Deterrence and defence
NATO is a defensive alliance whose members are committed to safeguarding the freedom and security of all Allies, against all threats, from all directions. Deterrence and defence is one of NATO’s core tasks. The Alliance deters aggression by maintaining a credible deterrence and defence posture based on an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defence capabilities, complemented by space and cyber capabilities. Allies are significantly strengthening the deterrence and defence of the Alliance as the backbone to their Article 5 commitment to defend each other.
The USS Gerald R. Ford sails out of the Oslo Fjord in Norway in May 2023. (Photo: Norwegian Armed Forces)
- Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine poses the gravest threat to Euro-Atlantic security in decades, shattering peace in Europe and reinforcing the need for NATO to ensure that its deterrence and defence posture remains credible and effective.
- In response, NATO has activated its defence plans, deployed elements of the NATO Response Force and significantly increased the number of forces on its eastern flank.
- On 24 March 2022, at an extraordinary summit, NATO Leaders agreed to deploy four battalions in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, in addition to the four already present in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
- At the Madrid Summit in June 2022, NATO Leaders approved a new Strategic Concept, which describes the security environment facing the Alliance and identifies NATO's core tasks: deterrence and defence, crisis prevention and management, and cooperative security. The Strategic Concept states that Russia is the most significant and direct threat to Allies' security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area. It also states that terrorism, in all its forms and manifestations, is the most direct asymmetric threat to the security of the Alliance's citizens and to international peace and prosperity.
- At the Madrid Summit, Allies also committed to deploying additional robust, in-place, combat-ready forces to NATO's eastern flank, to be scaled up from the existing battalion-sized battlegroups to brigade-size units, where and when required. These forces will be underpinned by credible, rapidly available reinforcements, prepositioned equipment, and enhanced command and control. To that end, Allies agreed a new NATO Force Model, which strengthens and modernises the NATO Force Structure, supporting NATO's core tasks and new generation of military plans.
- NATO Leaders built upon these decisions at the 2023 Vilnius Summit, where they agreed to modernise NATO for a new era of collective defence. To this end, Allies approved a new generation of regional defence plans. They agreed to continue implementing the NATO Force Model to deliver a larger pool of dedicated, combat-capable forces, including forces at high readiness, such as a new multinational and multi-domain Allied Reaction Force. Allied Leaders also approved a new rotational model of modern air defence systems and capabilities, and a new policy for improving logistics support to reinforce and sustain forces.
- Allies continue to implement two military concepts that set the direction for NATO's ongoing adaptation: the Concept for Deterrence and Defence of the Euro-Atlantic Area focuses on force employment to deter and defend today, while the NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept offers a vision to guide the Alliance's long-term warfare development to remain militarily strong now and in the future.
- Allies have made considerable progress in increasing defence spending, including investments in major equipment, taking steps towards fairer burden-sharing within NATO. At the Vilnius Summit, Allies agreed on a renewed Defence Investment Pledge, committing to invest at least 2% of Gross Domestic Product annually in defence. Since 2014, European Allies and Canada have invested an extra USD 450 billion in defence, with the latest estimates showing an increase of 8.3 per cent in 2023.
- A rapidly changing security environment
- Safeguarding the freedom and security of NATO's members
- Resilience: the first line of deterrence and defence
- Bolstering NATO's readiness, responsiveness and reinforcement
- Maintaining the Alliance's military and technological edge
- Investing in defence
NATO faces the most complex security environment since the end of the Cold War. Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine is jeopardising European security, and terrorism continues to represent a global security challenge and a threat to stability. At the same time, China’s stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge the Alliance's interests, security and values. Growing global uncertainty, more sophisticated and disruptive cyber and hybrid threats, the increasing prominence of nuclear weapons in potential adversaries’ strategies, and exponential technological change are having a substantial impact on the Alliance.
Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine has shattered peace in Europe and is causing enormous human suffering and destruction. Russia is the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area. Its coercive military posture, rhetoric and proven willingness to use force to pursue its political goals undermine the rules-based international order. Russia’s announced intention to deploy nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable systems on Belarusian territory further demonstrates how Russia’s repeated actions undermine strategic stability and overall security in the Euro-Atlantic area.
Terrorism, in all its forms and manifestations, is the most direct asymmetric threat to the security of NATO citizens and to international peace and prosperity. Conflict, fragility and instability in Africa and the Middle East directly affect the security of the Alliance and its partners. NATO’s southern neighbourhood, particularly the Middle East, North Africa and Sahel regions, faces interconnected security, demographic, economic and political challenges. These are aggravated by the impact of climate change, fragile institutions, health emergencies and food insecurity.
