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Matching capabilities to commitments

Steve Sturm examines how NATO is seeking to improve its force-generation and defence-planning processes to meet the ever-increasing demands of crisis-response operations.

Long and winding road: The gap between commitments and the availability of forces has been on the NATO agenda for several years (© SHAPE)

Crisis-response operations have become a key element of NATO's contribution to international peace and security, and the success of these operations is widely seen as a yardstick by which to measure the Alliance's continued relevance. NATO's military capability is, of course, only one part of its raison d'être; its political role is arguably even more important. As the focal point of a wide and expanding range of partnerships, NATO contributes in many non-military ways to peace and stability. But in all of these functions its particular value is closely related to its ability to translate political consultations and agreements into collective military action. As a result, the Alliance is continually seeking to improve its ability to conduct both current and likely future operations.

In an important sense, many of the changes the Alliance has embraced over the past decade and a half have been deliberate efforts to enhance its operational effectiveness. One sometimes encounters criticism of NATO's capacity to adapt, to develop the procedures and capabilities required to deal with contemporary challenges. But this criticism often seems to be an uninformed reflex, for NATO efforts to adapt have had a substantial degree of success. Any comparison of Allied forces of today with those of 10 or 15 years ago will show this. Every Ally has been or is going through a review of its defence programmes and structures to ensure its forces are suited to today's demands, and every defence White Paper repeats the need for deployability, sustainability and usability in line with the Alliance's Strategic Concept, the document that describes the strategic environment and the ways in which NATO addresses the threats and challenges it is facing, and more detailed guidance documents. Collectively, the Alliance has overhauled its strategy and concepts, its command and force structures, and its internal organisation and procedures.

The need for further change

The quest for greater operational effectiveness, however, is never-ending. This is in part because the demands posed by operations change, in at least two senses. First, the requirements of particular operational theatres, especially in terms of the needed capabilities, evolve over time. This has, for example, been the case in the former Yugoslavia. Second, new operations are launched creating demands that are usually additional to and sometimes different from those of previous operations. The demands of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, the Kosovo Force, Operation Active Endeavour and the NATO Training Mission in Iraq are very different from one another, and must all be met simultaneously. But the need for further change also arises from the fact that NATO has yet to make sufficient progress in improving the various elements of operational effectiveness or in linking them into a coherent whole.

A particular problem has arisen in matching capabilities to commitments. There is often a gap between political commitments to launch operations and provision of the forces the operations require. In many cases, this is not the result of a discrepancy between the ends that we seek and the means that we have available. Whereas Allies struggled to provide just a handful of helicopters for ISAF, the same nations were prepared rapidly to make a hundred or so available in the immediate aftermath of the Asian Tsunami.

Three kinds of problems appear to account for this persistent discrepancy between political decisions about operations and reliable fulfilment of statements of requirements. These are problems of political will, of resources, and of capabilities. Allied leaders have been aware of these problems, and of their inter-relationship, for some time. Two years ago, then Secretary General Lord George Robertson expressed his concerns about the willingness and ability of NATO countries to meet militarily the commitments they had taken on politically, whether under Alliance or other auspices. The causes for this state of affairs, he said, were complex but could be brought together under the heading of what he termed "usability". He argued that unless Allied governments made a considerably larger fraction of their forces usable for the commitments they had accepted and were prepared to employ them in the numbers and in the ways required to achieve operational success, there was a risk of crises in the international forums in which the Alliance had made the relevant political commitments.

The gap between commitments and the availability of forces has been on the NATO agenda for several years, and a number of efforts are under way, as part of the more general pursuit of enhanced operational effectiveness, to close it. A seminar held under the auspices of Allied Command Transformation in April 2004, in Norfolk, Virginia, in which Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and NATO Ambassadors participated, was especially important in identifying the sources of the discrepancy and what needed to be done to overcome it. As a consequence, the various strands of work in this area, including improving the process by which forces are "generated" for operations and increasing the usability of Alliance forces, are sometimes referred to as the "Norfolk Agenda". There is also a further initiative with the closely related aim of enhancing the effectiveness and coherence of NATO's various defence-planning activities, namely the development of Comprehensive Political Guidance.

Force generation

The Alliance must provide forces for multiple and long-lasting operations. The traditional arrangements by which forces are repeatedly "generated" for particular operations - that is, formally offered by nations for specific periods of time on the basis of lists of requirements developed by the NATO Military Authorities - have appeared less and less satisfactory - too narrow, short-term and reactive, and poorly linked to the force-planning process. The Allies have therefore agreed to a number of measures to remedy these deficiencies.

One important initiative in this regard has been the inauguration of annual global force-generation conferences to provide a more comprehensive and longer-term view of NATO's operational needs and of the Allies' overall efforts to meet them. It should be easier for Allies to provide forces with 12 months warning than, say, with 12 days, especially when they can see that other Allies are also bearing significant operational burdens and are assured that there are plans in hand to replace their contingents after an appropriate period of time. The first such annual conference was held at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in November 2004, and we are now learning the lessons from this experience to improve future conferences. Moreover, we are examining how the potential contributions of Partners and other non-NATO nations can be better taken into account in generating forces for NATO-led operations that involve them.


