NATO’s role in conventional arms control

  • Last updated: 06 Jul. 2021 10:40

NATO is committed to and attaches great importance to conventional arms control. The Alliance provides an essential consultative and decision-making forum for its members on all aspects of arms control and disarmament.


  • NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept highlights the continued importance of harmonising defence and arms control policies and objectives, and the Alliance’s commitment to the development of future arms control agreements.
  • The 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) is considered as a landmark arms control agreement, to which Allies have repeatedly stated their commitment.
  • Russia’s long-standing non-implementation of the CFE Treaty, its selective implementation of the Vienna Document, its refusal to fully comply with its obligations under the Open Skies Treaty and its decision to withdraw from it have eroded the positive contributions of these arms control instruments to Euro-Atlantic security.  
  • NATO Allies support the implementation of various confidence- and security-building measures, which include: the Vienna Document, the Open Skies Treaty and the humanitarian demining goals of the Ottawa Convention.
  • All NATO Allies are party to the UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) in All Its Aspects, which seeks to improve national legislation and controls over illicit small arms.
  • The Arms Trade Treaty establishes common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms and came into force in December 2014. NATO stands ready to support the implementation of the treaty as appropriate.
  • NATO Allies assist partner countries in the destruction of surplus stocks of mines, arms and munitions.
  • Conventional arms control agreements

    Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty

    The 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) is referred to as a "cornerstone of European security" and imposes for the first time in European history legal and verifiable limits on the force structure of its 30 States Parties, which stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains.

    Since the Treaty’s entry into force in 1992, the destruction of over 100,000 pieces of treaty-limited equipment (tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery, attack helicopters and combat aircraft) has been verified and almost 6,000 on-site inspections have been conducted, thereby reaching its objective of creating balance and mitigating the possibility of surprise conventional attacks within its area of application.

    At the first CFE Review Conference in 1996, negotiations began to adapt the CFE Treaty to reflect the realities of the post-Cold War era. This process was completed in conjunction with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Summit in Istanbul in 1999. States Parties also agreed to additional commitments, called the Istanbul Commitments. Although the Adapted CFE (ACFE) Treaty went far in adjusting the Treaty to a new security environment, it was not ratified by Allied countries because of the failure of Russia to fully meet commitments regarding withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia and the Republic of Moldova, on which Allies’ agreement to the Adapted Treaty was based.

    Since 2000 at NATO summits and ministerial meetings, the Allies have reiterated their commitment to the CFE Treaty and have reaffirmed their readiness and commitment to ratifying the Adapted Treaty.

    During the third CFE Review Conference in June 2006, Russia expressed its concerns regarding ratification of the adapted CFE Treaty and claimed that even the ACFE was outdated.

    After the June 2007 Extraordinary Conference of the States Parties to the CFE Treaty, the Russian president signed legislation on 14 July 2007 to unilaterally “suspend” its legal obligations under the CFE Treaty as of 12 December 2007. In response to these events, NATO offered a set of constructive and forward-looking actions.

    In 2008 and 2009, consultations were held between the United States – on behalf of the Alliance – and Russia, but with limited development. Further efforts to resolve the impasse were pursued on the basis of the United States’ initiative, which sought an agreement on a framework for negotiations on a modernised CFE Treaty, in consultations at 36 between all CFE States Parties and NATO member states not party to the CFE Treaty. The process stalled in the autumn of 2011 because of the lack of agreement among parties.

    In a situation where no agreement could be reached to overcome the impasse, towards the end of November 2011, NATO CFE Allies announced their decisions to cease implementing certain CFE obligations vis-à-vis Russia, while still continuing to fully implement their obligations with respect to all other CFE States Parties. However, in the December 2011 foreign ministers’ communiqué, Allies stated that these decisions were reversible should the Russian Federation return to full implementation.

    At the Chicago Summit in May 2012, Allies reiterated their commitment to conventional arms control and expressed determination to preserve, strengthen and modernise the conventional arms control regime in Europe, based on key principles and commitments.

    At the Wales Summit in September 2014, Allies reaffirmed their long-standing commitment to conventional arms control as a key element of Euro-Atlantic security and emphasised the importance of full implementation and compliance to rebuild trust and confidence. They underscored that Russia’s unilateral military activity in and around Ukraine had undermined peace, security and stability across the region, and its selective implementation of the Vienna Document and Open Skies Treaty and its long-standing non-implementation of the CFE Treaty had eroded the positive contributions of these arms control instruments. Allies called on Russia to fully adhere to its commitments. On 11 March 2015, the Russian Federation announced that it was suspending its participation in the meetings of the Joint Consultative Group (JCG) on the CFE Treaty, which meets regularly in Vienna.

    Vienna Document

    The Vienna Document (VDOC), that includes all European and Central Asian participating States, is a politically binding agreement designed to promote mutual trust and transparency about a state’s military forces and activities. Under the VDOC, thousands of inspections and evaluation visits have been conducted as well as airbase visits and visits to military facilities; also new types of major weapon and equipment systems have been demonstrated to the participating States of the VDOC.

    In 2019, NATO Allies, together with Finland and Sweden, introduced a new proposal to modernise the Vienna Document. The proposal aims to restore confidence, build mutual predictability, reduce risks and help prevent unintentional conflict. Russia has yet to engage with the modernisation proposal, and continues to selectively implement VDOC.

    Open Skies Treaty

    The Open Skies Treaty is legally binding and allows for unarmed aerial observation flights over the territory of its participants. So far, more than 1,500 observation missions have been conducted since the Treaty’s entry into force in January 2002. Aerial photography and other material from observation missions provide transparency and support verification activities carried out on the ground under other treaties.

