Crisis management is one of NATO's fundamental security tasks. It can involve military and non-military measures to address the full spectrum of crises – before, during and after conflicts. It is one of NATO’s strengths based on experience, tried and tested crisis management procedures, and an integrated military command structure.
- Crisis management is one of NATO’s core tasks for which it employs an appropriate mix of political and military tools to manage crises in an increasingly complex security environment.
- NATO is one of few international organisations that have the experience as well as the tools to conduct crisis prevention and management operations.
- NATO’s robust crisis management capabilities allow it to deal with a wide range of crises, which could pose a threat to the security of the Alliance’s territory and populations. These crises can be political, military or humanitarian, and can also arise from a natural disaster or as a consequence of technological disruptions.
- NATO provides the framework within which members can work and train together in order to plan and conduct multinational crisis management operations, often at short notice.
- It can also train and operate with other actors where appropriate, for combined crisis management operations and missions.
- Allies decide whether to engage in a crisis management operation on a case-by-case basis and by consensus.
- NATO recognises that the military alone cannot resolve a crisis or conflict, and lessons learned from previous operations make it clear that a comprehensive political, civilian and military approach is necessary for effective crisis management.
The manner of dealing with a crisis depends on its nature, scale and seriousness. In some cases, crises can be prevented through diplomacy or other measures, while other situations may require more robust measures, including the use of military force. In this regard, NATO has a holistic approach to crisis management, envisaging involvement at all stages of a crisis and considering a broad range of tools to be effective across the crisis management spectrum. To ensure effectiveness and resilience, these instruments are continuously adapted to the evolving security context. NATO has had the capacity to deal with crisis management and, more specifically, collective defence and disaster relief operations for a long time. At a later stage, during the 1990s, it became involved in non-Article 5 crisis response operations conducted in non-NATO member countries.
Prepared for Article 5 operations
Since its creation in 1949, the primary role and the greatest responsibility of the Alliance is to protect and defend Allied territory and populations against attack. Collective defence is at the heart of the Washington Treaty and is enshrined in Article 5. It provides that if a NATO Ally is the victim of an armed attack, each and every other member of the Alliance will consider this as an armed attack against all members and will take the actions it deems necessary to assist the Ally attacked.
NATO did not conduct any operations – Article 5 or other – during the Cold War. The Alliance’s focus during this time was ensuring the effective defence of NATO’s territory through readiness, planning, preparations, and conducting exercises for possible Article 5 contingencies.
Invocation of Article 5
Article 5 was invoked for the very first time following the Al-Qaeda terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. Once it had been proved that the attack had come from abroad, the North Atlantic Council (NAC) considered it to be an act covered by Article 5. Several measures were put into place by NATO to help prevent further attacks, including Operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean, which helped to detect, deter and protect against terrorist activity in the area.
Engaging in non-Article 5 crisis response operations
As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed and satellite countries regained independence in the 1990s, past tensions resurfaced and conflicts started among ethnic groups.
From the former Yugoslavia to today’s operations and missions
One of the first major conflicts following the end of the Cold War broke out in the former Yugoslavia in 1992. NATO initially provided air- and sea-based support to the United Nations (UN), enforcing economic sanctions, an arms embargo and a no-flight zone in Bosnia and Herzegovina; it also provided detailed military contingency planning concerning safe areas.
The measures proved inadequate to bring an end to the war. In the summer of 1995, after violations of exclusion zones, the shelling of UN-designated safe areas and the taking of UN hostages, NATO member countries agreed to take military action in support of UN efforts to bring an end to the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. NATO launched a two-week air campaign against Bosnian Serb forces and, over the following months, a series of other military measures at the request of the UN force commanders. This helped pave the way for the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord on 14 December 1995. The Alliance immediately proceeded to deploy peacekeeping forces to the country, in accordance with the terms of a UN mandate, giving NATO responsibility for the implementation of the military aspects of the peace accord.
This was the first time that NATO became involved in a major non-Article 5 crisis management operation. Other non-Article 5 crisis management operations have followed - in Kosovo, in North Macedonia when it was a NATO partner (previously known as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), in Afghanistan, the Mediterranean, off the Horn of Africa, over Libya and in support of the African Union.
NATO’s Strategic Concepts
Provision for crisis management measures had already been made in the Alliance's 1991 Strategic Concept for "the management of crises affecting the security of its members". It was reiterated in the 1999 Strategic Concept, which states that NATO stands ready to contribute to effective conflict prevention and to engage actively in crisis management. In addition, the 1999 document states that these crisis management operations would include non-Article 5 operations.
The 2010 Strategic Concept broadened NATO’s thinking on crisis management, envisaging NATO’s involvement at all stages of a crisis: “NATO will therefore engage, where possible and when necessary, to prevent crises, manage crises, stabilise post-conflict situations and support reconstruction.” It also recognised the imperative for a greater number of actors to participate and coordinate their efforts and considered a broader range of tools to be used. More generally, it adopted a comprehensive approach to crisis management that goes hand-in-hand with greater emphasis on training, developing local forces, enhancing civil-military planning and interaction, and greater interoperability between NATO and partner forces.
