is operational, NATO will for the first time in its history have a standing, integrated force with sea, land, air and special operations components under a single commander. This force will train together, be certified together, and if necessary, deploy together. The NRF's very high-readiness element will have the capability of beginning deployment within five days of receiving its notice to move and of sustaining itself for up to 30 days. Given the Alliance's new global mind-set - manifested in its assumption of responsibility for the international peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force - the NRF must be ready to deploy and sustain itself anywhere in the world.

One important aspect of the NRF's transformational nature is that it will be a standing force. Unlike other NATO forces created for a specific mission when the need arose and which often required mobilisation, the NRF will be available for immediate use for any mission deemed appropriate by the North Atlantic Council. In that sense, the NRF will be similar to NATO's Airborne Early Warning Force and the Standing Naval Forces. But unlike those two forces that are focused primarily on one component - air and maritime respectively - the NRF will possess units and capabilities from all components, as well as being a truly integrated, joint, and combined force from its inception.

The Alliance inaugurated the first prototype NRF rotation force, the so-called "NRF 1", at Regional Headquarters North in Brunssum, the Netherlands, on 15 October 2003. The first two NRF rotations, while operational, are experimental. They have been designed to be small and limited in scope. SHAPE, ACT and the Regional Headquarters are experimenting with this force to develop the necessary doctrines, training and certification standards, operational requirements, and readiness reporting requirements to ensure the NRF's success when it reaches its initial operational capability in October 2004. It will become fully operational in October 2006.

Proactive capability

Once this occurs, the Alliance will possess an important new military capability, namely the ability to act proactively. This represents a significant and historic change in the Alliance's ethos and culture, since during the Cold War NATO was simply reactive. At the time, the Article 5 commitment to collective defence was clear, defence plans were already prepared and large standing forces were stationed along the Iron Curtain.

The NRF's agility and expeditionary nature could help forestall conflict

Being proactive does not always mean rapidly resorting to the use of force, however. As important as it is for the NRF to be able to operate effectively at the high end of the intensity spectrum, its agility and expeditionary nature could help forestall conflict in the first place. In addition to being able to participate in peacetime engagement programmes that will help strengthen national institutions, the NRF's agility and expeditionary nature gives the Alliance the military capability to insert a small force onto the ground during the deterrence phase of a deteriorating situation. The presence of this force, during a humanitarian crisis, for example, could help stabilise a situation before it escalates and might even help bring about the conditions for an eventual political settlement without a significant loss of life occurring first. With a humanitarian crisis in particular, it is better to deploy in advance of a potential disaster rather than waiting until it has occurred and having to deal with the consequences.

NATO's experience in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* between August 2001 and March 2003 illustrates the potential of a proactive approach. In August 2001, at the request of the Skopje government, NATO deployed a relatively small number of soldiers in a confidence-building capacity. This mission, Operation Essential Harvest, facilitated the disarming of the rebel ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army and made possible a reconstruction process. A smaller NATO force then remained in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* in Operation Amber Fox to protect teams of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitoring implementation of a framework peace agreement. These actions on the part of the Alliance in large part facilitated the peaceful resolution of this situation, prevented the escalation of the crisis, and undoubtedly saved countless lives.

The agility of the NRF and its ability to deploy rapidly will give the Alliance the institutionalised military capability to conduct similar operations in the future. Moreover, the NRF will also have the ability to perform other missions as directed by the North Atlantic Council, to include humanitarian operations, peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations, direct action missions to include forced entry operations, and still have the capability of performing high intensity operations, if required.

Changing force structure

In addition to providing the Alliance with a proactive capability, the NRF will also serve as a vehicle for changing the NATO force structure and the force structures of individual member nations. This is necessary since the Alliance retains too many structures and capabilities that date back to the Cold War when NATO relied on mass and firepower to perform its mission and large numbers of soldiers and huge arsenals of equipment were essential. As an example, 279 brigades exist within NATO members' force structures, of which 169 were declared to NATO in 2002. Yet the NATO 2004 Force Goals' requirement is for just 102 brigades. In other words, member nations collectively possess 177 extra brigades, or approximately 55 divisions, that the Alliance does not need. Yet most of the force structure promised to the Alliance is of little use in dealing with the threat that member nations face today, since the units are not sufficiently mobile, deployable, or sustainable.

A good way to understand this problem is to compare NATO to a company that is forced to downsize because of changes in the market environment. The company has too much capacity for what it used to do in the past and not enough capacity for what it must do in the future. In order to retool effectively, tough decisions must be made in order to free up resources to invest for the future.

The Alliance is now taking steps to downsize and retool as it adapts to face its changed security environment. NATO is conducting a troops-to-task analysis - using the NRF as its basis - that will define the minimum number of troops and capabilities needed for NATO to carry out its 21st century missions. With the completion of this statement of requirements, each member nation will then be asked to contribute whatever troops or capabilities they believe they are in a position to provide. After meeting NATO requirements, member nations can decide for themselves what additional military forces they wish to possess beyond those required for the Alliance. As nations adapt to the rotational and continual requirements of the NRF, it will serve as an impetus for the transformation of member nations' militaries.

Writing in 1921, Italian air-power theorist Giulio Douhet noted that: "Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after changes occur." More than 80 years later, his words remain as poignant as when he wrote them and illustrate the importance of the NATO transformation agenda set out at Prague. However, transformation does not occur by magic and still requires a great deal of hard work.

In spite of numerous challenges to overcome before the fielding of a fully operational NRF, progress made since Prague provides grounds for optimism. The Alliance has successfully enacted significant changes in its command structure and has brought the NRF from a concept to a reality in less than a year - remarkable achievements considering the challenges involved in changing any military organisation and culture. The Alliance has a glorious history and did a magnificent job during the Cold War. Today it is doing an equally impressive job as it simultaneously conducts operations in Afghanistan, the Balkans, and the Mediterranean. By fulfilling the vision of the Alliance agreed at Prague, I'm confident NATO's best days still lie ahead.

* Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.

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