Safeguarding the freedom and security of NATO's members
NATO's essential and enduring purpose is to safeguard the freedom and security of all its members by political and military means. Collective defence is at the heart of the Alliance, as set out in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. NATO's greatest responsibility is to protect and defend Allied territory and populations against attack in a world where peace and security cannot be taken for granted.
Deterrence is a core element of NATO's overall strategy: preventing conflict and war, protecting Allies, maintaining freedom of decision and action, and upholding the principles and values it stands for – individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Free societies and the rules-based international order need to be backed by credible transatlantic defence.
At the 2022 Madrid Summit, NATO set a new baseline for its deterrence and defence posture in line with its 360-degree approach, across the land, air, maritime, cyber and space domains, and against all threats and challenges.
NATO Leaders built upon this new baseline at the 2023 Vilnius Summit, agreeing significant measures to enhance NATO’s deterrence and defence in all domains, including a new generation of regional defence plans to strengthen forward defences and increase the Alliance’s ability to rapidly reinforce any Ally that may come under threat.
NATO's deterrence and defence posture is based on an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defence capabilities, complemented by space and cyber capabilities. NATO maintains the freedom of action and flexibility to respond to the full spectrum of challenges with an appropriate and tailored approach.
Resilience: the first line of deterrence and defence
Enhancing resilience is an integral part of NATO's deterrence and defence posture. This means strengthening the capacity of societies to prepare for, respond to, recover from and adapt to the full range of threats and hazards. Russia’s war against Ukraine, growing geopolitical competition and the many other security challenges faced by the Alliance today underscore the importance of NATO’s “all hazards” and “whole of society” approach to resilience. By preparing, empowering and investing in the ability of societies to defend themselves against a wide range of threats – from cyber attacks to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents, terrorism, pandemics and natural disasters – Allies address vulnerabilities that can otherwise be used as leverage or be targeted by adversaries. Resilience is therefore an important aspect of deterrence by denial: persuading an adversary not to attack by convincing it that an attack will not achieve its intended objectives.
Resilience also requires close civil-military cooperation, as it impacts NATO's ability to conduct its missions and maintain the mobility of troops and equipment. Ensuring that national and military forces under NATO command are adequately supported with civilian resources and infrastructure is a core feature of NATO's resilience efforts. Since 2014, NATO has been providing guidelines to assist national authorities in improving their resilience across seven baseline requirements by reducing potential vulnerabilities. These requirements are updated regularly to reflect the evolving nature of the challenges faced by the Alliance.
In line with the NATO 2030 agenda and the 2021 Strengthened Resilience Commitment, the 2022 Strategic Concept stresses the importance of adopting a more integrated and better coordinated approach to resilience within the Alliance, including against Russian coercion, and in supporting NATO partners to counter malign interference and aggression. Partnerships with non-NATO countries and other organisations are essential to reinforce Allies' national and collective resilience, and to support the Alliance's planning and preparedness through the sharing of information and best practices.
Bolstering NATO's readiness, responsiveness and reinforcement
Throughout its history, NATO has continuously adapted its deterrence and defence to meet the challenges of the evolving security environment. Over the past decade in particular – since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and its increasingly threatening posture towards the Alliance – NATO has overhauled its plans and structures to ensure that Allies are ready to respond to any threat from any direction.
The Readiness Action Plan (RAP), launched at the Wales Summit in 2014, was a major driver for change in the Alliance's deterrence and defence posture. The RAP included assurance measures for NATO Allies in Central and Eastern Europe to reassure their populations, deter potential aggression and reinforce their defence.
Building on the RAP, NATO Heads of State and Government approved a strengthened deterrence and defence posture at the Warsaw Summit in 2016. It provided the Alliance with a broad range of options to be able to respond to any threats from wherever they arise to protect NATO territory, populations, airspace and sea lines of communication. Allies agreed to establish an enhanced Forward Presence in the eastern part of the Alliance, and in 2017 four NATO multinational battlegroups were deployed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Additional measures were taken to reinforce security in the south-east of the Alliance, with a tailored Forward Presence in the Black Sea region. Furthermore, a number of measures have been undertaken to adapt the Alliance to the challenges emanating from the South, including capacity-building, dedicated exercises and advance planning, as well as setting up the Regional Hub for the South in Naples, Italy, which contributes to NATO's situational awareness.