It is in this spirit that the 2022 Strategic Concept refers to crisis management, with an emphasis on crisis prevention. It adopts an all-encompassing approach and states that the Alliance will continue to work to prevent and respond to crises, and to build on lessons learned over the past three decades to improve readiness, military and civilian capabilities, and civil-military planning and coordination. It also states that the Alliance will continue to prepare for the effects of climate change, food insecurity and health emergencies on Allied security, adding that human security is central to NATO’s approach to crisis prevention and management.
NATO and disaster relief operations
Crisis management is a broad concept that goes beyond military operations to include, for instance, the protection of populations. NATO began developing civil protection measures in the event of a nuclear attack as early as the 1950s. NATO member countries soon realised that these capabilities could be used effectively against the effects of disasters induced by floods, earthquakes or technological incidents, and against humanitarian disasters such as the coronavirus pandemic.
In 1953, the first disaster assistance scheme was implemented following devastating flooding in northern Europe and, in 1958, NATO established detailed procedures for the coordination of assistance between NATO member countries in case of disasters. These procedures remained in place and provided the basis for NATO to conduct work in this field in subsequent years. They were comprehensively reviewed in 1995 when they became applicable to partner countries in addition to NATO member countries.
In 1998, NATO established the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) to coordinate aid provided by different member and partner countries to a disaster-stricken area in a member or partner country. The Alliance also established the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Unit, which is a non-standing, multinational mix of national civil and military elements that have been volunteered by member or partner countries for deployment to the area of concern.
The EADRCC has coordinated assistance in many instances such as flood-devastated countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Ukraine); earthquake-stricken Türkiye and Pakistan; and countries afflicted by huge fires (for instance Portugal and North Macedonia). It has also supported the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Kosovo, and supported Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova after extreme weather conditions had destroyed power transmission capabilities. More recently, it has supported NATO’s efforts in assisting member and partner countries hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The EADRCC also conducts consequence management field exercises on an annual basis, bringing together civil and military first response teams to practise interoperability.
Crisis decision-making at NATO
When a crisis occurs, no decisions on planning, deployment or employment of military forces are taken without political authorisation. Decisions are taken by the governments of each NATO member country collectively and may include political, military or civil preparedness measures, depending on the nature of the crisis.
In addition to the regular consultations that take place to move ongoing activities forward, at any given time, Article 4 of the Washington Treaty gives each Ally the right to bring issues to the table for consultation and discussion with other fellow members: “The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” Article 4 is critical to NATO’s crisis management process, since consultation is at the basis of collective action.
NATO has different mechanisms in place to deal with crises. The principal political decision-making body is the North Atlantic Council (Council or NAC), which exchanges intelligence, information and other data, compares different perceptions and approaches, harmonises its views and takes decisions by consensus, as do all NATO committees. It is the NAC that decides on a case-by-case basis and by consensus whether to engage in a crisis response operation. In this role, it is supported by the Operations Policy Committee, the Political Committee, the Military Committee and the Resilience Committee. Additionally, NATO communications systems, including a "Situation Centre" (SITCEN), receive, exchange and disseminate political, economic and military intelligence and information around the clock, every single day of the year.
Internal coordination and tools
Within NATO, the NATO Crisis Response System (NCRS) is the overarching process that articulates the Organization’s crisis management role and ability to respond to crises. It coordinates efforts between the national representatives at NATO Headquarters, capitals and the Strategic Commands by providing a comprehensive set of options and measures to prepare for, manage and respond to crises. It complements other processes such as operations planning, civil preparedness planning and others, which exist within the Organization to address crises. It was first approved in 2005 and is revised annually.
One of the core components of the NCRS is the NATO Crisis Management Process (NCMP). The NCMP breaks down a crisis situation into different phases, providing a structure against which military and non-military crisis response planning processes should be designed. It is flexible and adaptable to different crisis situations.
Standardization and logistics also play a crucial role in the crisis management process.
- Standardization: countries need to share a common set of standards, especially among military forces, to carry out multinational operations. By helping to achieve interoperability – the ability of diverse systems and organisations to work together – among NATO’s forces, as well as with those of its partners, standardization allows for a more efficient use of resources and a greater effectiveness of the Alliance’s defence capabilities. Through its standardization bodies, NATO develops and implements concepts, doctrines and procedures to achieve and maintain the required levels of compatibility, interchangeability or commonality needed to achieve interoperability. For instance, in the field, standard procedures allow for the transfer of supplies between ships at sea and interoperable material such as fuel connections at airfields. It enables the many NATO and partner countries to work together, preventing duplication and promoting better use of economic resources.
- Logistics: this is the bridge between the deployed forces and the industrial base that produces the material and weapons that forces need to accomplish their mission. It comprises the identification of requirements, the building up of stocks and capabilities, and the sustainment of weapons and forces. As such, the scope of logistics is huge. Among the core functions conducted by NATO are: supply, maintenance, movement and transportation, petroleum support, infrastructure and medical support. The Alliance’s overarching function is to coordinate national efforts and encourage the highest degree possible of multinational responses to operational needs, therefore reducing the number of individual supply chains. While NATO has this responsibility, each state is responsible for ensuring that – individually or through cooperative arrangements – their own forces receive the required logistic resources.
