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The enduring influence of operations in NATO’s transformation

Diego A. Ruiz Palmer considers the ever-closer relationship between NATO's operations and the Alliance's transformation since the end of the Cold War.

Taking Council: Once a Cold War military defence organisation, NATO's military and political transformation has in recent years become closely intertwined(© ISAF)

Fifteen years ago at the 1991 Rome Summit, NATO started in earnest its post-Cold War transformation with the adoption of a new Strategic Concept. Although at that time the Alliance had not yet initiated any operation, within less than a year its airborne early warning aircraft (AWACS) were patrolling the sky above Bosnia and Herzegovina and the mobile headquarters of its now defunct Northern Army Group command had been loaned to the United Nations to become the headquarters of the United Nations Protection Force. Those two steps launched NATO into an increasingly varied and demanding series of operational engagements in and beyond Europe, first in the Balkans and the Mediterranean Sea and subsequently in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Darfur region of Sudan. They also established a pattern of ever-closer political and operational cooperation between NATO and the UN, which was grounded in the decision by NATO foreign ministers in December 1992 that NATO would be prepared to support peacekeeping operations under the authority of the UN Security Council.

Today NATO's operations and its political and military transformation are closely intertwined. Operations have become a primary driver for the continuous adaptation of NATO's military capabilities, command and force structures, and consultation, planning and decision-making processes. At the same time, political and military transformation - manifested through enlargement, multiplying partnerships, and the development of expeditionary forces such as the NATO Response Force (NRF) - have contributed immeasurably to the ability of the Alliance to contribute operationally to wider efforts on behalf of international peace and security. NATO now contributes to the maintenance of a safe and secure environment in Kosovo and wider stability in the Western Balkans, provides security assistance to the Government of Afghanistan, helps train Iraqi Security Forces, and supports the African Union in Darfur. In addition, the Alliance leads an anti-terrorist maritime security operation - Operation Active Endeavour - in the Mediterranean and, in the autumn of 2005, undertook a major disaster-relief operation in Pakistan following the South Asian earthquake.

Few in Rome would have predicted that an Alliance with unsurpassed expertise in planning operations but no experience in conducting actual missions would be so extensively committed fifteen years later in Europe and beyond. Admittedly, much of NATO's expanding operational responsibilities reflect shifting international circumstances rather than some internal grand design. Yet a main reason why NATO's operations and transformation have evolved hand-in-hand since the Rome Summit is that such adaptability is embedded in the Alliance's "genetic code" of political and military cooperation built-up since its founding in 1949. This legacy of cooperation will likely continue to provide the impetus to address successfully the operational and transformational challenges ahead.

The transformational legacy of operations in the Balkans

NATO's interventions in the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 and in Kosovo in 1999 had a lasting impact on the post-Cold War nature of the Alliance by defining the parameters of common action outside the boundaries of NATO's traditional collective defence commitment. NATO's involvement in each case attested to its ability to undertake multinational operations in complex political and operational circumstances without well-rehearsed, pre-existing operational plans. The deployment of the Implementation Force (IFOR) and the Stabilisation Force (SFOR) in Bosnia and of the Kosovo Force (KFOR) also involved the participation of contingents from Partner as well as other non-NATO countries. These operations helped establish a pattern of political and military cooperation in so-called non-Article 5 crisis response operations between NATO and non-NATO contributing nations that has now become the norm for NATO's larger operations.

In addition to IFOR, SFOR and KFOR, NATO's record of operational involvement in the Balkans encompassed a variety of air and maritime operations beginning in the early 1990s and continuing through the 1999 Kosovo War. In addition to the Sky Monitor AWACS operation, NATO led the Deny Flight air exclusion enforcement operation, the Deliberate Force and Allied Force air campaigns and the Eagle Eye airborne reconnaissance operation in support of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Kosovo Verification Mission, as well as the Maritime Monitor and Sharp Guard maritime surveillance and enforcement operations in the Adriatic Sea (the latter in cooperation with the Western European Union). NATO accumulated considerable operational experience from these operations, but also learned important lessons with regard to outstanding capability and interoperability shortfalls which are being addressed by the Prague Capabilities Commitment launched at the 2002 NATO Summit in Prague.

NATO's engagement in the Balkans also prompted a wholesale reform of NATO's internal procedures for crisis management. Nearly everything in NATO's well-established Cold War practices for political consultation and military planning had to be redesigned to accommodate operations that do not involve collective defence commitments. Reform extended from issuing detailed political guidance to the NATO Military Authorities (NMAs) reflecting evolving political and military circumstances on the ground in the Balkans, to the development and refinement, often under short deadlines, of tailored contingency plans for review and approval by the North Atlantic Council (NAC).

The need to improve coordination between the NAC and the NMAs led in 1996 to the establishment of a new body specialising in the provision of integrated, political-military advice for crisis-management, the Policy Coordination Group (PCG). In parallel, political consultation arrangements were expanded and codified to include the participation of non-NATO countries contributing to NATO-led operations. Today, in concert with the Military Committee, the PCG plays a central advisory role vis-à-vis the Council in regard to all of NATO's operational engagements. Furthermore, the PCG, the Military Committee and the NAC hold regular meetings with non-NATO contributing nations devoted to the management of operations.

Operations in the Balkans also influenced heavily the transformation of NATO's command and control arrangements. The new NATO Command Structure approved at the Prague Summit in 2002, with its emphasis on joint and component commands, reflects lessons learned from the command arrangements for the management of operations in the Balkans that had evolved over time under the auspices of Headquarters, Allied Forces Southern Europe in Naples, Italy. IFOR in 1995 and KFOR in 1999 both relied on the entry force capabilities of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) that had been established in 1994 as the lead headquarters for both operations. As part of NATO's new Force Structure also approved in 2002, the ARRC has become the model for another six High Readiness Force (HRF) land headquarters. On rotation, these seven multinational corps provide the land component of the NRF. Several of them have also provided the core staff of International Security Assistance Force's (ISAF) headquarters in Afghanistan. Through their dual use for both NRF and ISAF, these headquarters are acquiring critical skills in the planning and conduct of rapid reaction as well as enduring operations.