As indicated earlier, concern about the usability of Alliance forces stretches back a number of years. The emphasis on making forces more deployable and sustainable was one of the themes of the Prague Capabilities Commitment and of the earlier Defence Capabilities Initiative. This reflected a recognition that some Allies' forces remained excessively configured for territorial defence and were not suitable for the kind of crisis-response operations beyond Alliance territory that NATO is currently conducting and likely to conduct in the future. At the Istanbul Summit last June, NATO defence ministers agreed to intensify national efforts to make their forces more usable. Specifically, they agreed that 40 per cent of each nation's overall land force strength should be structured, prepared and equipped for deployed operations under NATO or other auspices, and that 8 per cent of the overall land force strength would either be engaged in or earmarked for sustained operations at any one time. They also agreed on the need for national usability targets to supplement these high-level political targets. And they tasked the North Atlantic Council to develop input and output indicators - such as personnel strengths, deployable personnel, capabilities for sustained deployment on operations, expenditures for operations and expenditures for equipment - in order to provide a broader picture of the extent to which the Allies are succeeding in transforming their forces and a benchmark against which each Ally can evaluate its performance.

The quest for greater operational effectiveness is never-ending

This work is now under way. Nations have provided data on their performance against the 40 per cent and 8 per cent usability targets. Broadly speaking, the information indicates that while a number of Allies already meet or even exceed the targets set in Istanbul, others do not - in part because the Allies are at different stages in the process of restructuring their forces. A number of Allies, including some who already meet or exceed the targets, have also provided information on their plans to improve the usability of their forces in the future. It is important, however, to bear in mind that significant changes in this field cannot be brought about overnight.

The success of this exercise is not yet assured. While it has usefully drawn the attention of some capitals to problems in the usability of their forces and has, as a related benefit, sparked plans for future improvements, the data provided so far are not adequately comparable. As a result, it is extremely difficult to derive an overall sense of the usability of the Allies' forces or indeed, in some cases, to judge accurately the usability of a particular Ally's forces. More work will therefore be necessary to make the national figures as comparable as is practical, given the different ways in which Allies organise their forces. Work in this area has to date concentrated on land forces, since the challenges of deploying and sustaining them are greater than for air and maritime forces. But the setting of targets for air and maritime forces also needs to be considered. And further attention will be given to refining and perhaps enlarging the initial package of input and output measures.

Comprehensive Political Guidance

At the Istanbul Summit, Allied leaders directed the North Atlantic Council to prepare for their consideration Comprehensive Political Guidance in support of the Strategic Concept for all Alliance capabilities issues, planning disciplines and intelligence. This initiative is intended to increase the political weight behind national commitments to improve capabilities and, at the same time, to help harmonise the various "disciplines" involved in designing, developing and fielding capabilities.

In the light of the discussions held so far in NATO Headquarters on the aim, scope and character of the Comprehensive Political Guidance, it seems clear that it will be a short political document providing guidance for the further transformation of the Alliance. Specifically, it will provide guidance for the development of future Alliance military forces and other capabilities as well as for the production of intelligence relevant to defining future requirements for capabilities. It will stand between the Strategic Concept, on the one hand, and documents that provide guidance for specific planning fields, such as Ministerial Guidance for Force Planning, on the other. While remaining consistent with the Strategic Concept, the Comprehensive Political Guidance will take into account the changes in the security environment that have taken place since 1999.

The document will govern all planning activities or disciplines involved in the development of capabilities. These include the traditional defence-planning disciplines - force; armaments; consultation, command and control (C3); logistics; resources; nuclear; and civil-emergency planning. But it will also influence other capability-related activities like air-defence planning and standardisation. It will also help to inform national planning activities, especially in order to promote interoperability. The intention is to promote greater coherence between these various national and collective planning activities. For these purposes, it should indicate what the Alliance wishes to be able to achieve, particularly in operational terms, in the new security environment. And it will define a management mechanism to encourage, on a continuing and systematic basis, the consistency of the various planning activities.

The North Atlantic Council has directed that the Comprehensive Political Guidance and a proposal for the management mechanism be submitted to it as soon as possible, and no later than the end of this year.

These initiatives - on the force-generation process, on usability and on the Comprehensive Political Guidance - are important tools in guaranteeing the Alliance's operational effectiveness. Moreover, there are others of similar significance in the Norfolk Agenda, such as the efforts to improve intelligence sharing and to update NATO's approach to common funding. But all of these measures will only be productive if they are applied purposefully. That requires political will - the determination of all Allies to see that NATO's operations succeed and to play an equitable role in bringing that about.

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