NATO Air Power: Learning from the Past – Looking to the Future

Lord Trenchard Memorial Lecture 2013 by Air Marshal Sir Christopher Harper, Director General of NATO International Military Staff, at the Royal United Services Institute -- London, United Kingdom

  • 10 Dec. 2013 -
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  • Mis à jour le: 16 Dec. 2013 08:50

I want to start by thanking Malcolm for his kind words of introduction and for the Institute’s invitation to give this important lecture.

I would also like to add my thanks to RUSI for maintaining such high quality and visible intellectual focus on issues surrounding security and defence. In the world we inhabit today - there has arguably never been a greater need for this attention.

In 2014, NATO will mark its 65th year as the world’s most powerful and successful military alliance. It is an Alliance that has brought peace and stability to Europe and that has maintained the strength of the Euro-Atlantic Bond. 

It is an Alliance in which the development and use of Air Power in the Joint and Combined environment has been an absolutely essential element.  An element, that has not only made a significant contribution to NATO’s success on operations but which has also allowed Allied and Partner nations to build trust, understanding, solidarity, and technical interoperability.

These are achievements that we should be justifiably proud of.

But, as we all know, 2014 will bring to an end a 12 year period during which Afghanistan has been NATO’s main effort – an effort on which much of its Military and Political activity has focussed.  So next year, with the summit in South Wales, will represent a significant turning point for NATO’s posture as we shift from being on operations to being prepared for operations.

As we stand today, NATO has access to forces that are arguably at a high water mark in interoperability and in capabilities such as Counter Improvised Explosive Devices and Close Air Support.  These gains have been hard won - largely through 12 years of our focusing on one Counter Insurgency Operation. 

But I Don’t need to tell this audience that the strategic scene is changing at an incredible pace – so the Alliance must seek to restore its experience, capability and capacity to address an ever-growing range of threats; to operate again throughout the full range of the conflict spectrum, but do so in an environment that is not only financially austere but which is somewhat unsympathetic to the defence and security argument.

Unsurprisingly, we have faced similar circumstances before…..

It seems to me that we are facing a post-operational dichotomy of risk and opportunity that was captured by none other than Lord Trenchard himself in 1919 where he compared the nascent Royal Air Force to the Prophet Jonah’s Gourd:

“The necessity of war created it in a night, but the economies of peace have to a large extent caused it to wither in a day, and we are now faced with the necessity of replacing it with a plant of deeper root. As in nature, however, decay fosters growth, and the new plant has a fruitful soil from which to spring”.

So, for NATO in 2014, the foundations of operational experience are strong, and the requirement for change and recalibration are clear.  But given the prevailing economic and political environments, NATO’s actual capacity to adapt its military structures and forces to reflect future challenges will inevitably be constrained, and its capacity is by no means guaranteed.

Over the next 25 minutes I want to highlight 4 key issues that the Alliance, and Nations within it, must – in my view - address, and I will tell you how we are seeking to do so.  Specifically, I will talk about:

  • The importance of arresting the current decline in defence investment through a NATO campaign to make the case for why defence matters.
  • I will cover the necessity for real clarity on our collective capability requirements – our need to support NATO’s level of ambition - and the affordability, delivery and sustainment of these capabilities through Smart Defence.
  • I will look at the requirement to build upon the lessons that NATO has learned, and the interoperability it has been able to enjoy on current operations, while we prepare for a much broader range of threats through the NATO Connected Forces Initiative.
  • And I will try to make the case for our all recognizing the value of capable, interoperable and willing Partners to NATO – and, again, the need to preserve and develop these key relationships after 2014.

Defence Matters!

So, let me turn to the first of these issues - the need for us to make a better argument for enhancements in defence and security.

In NATO nations faced with continuing economic and domestic pressures, Politicians are either struggling or unwilling to make the case for maintaining or increasing Defence spending to a public that is weary of distant conflict and that feels safe at home.

Defence budgets are either stagnant or shrinking across the Alliance, but especially in Europe, where the economic crisis has bitten most deeply and where the NATO 2% GDP Defence spending target, that  the UK manage to maintain, is the exception rather than the norm.  

I am sure that we, in this place, are all too familiar with consequences that have affected European military aviation such as the loss of the UK’s Maritime Patrol capability, the planned cuts in the French Combat Air Platform numbers and nations scaling back their purchases of F35s.

To compound this challenge, with shrinking European Defence Spending comes at least the perception of an increased reliance on the US. The USA of course – has its own financial challenges and is seeking to widen its gaze to better cater for the security risks in the Asia-Pacific region.  Many of us will recall well Secretary Gates’ valedictory speech where he made it quite clear that the USA expected Europe to become a Defence and Security Provider rather than being a Consumer!