    This Treaty provides for extensive cooperation regarding the use of aircraft and their sensors, thereby adding to openness and confidence. Following long-lasting negotiations the States Parties to the Open Skies Treaty agreed, at the 2010 review conference, to allow the use of digital sensors in the future. Some States Parties are currently upgrading their aircraft and undergoing the necessary certification process established by the Open Skies Treaty in order to put the aircraft into operation in the coming years. The effectiveness of the Treaty relies on the good will of its members to contribute to the process of transparency. In response to Russia selectively implementing and repeatedly violating this legally binding arms control treaty, the United States withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty in November 2020. In June 2021, Russia announced its decision to withdraw from the Treaty. However, Allies are urging Russia to use the time before its withdrawal takes effect to reconsider its decision and return to full compliance with the Open Skies Treaty.

    UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects

    The proliferation of small arms and light weapons (SALW) not only feeds global terrorist activities, but also encourages violence, thus affecting local populations and preventing constructive development and economic activities.

    SALW proliferation needs to be addressed as broadly as possible and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) is a well-suited framework for that. The NATO/EAPC Ad Hoc Working Group on SALW and Mine Action contributes to international efforts to address the illicit trade in SALW and encourages full implementation of international regulations and standards, including the United Nations Programme of Action (UN PoA).

    The UN PoA was adopted in July 2001 by nearly 150 countries, including all NATO member countries, and contains concrete recommendations for improving national legislation and controls over illicit small arms, fostering regional cooperation and promoting international assistance and cooperation on the issue.  It was developed and agreed as a result of the growing realisation that most present-day conflicts are fought with illicit small arms and light weapons, and that their widespread availability has a negative impact on international peace and security, facilitates violations of international humanitarian law and human rights, and hampers economic and social development. It includes measures at the national, regional and global levels, in the areas of legislation, destruction of weapons that were confiscated, seized, or collected, as well as international cooperation and assistance to strengthen the ability of states in identifying and tracing illicit arms and light weapons. The UN holds the Biennial Meeting of States to Consider the Implementation of the PoA, in which NATO participates. National delegations from all member states gather every six years to review the progress made in the implementation of the PoA.

    Mine action

    Although not all member states of the Alliance are a party to the Ottawa Convention on anti-personnel mines, they all fully support its humanitarian demining goals.

    The Alliance assists partner countries in the destruction of surplus stocks of mines, arms and munitions through a NATO/Partnership Trust Fund mechanism.

    The EAPC Ad Hoc Working Group on SALW and Mine Action also supports mine action efforts through these Trust Fund projects, as well as through information-sharing. In particular, its guest speaker programme provides an opportunity for mine action experts to share their expertise with the Working Group. These speakers originate from national mine action centres, non-governmental organisations and international organisations and have included high-profile experts, such as Nobel Laureate Ms Jody Williams, Director of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. The Group has broadened its focus to also incorporate issues related to explosive remnants of war and cluster munitions onto its agenda.

    Convention on Cluster Munitions

    The Convention on Cluster Munitions prohibits all use, stockpiling, production and transfer of cluster munitions. Separate articles in the Convention concern assistance to victims, clearance of contaminated areas and destruction of stockpiles. It became a legally binding international instrument when it entered into force on 1 August 2010. So far, a total of 123 states have joined the Convention.

    Arms Trade Treaty

    In July 2012, UN member states gathered in New York to negotiate an arms trade treaty that would establish high common standards for international trade in conventional arms. After two years of negotiations, the Conference reached an agreement on a treaty text. Governments signed the treaty and after ratification of 50 states it came into force in December 2014. Since then, over 100 states have ratified the treaty. It establishes common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms. NATO stands ready to support the Arms Trade Treaty as necessary.

    Trust Fund projects

    The Partnership for Peace Trust Fund mechanism was originally established in 2000 to assist partner countries with the safe destruction of stocks of anti-personnel land mines. It was later extended to include the destruction of surplus munitions, unexploded ordnance and SALW, and assisting partner countries in managing the consequences of defence reform, training and building integrity. So far, NATO has contributed to the destruction of 5.65 million anti-personnel landmines, 46,750 tonnes of various munitions, 642,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance, 2 million hand grenades, 16 million cluster sub-munitions, 97,300 surface-to-air missiles and rockets, 1,635 man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS), 3,530 tonnes of chemicals and 626,000 SALW, alongside 164.4 million rounds of SALW ammunition. To date, 4,120 hectares have been cleared.

    Over the years, NATO has trained thousands of explosive ordnance disposal experts, giving, for instance, assistance to more than 12,000 former military personnel through defence reform Trust Fund projects.

    Trust Fund projects are initiated by a NATO member or partner country and funded by voluntary contributions from individual Allies, partners and organisations. A web-based information-sharing platform allows donors and recipient countries to share information about ongoing and potential projects.

  • NATO bodies involved in conventional arms control

    There are a number of NATO bodies that provide a forum to discuss and take forward arms control issues. Arms control policy is determined within the deliberations of the High-Level Task Force (HLTF) on Conventional Arms Control that was established for CFE and confidence- and security-building measures (CSBMs). 

    Implementation and verification of arms control agreements fall under the purview of the Verification Coordinating Committee (VCC), including overseeing a designated CFE verification database.

    Other fora include the Partnerships and Cooperative Security Committee (PCSC) and the EAPC Ad Hoc Working Group on SALW and Mine Action, in which implementing organisations like the UN, the European Union, the OSCE, the South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of SALW – or SEESAC – and the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) can share information on projects.

    The NATO-Russia Council (NRC) also has a working group for Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. However, work of the NRC has been suspended since spring 2014 due to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

    The NATO School in Oberammergau (Germany) conducts several courses in the fields of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. They are related to CFE, VDOC, Open Skies, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), SALW and Mine Action. Most of them are also open to NATO’s partners.