NATO’s assessment of a crisis and development of response strategies

  • 10 May. 2011 -
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  • Last updated: 23 Aug. 2022 15:28

How NATO takes decisions: consensus rule and political control

Crisis management is a core NATO task. NATO is organized to be able to take decisions in a crisis situation, and to act under significant threat and time pressure.

All decisions are taken by the North Atlantic Council, the highest authority in the Alliance, based on political and military advice by its subordinate – political and military – bodies. Decisions are the expressions of national sovereignty and are reached by consensus among all Allies (currently 30). This consultation process often involves non-NATO nations, notably those who expressed their wish to contribute forces to a NATO-led operation, as well as other international organisations, on a case by case basis and as approved by the Council.

At every major step of the process, political control of the military is key, and no decision regarding planning for deployment or actual employment of NATO military forces can be taken without the explicit political authorization of the Council.

The Military Committee (MC), representing the Member States’ Chiefs of Defence, is responsible to the Council for the overall conduct of military affairs of the Alliance and is the primary source of military advice to the Council, including, on plans prepared by NATO’s integrated chain of command, i.e. the NATO command structure (NCS)1.

Assessments and development of responses

NATO has always had a capability to conduct assessments of potential or actual crisis situations, as a means to inform decisions by the NAC to contribute to international efforts to prevent or defuse an emerging crisis.

As a crisis unfolds, NATO currently assesses the situation and develops responses along a six-Phase Crisis Management Process.

This process is primarily designed to allow the relevant staffs and committees to co‑ordinate their work and to submit advice to the North Atlantic Council in a timely and compelling way. It also allows Supreme Allied Commander Operations (SACEUR), to undertake preparatory military planning measures in a reasonable timeframe and subsequently, it facilitates and allows capitals to make strategic political decisions.

The illustrative phases are not rigid, may be of different length and may overlap as required by the crisis situation.

Initial Guide - NAC guidance on which to conduct a Pol/Mil Estimate process
NID - NAC Initiating Directive (to start formal operations planning)
NED - NAC Execution Directive (to start the approved operation)
PMR - Periodic Mission Review (of an ongoing operation)

Phase 1: Indications and warnings are given either by NATO’s intelligence and warning system or by an Ally or a partner. With these, there are in theory four options the Council can choose from: (i) decide that there is no need for further consideration; (ii) direct focused NATO vigilance and more information for the Council; (iii) consider diplomatic, political and precautionary responses, including civil emergency response, and take into account military implications as appropriate; or (iv) decide to initiate a full assessment of the crisis situation and move to Phases 2 and 3.

Phase 2 and 3: The Council tasks the relevant political and military committees to launch an assessment of the crisis and provide advice on the developing crisis situation, and its implications for Alliance security. This is the so called Political-Military Estimate (PME) process. At this stage, the Council also tasks SACEUR to develop a response strategy.

Based on the results of the PME process, the Council may select one of the response options by providing formal political guidance2 to the NATO Military Authorities (NMA)3 to conduct operations planning for the chosen option. This decision moves the process to Phase 4 (See slide). However, at this point, the process does not yet imply a decision by NATO to undertake military action. But, all the possibilities are on the table and political, diplomatic as well as civil measures may have been initiated, primarily under NAC direction.

Phase 4 (Planning): SACEUR then develops a Concept of Operations (CONOPS) and subsequently an Operations Plan (OPLAN) and submits them to the Military Committee for endorsement and to the North Atlantic Council for consideration and approval. Then, in order to deploy forces, the NAC needs to give formal authorisation to execute the OPLAN4. A decision to execute moves the process to Phase 5.

Phase 5 (Execution): Throughout Phase 5 NATO executes the mission and conducts regular assessments of the ongoing operation normally in the form of Periodic Mission Reviews (PMR) in order to assess progress towards the desired end-state and evaluate the required military posture, its capabilities and force structure. (see Annex 2). For instance, at NATO HQ, PMRs normally take place on a biannual basis. These reviews provide recommendation for changes to be considered by the Military Committee and the Council. As an example, ISAF and KFOR are currently in Phase 5.

Phase 6 (Transition): As the situation evolves, NATO moves into Phase 6 transition and, if needed, plans and implements a handover to the appropriate authorities, completes the military mission and progressively withdraws NATO forces.

The description of how Non NATO nations may contribute to NATO-led operations, on the basis of approval by the North Atlantic Council, is contained in the Pol/Mil Framework Document5.

1. NATO HQ in Brussels is the forum for political-military consultations and decision making (NAC and different Committees). The NATO command structure (NCS) is fully integrated and has two strategic commands, one for Operations (SHAPE in Mons, Belgium; Commander: Supreme Allied Commander Europe - SACEUR), one for Transformation (ACT in Norfolk, USA; Commander: Supreme Allied Commander Transformation - SACT).
2. This document is called the NAC initiating Directive (NID) – see attached slide
3. NMA comprise the Military Committee, representing allied Chiefs of Defence and the two Strategic Commands, SHAPE and HQ SACT, supported by the International Military Staff(IMS) at NATO HQ
4. This document is called the NAC Execution Directive (NED) – see Attached slide
5. PO(2011)0141 (Released to: EAPC, MD, ICI, Afghanistan, Australia, Iraq, Japan, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, and Pakistan, ISAF and KFOR)