At the 2018 Brussels Summit, NATO Leaders reiterated their resolve to bolster the Alliance's readiness, responsiveness and reinforcement to respond to threats in a 360-degree approach. A NATO Readiness Initiative was launched to enhance the Alliance's rapid-response capability, either for reinforcement of Allies in support of deterrence or collective defence, including for high-intensity warfighting, or for rapid military crisis response, if required. It consisted of providing 30 heavy or medium manoeuvre battalions, 30 kinetic air squadrons and 30 major naval combatants at 30 days' readiness or less. These forces are being organised and trained as larger combat formations.
In 2020, Allies approved the Concept for the Deterrence and Defence of the Euro-Atlantic Area (DDA). The DDA Concept provides a single, coherent framework for NATO Allies to contest, deter and defend against the Alliance’s main threats in a multi-domain environment. It also strengthens the Alliance’s preparedness to address challenges by enhancing NATO’s advance planning for potential crisis and conflict scenarios. Under the DDA Concept’s framework, NATO is developing strategic, domain-specific and regional military plans to improve the Alliance’s ability to respond to any contingencies. These plans are fully coherent with the planning of Allied forces and the new NATO Force Model, and they include posture management, capability development (including training and exercises), and command and control.
At the 2021 Brussels Summit, Allies agreed the NATO 2030 agenda to strengthen the Alliance further and guide its adaptation for the future. This agenda includes deterrence and defence as a core element of the transatlantic bond at the heart of the Alliance. Allied Leaders welcomed the significant progress made to strengthen NATO’s deterrence and defence posture, including increased defence spending, modern capabilities, enhanced political and military responsiveness, and higher readiness. They also welcomed the ongoing implementation of the DDA Concept and the NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept, which provides a long-term vision for maintaining and developing NATO’s decisive military edge, ensuring that the Alliance continuously develops its military and technological advantage as the character of conflict evolves.
Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, NATO Leaders met in Brussels on 24 March 2022 to address the consequences of Russia’s actions and to take measures to further strengthen NATO’s deterrence and defence. They decided to deploy four multinational battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, in addition to those already present in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, effectively doubling the number of battlegroups on NATO’s eastern flank from four to eight. They also decided to step up cyber defences and scale up exercises focused on collective defence and interoperability.
At the Madrid Summit in June 2022, NATO Leaders made decisions to significantly strengthen the Alliance’s deterrence and defence posture. To that end, Allies agreed to adjust the balance between in-place forces and reinforcement, and committed to deploying additional robust, in-place, combat-ready forces on NATO’s eastern flank, to be scaled up from the existing battalion-sized battlegroups to brigades, where and when required, underpinned by credible rapidly available reinforcements, prepositioned equipment, and enhanced command and control. This will strengthen deterrence and support the ability to defend forward. Allies also agreed a new NATO Force Model, which strengthens and modernises the NATO Force Structure, supports the Alliance’s core tasks and resources its new generation of military plans. Allies agreed to ensure a substantial and persistent presence on land, at sea and in the air, including through stronger integrated air and missile defence.
At the 2023 Vilnius Summit, NATO Leaders agreed to modernise NATO for a new era of collective defence, approving the most comprehensive and detailed defence plans since the Cold War. This new generation of regional defence plans will significantly improve the coherence of NATO’s collective defence planning with Allies’ national planning of their forces, posture, capabilities, and command and control. These plans direct how NATO will deter and defend against any aggressor from any direction, explaining how, in the event of a crisis, Allied forces would defend forward and defeat complex threats across NATO territory. They also set out specifically what will be expected of Allies in a crisis. Driven by the increasingly complex threat environment, this is a larger, more demanding, ask of Allies than NATO has made since the end of the Cold War. The plans ensure that Allies can provide the right forces at the right time and in the right places.
In order to ensure the effectiveness of these plans, Allies are implementing the new NATO Force Model, which delivers a larger pool of dedicated combat-capable forces, harnessing regional expertise and geographic proximity to improve military responsiveness. As part of these efforts, they are also establishing a new multinational and multi-domain Allied Reaction Force, which will provide more options to respond swiftly to threats and crises in all directions. NATO Leaders also agreed to strengthen NATO’s command and control, and welcomed ongoing efforts by Allies to increase their presence on NATO’s eastern flank. In addition, Allied Leaders are committed to improving NATO’s ability to reinforce and sustain Allied forces across Alliance territory, including through greater logistics coordination and the prepositioning of ammunition and equipment.
NATO Leaders have also agreed to improve the readiness, preparedness and interoperability of NATO’s Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD) through activities across all domains and along the spectrum of conflict. The Alliance is bolstering the integration and coherence of its IAMD through regular training, and the rotational presence of modern air defence systems and capabilities, with an initial focus on the unique and distinct role of nuclear deterrence. These efforts will support NATO’s readiness, including its ability to deter aggression and manage escalation risks in a crisis that has a nuclear dimension.