Lastly, operations in the Balkans also had a transformational impact on the use of constabulary forces, Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC) and intelligence sharing. This resulted in the creation in the 1990s of Multinational Specialised Units, composed of French gendarmes and Italian carabinieri, to assist SFOR and KFOR with riot control. More recently, two CIMIC Groups have been formed to facilitate cooperation between deployed forces, local authorities and aid agencies. The beginning of this year also saw the establishment of an Intelligence Fusion Centre supporting all NATO operations.

Afghanistan's transformational impact

The invocation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty following the September 11 terrorist attacks and NATO's operational engagement in Afghanistan truly and irrevocably propelled the Alliance into "out-of-area" operations well beyond its traditional Euro-Atlantic centre of gravity, and made defence against terrorism an important new mission for Alliance forces. Terrorism's new global reach, as well as the increasingly global dimension of international security, were quickly recognised by NATO. At their meeting in Reykjavik, in May 2002, NATO foreign ministers agreed that "o carry out the full range of its missions, NATO must be able to field forces that can move quickly to wherever they are needed, sustain operations over distance and time, and achieve their objectives". This pivotal agreement set the stage for a series of transformational steps associated with NATO's eventual assumption of ISAF's leadership in August 2003.

NATO's adaptability is embedded in its 'genetic code' of Allied political and military cooperation

From a military transformation standpoint, perhaps the most remarkable achievement of NATO's engagement in Afghanistan has been the unprecedented commitment and capacity by European Allies and Canada to deploy in support of ISAF, on six-month or longer rotations, a multinational HRF corps headquarters together with battalion or brigade-size combat groups. While at times ISAF has suffered from an acute shortage of fixed and rotary wing transport aircraft and is still confronted with several enduring shortfalls that severely limit its operational effectiveness, this novel capability of a number of Allies, in addition to the United States, to deploy a significant body of forces at a strategic distance from Europe and North America has made possible the expansion of ISAF's presence across Afghanistan's northern, western and, most recently, southern provinces.

In addition, reliance on Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan has provided an adaptable vehicle for better integrating complementary civil and military efforts oriented towards stabilisation and reconstruction, as well as for enhancing interaction and cooperation between NATO and international governmental and non-governmental organisations active in the country. PRTs have illustrated the feasibility of concerted, civil and military planning and action (CPA) at the local level while also highlighting the need to enhance CPA between NATO and other actors at the institutional level.

Lastly, NATO's engagement in Afghanistan has opened the way to innovative approaches in employing Alliance forces more flexibly in support of or in concert with non-NATO operations led by Allies or other international organisations. When Germany and the Netherlands in 2002 requested NATO support to facilitate their combined command of ISAF before it became a NATO-led operation, the expertise and assets readily granted by NATO demonstrated that the Alliance was willing and able to contribute to the planning and conduct of operations led by others. ISAF's operational cooperation with the US-led Combined Forces Command in Afghanistan, as well as the partnership in the training of Iraqi Security Forces between the NATO Training Mission and the US-led Multinational Security Transition Command, illustrate how the Alliance can act collectively in ways that complement the efforts of individual Allies. They also highlight the adaptability of the Alliance to evolving circumstances. In this regard, NATO support to the African Union in strengthening its peacekeeping mission in the Darfur region of Sudan reveals the progress made since 2002 in making NATO support available to non-NATO operations.

The transformational impact of NATO's engagement in Afghanistan on political consultation and operational planning practices has also been profound. Building on its Balkan precedents, ISAF involves the participation of eleven non-NATO nations, including Australia and New Zealand that are not members of the Partnership for Peace. This has opened the way to closer NATO cooperation with nations located beyond the Euro-Atlantic area. As NATO becomes more globally engaged, establishing more structured relationships with such operational partners will become more important politically.

In connection with its leadership of ISAF, NATO has also had an active political dialogue with Pakistan that provided the context for the disaster relief operation which NATO launched in the aftermath of the devastating October 2005 earthquake in that country. The Pakistan relief operation followed another NATO-led disaster relief operation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in the United States in September 2005. Both operations demonstrated the applicability of NATO's operational capabilities to acute humanitarian emergencies in concert with NATO's Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre and civil emergency planning assets.

A "more operational" Alliance

Operations are at the forefront of a transformed Alliance. Transformation, politically as much as militarily, tops the Alliance's policy agenda for the Riga Summit and beyond. The interaction between transformation and operations is destined to become ever more extensive as NATO becomes more involved operationally in supporting wider international crisis management efforts. Accordingly, Allies are likely to continue to give high priority to measures that at the same time enhance the Alliance's overall operational capability while streamlining Alliance's structures and procedures in support of political consultation and capability development among Allies as well as with Partners and other non-NATO nations. Some initiatives currently under consideration are likely to have a high payoff, such as the longer term sustainment of a fully operational NATO Response Force, effective and fair burden-sharing arrangements for the funding of operations, expanded operational partnerships with more geographically distant global partners, and more effective cooperation between NATO and other international organisations such as the United Nations and the European Union.

While much has been accomplished in transforming NATO since the Rome Summit of 1991, the Alliance still has work to do to make its forces more agile and deployable and its operations more sustainable over time. What is clear is that NATO's distinctive ability to readily combine political will and military capability, when the Allies are prepared to act, will challenge the Alliance to carry forward, undeterred, the transformation it initiated at the Cold War's end.

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