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Assessing NATO transformation

Mario Bartoli examines progress in improving Alliance capabilities.

Fully capable: NATO now needs to acquire the right capabilities to fulfill its mandate and match its political transformation (© SHAPE)

The Riga Summit will be a time to take stock. When NATO Heads of State and Government meet in the Latvian capital this November, the key questions facing the Alliance will frame their discussions. Has NATO done enough to strengthen its ability to meet the challenges of today's emerging security environment? Can and should it do more to remain a viable and relevant entity on the international scene? How can we offer the best possible protection for our troops on missions in dangerous environments far from home?

The September 11, Madrid and London terrorist attacks gave tragic impetus to the Alliance to strengthen its ability to respond to new security challenges from wherever they may come. Terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, failing states possessing threatening technology, and instability are the principal threats to security. To respond to these threats, the Alliance is developing an adequate set of capabilities. At the Summits of Allied leaders held in Prague in 2002 and Istanbul in 2004, NATO launched new initiatives to enhance national capabilities in defence against terrorism, increase interoperability, and develop rapid deployment and sustainability of combat forces. The NATO Response Force (NRF), launched in Prague, laid the ground for the expeditionary capabilities for the Alliance. These capabilities are increasingly necessary to handle the full range of missions, from traditional full-scale warfare for Article 5 collective defence to humanitarian support operations in remote areas.

NATO's current operations in Afghanistan, its training mission in Iraq, and the recent humanitarian operations conducted in Pakistan are all clear demonstrations that an actual shift to expeditionary operations has already taken place. The challenge and the opportunity for the Alliance is to make sure that we have the right capabilities to conduct these operations. Our armaments community is working intensively to support our troops on missions by enhancing military capabilities that are mobile, interoperable and sustainable.

Assessing achievements

Our task at NATO Headquarters is to provide an assessment of what we have achieved to date, with concise recommendations for what remains to be done. To prepare ground for a successful summit, we need to focus on a few tangible issues to overcome our critical capability shortfalls. Development of the NRF, a continuous strong commitment to activities in defence against terrorism, efforts to improve strategic airlift, and developing Alliance Ground Surveillance will be important subjects of the Summit. With so many NATO troops in the field in remote areas of the globe, the Summit must showcase our commitment to support them.

We have developed the concept of the 25 000-strong NRF into an operational force to provide the right mix of NATO expeditionary capability. The NRF is the most viable transformation vehicle available to the Alliance today. It will prove indispensable for improving NATO's expeditionary capabilities in key areas, such as integrated multinational logistics and deployable Communications and Information Systems (CIS). Multinational, adaptive, joint logistics operations would significantly increase the speed and efficiency of operations and save considerable resources. Deployable CIS, necessarily light, interoperable and capable of handling time-sensitive intelligence information, are crucial if our forces are to succeed far from home territory.

The Alliance's transformation is now a fait accompli, albeit not complete

During the past years, we have also developed the concept of NATO Network Enabled Capability (NNEC). This is the Alliance's most ambitious command, control and communications endeavour yet. It aligns various components of the operational environment through a networked information structure,. Through sharing information, it significantly enhances situational awareness in theatre, thus allowing better-informed decision-making during missions. For troops operating in difficult conditions, improved information can save lives. Our successes in building key spokes in the NNEC wheel include the development of software defined radios and the acquisition of a friendly force tracking system for our forces in Afghanistan.

Our Defence Against Terrorism (DAT) programme, launched in 2004, has already born fruit. Recently, its initial eight initiatives were expanded to ten. Each addresses an important area of the Alliance's fight against terrorism, brought forward by a member nation in the lead, and supported by others. This approach leverages the capabilities of national governments, industry, science and research for an accelerated countermeasure development. We have achieved considerable success in the development of prototypes, systems evaluation, force training and doctrine, as well as in tactics, techniques and procedures. For instance, great strides are being made in the development of advanced technologies to counter improvised explosive devices, as well as precision airdrop technology for special operations forces. These are two capabilities our troops are in dire need of in Afghanistan today. Yet a dedicated commitment and adequate resourcing are necessary to move forward with the programme at high speed.

We have also come a long way in developing Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS), potentially the largest NATO programme ever. AGS provides persistent, wide-area ground surveillance coverage, which is of great help for our troops on missions. AGS is also critical to ensure the future development of the capabilities of the Alliance. After long preparatory work, launching its design and development phase is within our reach today.

The Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence (ALTBMD) programme has been launched in order to provide protection for our troops in theatre against short range missiles. For the much broader programme of continental missile defence, a feasibility study was recently completed. On this basis, political-military discussions can continue to provide a decision on whether a missile defence capability is desired by the Alliance. If the answer is yes, work will continue to determine the best mix of planned and existing systems and capabilities.

An expeditionary posture requires a strategic lift capability, which is potentially the Alliance's Achilles heel of capabilities. While NATO enjoys a relatively robust sealift capability, it alarmingly lacks what it needs most, strategic airlift. Fourteen member nations earlier this year formed a Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS) consortium to obtain assured access to strategic airlift, intended to fill the shortfall until the eventual development, acquisition and fielding of the planned A400M aircraft. However, this interim solution must be complemented as it contractually provides the necessary airlift only to non-hostile environments, and strictly for humanitarian assistance purposes. Work is ongoing on an initiative to create a NATO Strategic Airlift Capability consisting of a multinational fleet of C-17 strategic lift aircraft, owned and operated by participating member nations. We optimistically anticipate proclaiming its formation at the Riga Summit.

Beyond Riga

NATO is expeditionary and internationally engaged. It is no longer a question of transforming into a new organisation with new purposes and mandates. It is rather a question of acquiring the right capabilities to fulfill these mandates. Decisions taken at Prague and Istanbul have born their fruit. The Alliance's transformation is now a fait accompli, albeit not complete.

Our proposals to heads of state and government must make clear that capability shortfalls abound. While highlighting considerable progress made so far, we must alert them that the toughest challenges lie ahead - work which must be done at all levels with even greater levels of commitment and dedication. A set of commitments to transform capabilities will pave the way for further transformation of the Alliance.

Read more: history of NATO, Riga
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