NATO continues to address the security implications of Russia's ongoing modernisation of its nuclear forces, including its large stockpile of theatre-range weapons, and expansion of its novel and disruptive dual-capable delivery systems, which pose a significant risk to Alliance security. Russia’s violations and selective implementation of its arms control obligations and commitments have contributed to the deterioration of the broader security landscape. The Alliance is responding by strengthening its advanced conventional capabilities, investing in new platforms – including fifth-generation fighter aircraft – and adapting its exercises, intelligence, and air and missile defence posture. It is doing so while taking all necessary steps to ensure that its nuclear deterrent remains credible, effective, safe and secure. At the same time, NATO remains strongly committed to effective arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, and continues to call for all actors, including Russia and China, to engage constructively.
Exercises remain an integral part of NATO's deterrence and defence posture since military training is an essential requirement to maintain the Alliance's readiness levels and improve interoperability. NATO training and exercises simulate both conventional and nuclear dimensions of a crisis or conflict, facilitating greater coherence between conventional and nuclear components of NATO’s deterrence and defence posture across all domains and the entire spectrum of conflict.
NATO has recognised cyberspace as a domain of operations in which it must defend itself as effectively as it does in the air, on land and at sea. The creation of a Cyberspace Operations Centre in Belgium in 2018 and the formation of counter-hybrid support teams to assist Allies in need also bolster the Alliance's deterrence efforts. At the 2021 Brussels Summit, Allies endorsed a new Comprehensive Cyber Defence Policy, which supports NATO’s core tasks and overall deterrence and defence posture to enhance the Alliance’s resilience in cyberspace.
At the December 2019 Leaders' Meeting in London, NATO declared space as a fifth operational domain. The information gathered and delivered through satellites is critical for NATO activities, operations and missions, including collective defence, crisis response and counter-terrorism. The NATO Space Centre established in 2020 in Germany serves as a focal point for sharing information, coordinating Allies' efforts and supporting NATO's operations and missions. At the 2021 Brussels Summit, NATO recognised that attacks to, from or within space could present a clear challenge to the security of the Alliance and could lead to the invocation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.
NATO's adaptation efforts continue in all domains and in areas that cover a whole-of-society approach to defence and security, such as civil preparedness and countering hybrid threats. The Alliance strengthens these activities through increased cooperation with the European Union (EU), which includes complementary and interoperable capability development to avoid duplication and contribute to transatlantic burden-sharing.
Maintaining the Alliance's military and technological edge
While the Alliance needs to be able to preserve peace today, it also needs to prepare for the increasingly unpredictable security environment of the future. To this end, at the Brussels Summit in June 2021, Allied Leaders agreed to the full implementation of the NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept, which supports having a more proactive and anticipatory approach to military adaptation. Keeping its technological edge has always been an essential enabler of NATO's ability to deter and defend against potential adversaries. Innovations in emerging and disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons systems, big data and biotech are changing warfare. To help preserve its technological edge, NATO has agreed an implementation strategy for emerging and disruptive technologies. It also established a Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) and, at the Madrid Summit in June 2022, launched a multinational Innovation Fund, bringing together governments, the private sector and academia to bolster NATO's technological edge. The Alliance will play an important role as a forum for cooperation on various security-related aspects of these emerging technologies.
Investing in defence
The Defence Investment Pledge, adopted by NATO Leaders at the 2014 Wales Summit, called for all Allies to stop cuts to defence budgets and move towards the NATO-agreed guideline of spending at least 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence within a decade. Allies also agreed, in that same timeframe, to move towards spending at least 20% of annual defence expenditure on new major equipment and related research and development. Since then, Allies have all increased their defence spending, further developed their forces and capabilities, and have contributed to Allied operations, missions and activities. The latest estimates show that defence expenditure by European Allies and Canada will increase by 8.3% in 2023, marking the ninth consecutive year of increased defence spending by these countries, with a cumulative investment of almost USD 450 billion extra in real terms since 2014.
At the 2023 Vilnius Summit, NATO Leaders agreed a renewed Defence Investment Pledge, making an enduring commitment to investing at least 2% of GDP annually in defence. They also affirmed that in many cases, expenditure beyond 2% of GDP will be needed in order to remedy existing shortfalls and meet the requirements across all domains arising from a more contested security order. At the same time, NATO Leaders committed to investing at least 20% of their defence budgets on major equipment, including defence-related research and development. Allies also committed to contributing the necessary forces, capabilities and resources to the full range of NATO operations, missions and activities.