Deterrence and defence

  • Last updated: 23 Mar. 2020 15:10

NATO is a political and military alliance, whose principal task is to ensure the protection of its citizens and to promote security and stability in the North Atlantic area. The Alliance must be able to address the full spectrum of current and future challenges and threats from any direction, simultaneously. The Alliance has been strengthening its deterrence and defence posture in light of the changed and evolving security environment.




  • Today, the security environment is more complex and demanding than at any time since the end of the Cold War, reinforcing the need for NATO to ensure that its deterrence and defence posture is credible and effective.
  • NATO faces challenges and threats that originate from the east and from the south; from state and non-state actors; from military forces and from terrorist, cyber and hybrid attacks.
  • The Readiness Action Plan (RAP) launched in 2014 has significantly reinforced NATO’s collective defence.
  • In 2016, NATO leaders approved a strengthened deterrence and defence posture, which led, most visibly, to the deployment of multinational Forward Presence battalions in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
  • In 2018, NATO leaders adopted a Readiness Initiative to ensure that more high-quality, combat-capable national forces at high readiness can be made available to NATO.
  • NATO is committed to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, which also makes an essential contribution to achieving the Alliance’s security objectives and ensuring strategic stability and collective security.



  • Towards a strengthened deterrence and defence posture

    Collective defence remains the Alliance’s greatest responsibility and 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. NATO’s capacity to deter and defend is supported by an appropriate mix of capabilities. Nuclear, conventional and missile defence capabilities complement each other. NATO also maintains the freedom of action and flexibility to respond to the full spectrum of challenges with an appropriate and tailored approach, at the minimum level of force.

    Russia has become more assertive with the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, as well as its military build-up close to NATO’s borders. In parallel, to the south, the security situation in the Middle East and Africa has deteriorated due to a combination of factors that are causing loss of life, fuelling large-scale migration flows and inspiring terrorist attacks in Allied countries and elsewhere. 

    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 was initiated to ensure the Alliance is ready to respond swiftly and firmly to new security challenges from the east and from the south. Building on the RAP, NATO Heads of State and Government approved a strengthened deterrence and defence posture at the Warsaw Summit in July 2016. It is providing the Alliance with a broad range of options to be able to respond to any threats from wherever they arise to protect Alliance territory, population, airspace and sea lines of communication. For instance, four battlegroups were deployed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, and measures have been taken to reinforce security in the south-eastern region of the Alliance. Furthermore, a number of measures have been undertaken to adapt the Alliance to the challenges emanating from the south.

    NATO leaders reiterated their resolve, at the 2018 Brussels Summit, by adopting a Readiness Initiative 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 intervention, if required. With the Readiness Initiative or the so-called “four thirties”, Allies committed to forming – by 2020 – 30 mechanised battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 battleships ready to use within 30 days or less. They will be able to respond to threats coming from any direction and will further strengthen NATO’s deterrence and defence posture.

    The adaptation of NATO’s Command Structure, coupled with logistical enablement of NATO European territory, will help ensure NATO troops and equipment can deploy across Europe without delay both for exercises and for reinforcements in an emerging crisis. Moreover, the creation of a new Cyber Operations Centre in Belgium and the formation of hybrid support teams to assist Allies in need will also boost the Alliance’s deterrence efforts, especially since NATO has recognised “cyber” as a domain of operations in which it must defend itself as it does in the air, on land and at sea (more recently, Allies have also recognised space as an operational domain).

    The Alliance’s actions are defensive in nature, proportionate and in line with international commitments given the threats in the changed and evolving security environment, and the Alliance’s right to self-defence. NATO also remains fully committed to non-proliferation, disarmament, arms control and confidence- and security-building measures to increase security and reduce military tensions. For instance, all NATO Allies are seriously concerned by Russia’s deployment of a nuclear-capable missile system, which violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and poses a significant risk to security. However, in response NATO Allies do not intend to deploy new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe nor enter into a new arms race. NATO will continue to maintain a credible and effective deterrence and defence, while remaining committed to effective arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation.

    Exercises are an integral part of NATO’s deterrence and defence since military training is an essential requirement to maintain the Alliance’s readiness levels and flexibility. Allies go beyond the letter of the Vienna Document and other transparency measures in planning and conducting NATO exercises. The Vienna Document is a politically binding agreement, initiated by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is designed to promote mutual trust and transparency about a state’s military forces and activities.

    More specifically, NATO’s strengthened deterrence and defence posture entails efforts in areas such as conventional forces, forward presence, joint air power and maritime forces, as well as cyber defence, civil preparedness and countering hybrid threats, including in cooperation with the European Union (EU). Reinforced relations with the EU include increased cooperation, as well as complementary and interoperable capability development to avoid duplication and contribute to transatlantic burden-sharing.

    The Defence Investment Pledge, adopted by NATO leaders in 2014, called for all Allies to stop cuts to defence budgets and meet the NATO-agreed guideline of spending 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 major new equipment, including related research and development. Finally, the Pledge committed Allies to ensuring that their land, air and maritime forces meet NATO-agreed guidelines for deployability, sustainability and other agreed metrics, and that their armed forces can operate together effectively, including through the implementation of NATO standards and doctrines. Since 2014, Allies have made considerable progress in increasing defence spending and investing in major equipment. Allies are not just delivering more of the heavier, high-end capabilities NATO needs; they are also improving the readiness, deployability, sustainability and interoperability of their forces.

  • Projecting stability

    While renewed emphasis is being placed on deterrence and collective defence, NATO also retains its ability to respond to crises beyond its borders and remain actively engaged in supporting partners and working with other international organisations, in particular the European Union. All this is part of NATO’s contribution to the international community’s efforts in projecting stability. NATO’s deterrence and defence is not pursued in isolation. It is part of a broader response of the wider transatlantic community to the changed and evolving security environment. Deterrence and defence are complementary concepts that have mutually supporting effects for safeguarding Alliance security in a 360-degree approach.

    Projecting stability consists in strengthening NATO’s ability to train, advise and assist local forces. NATO has a long history in this area of expertise – through operations in Afghanistan and the Balkans – and capacity-building with 40 partners worldwide. It is increasing its efforts, for instance, by enhancing situational awareness, reinforcing the Alliance’s maritime dimension and developing a more strategic approach to partnerships.

    Projecting stability is also about contributing to the fight against terrorism. NATO is a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and is building local counter-terrorism capacity where possible. It has a non-combat mission in Afghanistan, which provides training, advice and assistance to Afghan security forces and institutions; it has launched a training mission in Iraq to help prevent the re-emergence of ISIS; and it is providing capacity-building support to Jordan and Tunisia. NATO has also created a “Hub for the South”, a headquarters in Naples, Italy, from where regional threats are monitored and Allied efforts coordinated.  

    In view of today’s reality as well as the scale and complexity of the challenges and threats around NATO’s periphery, the Alliance will continue to strengthen its role in contributing to security across its three core tasks – collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security.