But this is not an all negative story. Many nations are undergoing a period of recapitalization of equipment. In the UK we have Voyager, Air Seeker, A400M and F-35 all coming on stream. Many other nations are purchasing F-35 too.  But even in such positive cases there remains the spectre of austerity and some of these programmes face financial pressure and further threatening cost caps.

Within this complex setting, at the Chicago Summit, NATO Heads of State reaffirmed their determinationto ensure that NATO retains and develops the capabilities necessary to perform its essential core tasks; collective defence; crisis management and cooperative security” and to “meet this responsibility while dealing with an acute financial crisis”.

But declarations and words alone will not fund capabilities - and in an environment where Alliance solidarity is of less importance to voters than social and domestic pressures - NATO must help all Opinion Formers make a case for collective Defence and security in a manner which is simple, compelling and supportable at all levels.

So the Defence Matters Campaign, recently launched by the Secretary General at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Dubrovnik, aims to do just that by reinforcing the message that the principles upon which the Alliance was founded back in 1949 - democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law - are not a given and that we must be prepared to pay for them and, if necessary, fight for them. 

The Campaign aims to reshape the case for why we need defence in general, and collective defence in particular, to an audience that may not appreciate the link between those basic values and the 87,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen that NATO currently has deployed on their behalf on operations around the world. 

It seems to me that in the Air domain we have numerous examples of where NATO Air Power is used on a regular basis to defend our way of life, whether it is the Maritime Patrol Aircraft that support, NATO’s Article 5 Anti-Terrorist Mission in the Mediterranean, or the network of integrated air defence capabilities that watch daily over NATO’s skies.  Incidentally, this year alone there have been 267 Quick Reaction scrambles in response to potential terrorist threats in civil aircraft and to complex Russian military long-range aviation sorties.  

But I would also point to Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR over Libya where NATO and Partners brought together 260 air assets, 8000 personnel and 21 naval assets in a campaign to support the Libyan people. 

And, although perhaps controversial, I believe that the threat of the use of Air Power may well have contributed significantly to the Syrian regime’s decision to take its Chemical Weapons out of the order of battle this year.

In short we need to unashamedly make the connection between the capabilities that defence brings with it, and the maintenance of the values, which we all hold dear. To paraphrase Mr Rasmussen, “Security is precious. And freedom is priceless. But neither comes for free. We have to be able and willing, to defend both”.

With the Defence Matters Campaign we will essentially aim to shift the debate from the cost of defence to the cost of not having adequate defence.  You only have to consider such examples as:

  • The 1.7 trillion US dollars cost in stock market capitalization resulting from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
  • The staggering 18 billion US dollars annual global impact of Somali piracy.
  • The potential for oil prices to treble if the Strait of Hormuz were closed completely.

These are all threats where NATO - and indeed NATO airpower – can contribute a significant degree of mitigation and, where we have to make the link between the capabilities we have and need, and the threats that we should defend against.

Available and Affordable Capabilities

But of course NATO must do much more than try to influence the ‘why’ element of the defence debate; it must also influence ‘how’ that defence is delivered. 

This brings me to my second key point concerning the availability and affordability of capabilities to support the Alliance’s stated level of ambition. 

Back at the Chicago summit, NATO Leaders set a goal for NATO Forces 2020: “modern, tightly connected forces equipped, trained, exercised and commanded so that they can operate together and with partners in any environment”

In doing so they recognized that they would need to find new ways to cooperate more closely together so as to acquire and maintain capabilities, prioritise requirements and consult on their national defence plans.

As a first step NATO has clarified which capabilities it requires for the future, given that after 12 years in Afghanistan it recognizes that it may have many capabilities it no longer needs and many gaps for capabilities that it probably does.

The latest iteration of the NATO DEFENCE PLANNING and PROGRAMMING cycle has been an emotional, tricky and sometimes rocky process of self-analysis for the Alliance. 

All the more so for the ambitious target that no single nation should hold more than 50% of a single capability, a particular issue for Air-to-Air Refuelling and Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance where Europe has unquestionably developed a reliance – maybe even an addiction - upon US assets. 

But the process identified key areas of capability shortfall such as: Strategic Lift; Ballistic Missile Defence and Deployed Medical Support.

And the process has, in itself, been a significant step for the Alliance. But while NATO and individual nations now have greater clarity on the requirements - many of which sit in the air domain - the limitations on the resources available and the spiralling costs make achieving these capability goals more challenging than ever. 

So let’s be blunt: If NATO is to satisfy its collective level of ambition then it, and the nations that it comprises, must either work more closely together to do more with less – or simply accept that they will only be able to do less.

One way out of this dilemma would be greater adoption of the Smart Defence approach that was also launched at the Chicago Summit.