NATO periodically exercises procedures through scheduled crisis management exercises (CMX) in which the Headquarters (civilian and military) and capitals participate, including partners and other bodies that may be involved in a real-life crisis.
Coordinating with other international players
Increasingly, NATO contributes to efforts by the wider international community to preserve or restore peace and prevent conflict. It is committed to a comprehensive political, civilian and military approach to crisis management. As a consequence, it is building closer partnerships with civilian actors – including non-governmental organisations and local authorities – and is focusing on several key areas of work such as cooperation with external actors; planning and conduct of operations; lessons learned, training, education and exercises; and public messaging. In this context, the record of NATO’s sustained cooperation in the Balkans with the UN, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union (EU) stands as a precedent.
NATO’s partnerships are and will continue to be essential to the way NATO works. Partners have served with NATO in Afghanistan, Kosovo and other operations, as well as in combating terrorism and piracy. NATO has built a broad and cooperative security network that involves countries participating in the Partnership for Peace programme, the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, as well as with partners across the globe and troop-contributing countries that do not work with NATO through a formal partnership framework.
Civil preparedness of member countries
Military forces, and especially deployed troops in times of war, depend on the civilian sector for transport, communications or basic supplies such as food and water, to fulfil their missions. However, these assets are vulnerable to external attack and internal disruption.
Civil preparedness means that basic government functions can continue during emergencies or disasters in peacetime or in periods of crisis. It also means that the civilian sector in Allied countries would be ready to provide support to a NATO military operation. The combination of civil preparedness and military capacity constitute resilience. Resilience is a society’s ability to resist and recover easily and quickly from shocks, combining civilian, economic, commercial and military factors. The individual commitment of each and every member to maintaining and strengthening its resilience reduces the vulnerability of the Organization as a whole. Members can develop resilience through the development of home defence and niche skills such as cyber defence or medical support. When Allies are well prepared, they are less likely to be attacked, making NATO as a whole stronger and better equipped to tackle crises.
Depending on the nature of a crisis, different types of crisis management operations may be required.
Article 5 - Collective defence
Referred to as "Article 5 operations", collective defence implies that the decision has been taken collectively by NATO members to consider an attack or act of aggression against one or more members as an attack against all. NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history in September 2001 following the terrorist attacks against the United States.
Non-Article 5 crisis response operations
Crisis response operations cover all military operations conducted by NATO in a non-Article 5 situation.
A “crisis response” or “peace-support operation” are generic terms that may include conflict prevention, peacekeeping, peacemaking, peace building, peace enforcement and humanitarian operations. These are multi-functional operations conducted in support of a UN/OSCE mandate or at the invitation of a sovereign government involving military forces and diplomatic and humanitarian agencies and are designed to achieve long-term political settlement or other conditions specified in the mandate.
- Conflict prevention: activities aimed at conflict prevention are normally conducted under Chapter VI of the UN Charter. They range from diplomatic initiatives to preventive deployments of forces intended to prevent disputes from escalating into armed conflicts or from spreading. Conflict prevention can also include fact-finding missions, consultations, warnings, inspections and monitoring. NATO makes full use of partnership, cooperation and dialogue and its links to other organisations to contribute to preventing crises and, should they arise, defusing them at an early stage.
- A preventive deployment within the framework of conflict prevention is the deployment of operational forces possessing sufficient deterrent capabilities to prevent an outbreak of hostilities.
- Peacekeeping: peacekeeping operations are generally undertaken under Chapter VI of the UN Charter and are conducted with the consent of all Parties to a conflict to monitor and facilitate implementation of a peace agreement.
- Peacemaking: this covers diplomatic activities conducted after the commencement of a conflict aimed at establishing a cease-fire or a rapid peaceful settlement. They can include the provision of good offices, mediation, conciliation and such actions as diplomatic pressure, isolation or sanction.
- Peace building: peace building covers actions which support political, economic, social, and military measures and structures aiming to strengthen and solidify political settlements in order to redress the causes of a conflict. This includes mechanisms to identify and support structures, which can play a role in consolidating peace, advance a sense of confidence and well-being and supporting economic reconstruction.
- Peace enforcement: these operations are undertaken under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. They are coercive in nature and are conducted when the consent of all Parties to a conflict has not been achieved or might be uncertain. They are designed to maintain or re-establish peace or enforce the terms specified in the mandate.
- Humanitarian operations: these operations are conducted to alleviate human suffering. Humanitarian operations may precede or accompany humanitarian activities provided by specialised civilian organisations.
Natural, technological or humanitarian disaster operations
Operations to assist member and partner countries that are affected by disasters also fall under the scope of crisis management. In 2005, NATO assisted Pakistan when it was hit by a devastating earthquake that claimed the lives of an estimated 80,000 people. NATO also regularly responds to requests for assistance following natural disasters such as hurricanes, heavy flooding and forest fires, and has also helped to tackle the global coronavirus pandemic.