You are probably aware that we have already identified a series of Smart Defence projects such as:

  •  Joint ISR as a NATO Common Funded Programme which aims to deliver an integrated, affordable and available ISR capability for Allies and partners.   
  • A Strategic Airlift Capability where12 nations, including 2 partners, have come together to own and operate 3 C17s which – incidentally - have this year recorded their 10000th flying hour.
  • And multinational Helicopter Maintenance in Afghanistan on the ISAF Mission where a cluster of nations working together has already saved millions of Euros and significantly reduced Rotary down time.

In my view, Smart Defence principles should also be applied to the use of capabilities where Allies have potential surpluses, in for example Tactical Air Lift, where there is almost certainly more scope to share spare capacity with other nations rather than dispose of it.  Similarly, for high cost future capabilities such as F35 support, Smart Defence could and – in my view should - offer an opportunity to share facilities and resources and to maximise the capability and minimise the associated running costs.

But what is obvious, I am sure, is that Smart Defence is not in itself a silver bullet. It is also not about a list of projects – it is about a philosophy that will require a significant change in culture, attitude and behaviour in policy makers, the military and – very importantly – Defence Industry if we are to overcome vested interests, mistrust and previous mistakes.

NATO will do its part to encourage Nations and their Industries to be aware of future capability requirements and point out the benefits of their working together to deliver them most effectively.

It seems to me that may be at a “Kodak” moment for the free world’s Defence industrial base.  My fear is that, unless there is significant change in approach – including but not limited to – adopting the principles enshrined in Smart Defence – we may lose some of incredible technical edge that we now enjoy – and indeed the interoperability and solidarity that will be so important, so vital, to the future.

I cannot offer a one-stop solution, but it certainly seems that we must work better with our Defence Industries to find yet more ways of ensuring that competition and innovation do not become obstacles to better collaboration.

And mind-sets must change on the military side too; we must work harder yet to be more realistic in setting our requirements, accepting capability as it evolves - and being far more responsive to corporate best practice.  We manage quite well when the chips are down – as we have seen with the delivery of rapidly procured capabilities for Afghanistan and Iraq (UORs) – so let’s move the same philosophies forward to deal with our new challenging strategic dynamic. 

My simple message here is that we should view Smart Defence as an opportunity – not just a rebadging exercise for clumsy, complicated or expensive collaborations of convenience.  If properly used, it could be a tool for intelligent, mutually beneficial partnerships between nations, industries and users who will almost certainly need affordable, supportable and effective military capability in the years ahead.  

Ready, Relevant and Effective

But equipment, and the capabilities it confers, is only part of the solution. So this brings me to my third key point – the necessity for NATO and Nations to deliver forces which are ready, credible, relevant and effective against the broad spectrum of potential future threats and scenarios.

NATO’s current high point of interoperability is incredibly perishable! It has – as I have already said – been built largely on a single operation and, as a result, on a limited number of capabilities.

For many nations the focus on Afghan Ops has dominated force generation, training, procurement and capability delivery to such an extent that many other non-ISAF capabilities have been lost or “parked”.  In the Air Domain specifically NATO’s ability to undertake large scale, complex, combined air operations in a non-permissive environment has unquestionably diminished as we have focussed on developing the skills and capabilities necessary for Close Air Support and complex counter-insurgency based ISR.

So we now face 2 key challenges: To preserve and build upon the level of interoperability amongst Allies developed in Afghanistan.  And to restore those capabilities and skills which have atrophied over 10 years of counter insurgency and counter-terrorism campaigning.

A failure to address these challenges could easily leave the Alliance’s Military Structures theoretically dominant, but practically impotent; so we established the Connected Forces Initiative to build on our current interoperability and to set the conditions for NATO Forces 2020.

Central to this will be a refreshed NATO Education, Exercise, Training and Evaluation Strategy - inextricably linked to the Alliance’s level of Ambition - and underpinned by an Exercise programme which is realistic, relevant and affordable.

And the NATO Response Force will also play an important role by providing a vehicle both to demonstrate operational readiness and to serve as a “test bed” for Alliance transformation.

The Connected Forces Initiative will focus on three key pillars:

On increasing education and training in small groups and in key skill areas.  As an example, in the air environment, it will be really crucial that we fulfil the growing requirement to train personnel to service all levels and components of the Alliance’s Joint ISR capability.

Secondly, it will increase the quantity, quality and scale of exercises as a means for our forces to practice their tactics, techniques and procedures, promote interoperability and, when required, to certify headquarters, units and formations.

This year’s Exercise STEADFAST JAZZ during which all 28 Ally and 3 Partner nations participated with over 6000 personnel and 40 air assets was a first step in this process.

In 2015 NATO will hold an even larger high visibility Exercise - hosted by Spain Portugal and Italy – that will launch a three year rolling programme of exercises covering the full range of Alliance missions. 

And NATO is also considering how to best harmonize its exercise programme to those of Allies and Partners so as to minimize duplication and maximize training opportunities.  And in the Air Domain this could see National exercises such as Joint Warrior linked to the NATO programme of training and certification. 

And the third pillar will be the better use of technology to enhance training, maintain interoperability and reduce expenditure.  While synthetic training will be familiar to all of us involved in military Air Power, NATO is seeking to promote its use and utility much more widely amongst all Allies and Partners. 

In this respect, I suggest that there simply must be significant opportunities for nations such as the UK who are already at the vanguard of joint and combined virtual and synthetic training to add to the technology of NATO.

But - as with Smart Defence - the success of the Connected Forces Initiative will again depend on the commitment of nations.  The proof of the pudding will be their willingness to contribute to, and participate in, NATO exercises, and to adhere to NATO standards in their own national training and capability delivery.  NATO will make the case! Let’s hope that case is adequately compelling for the message to heard, and for priorities adjusted accordingly. 

Capable and Willing Partners

But the ultimate priority for NATO is, I would argue, the maintenance of good relations and interoperability with all those capable and willing Partners that we have forged in operations in Afghanistan, in the skies over and seas surrounding Libya, on the ground in in Kosovo, and in operations in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.  

Many of these partners bring potent combat and enabling capabilities, while others bring unique perspectives and regional relationships. In all cases activity with partners again promotes interoperability and mutual understanding. 

But – just as with interoperability – our relationships and the skills and understanding they facilitate are perishable commodities. 

So the Alliance will work hard to maintain and retain the level of political and military engagement and cooperation that its partnerships have fostered in recent years. That’s not to say that there are any free rides here – these relationships will have to be mutually beneficial, to focus on areas of coincident strategic interest and be underpinned by a genuine drive for standardization.

Finally, at the 2014 South Wales Summit, I suggest that we are very likely to see a far greater emphasis placed on the use of NATO to “contain” and “prevent” future conflict, in addition to its more traditional interventions. 

This will require NATO to continue developing and enhancing its partnerships not just with nations but also with International Organisations such as the UN and the EU who hold the other essential Comprehensive Approach Levers required for success in the conflict prevention and post-crisis management areas of the conflict spectrum.

Once again central to these relationships will be that common thread of interoperability in process and procedures.


So, in conclusion, when it comes to our collective future, I have some sympathy with Jeremy Shapiro of the Bookings Institute who, bending a common military dictum, recently said “Amateurs talk Strategy, Professionals talk capacity”.  Individual Nations can no longer afford the levels of military or political capacity necessary to address the full spectrum of global threats that we face today. 

It seems to me that Collective Defence is the only game in town and that NATO is the biggest and most successful team in that game, but it requires active and committed players, if it is to succeed.

I know that NATO values and appreciates the United Kingdom’s continuing commitment to maintain the Alliance as the Bedrock of its Defence and that this is reflected in its campaign to put “NATO at the heart of UK Defence”.  It also welcomes the UK’s significant commitment to the 2015 high visibility exercise; its participation and leadership in a number of the Flagship Smart Defence projects; its continuing commitment to man NATO with high quality, well trained and motivated personnel; and its hosting of the 2014 Summit at which so many of the issues I have discussed today will be addressed.

But if the Alliance itself is to remain credible, relevant, effective and affordable in the complex global security environment of its next 65 years it will require the UK and other nations:

  • To address – or recognize the consequences the current decline in defence investment. And in part to address this through commitment and support of the Defence Matters campaign.
  • To ensure we use Smart Defence principles to deliver affordable and effective defence and security capabilities
  • To use the Connected Forces Initiative to offer Forces which are ready and capable of addressing a broad spectrum of future threats.
  • And to encourage and develop Partners who remain capable and motivated to work with the Alliance and build on the bonds and interoperability we have forged on current operations.

In closing I think that Lord Trenchard’s prescient thoughts from the 1921 Aspects of Service Aviation Paper are as relevant today when considering the future of NATO as they were for formative Royal Air Force some 92 years ago.

 “The test of every fighting Service is war. Its organization, training, distribution, systems of command and administration must always be primarily governed by this consideration. Peace has its own problems and difficulties, financial and other; but in solving them we must always keep war in the forefront of the picture and try to foresee its possibility, probability, locality and nature”  

When I was at RAF Bruggen flying Jaguars in the 80’s there was a sign at the Front Gate which said “We train in peace to be ready for war”.  Sadly we still need to do that.

Ladies and Gentleman – thank you for your attention – let me catch my breath, have a sip of water after which I would be delighted to answer any questions or comments you may have.