NATO Response Force
The NATO Response Force (NRF) is a highly ready and technologically advanced multinational force made up of land, air, maritime and Special Operations Forces (SOF) components that the Alliance can deploy quickly, wherever needed. In addition to its operational role, the NRF can be used for greater cooperation in education and training, increased exercises, support for disaster relief and better use of technology.
Czech soldiers from the 43rd Airborne Battalion, 2nd Company load onto a CASA C-295 aircraft during Exercise Noble Jump at the Pardubice Airfield, Czech Republic. (NATO Photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Davis, United States Air Force)
- The NRF consists of a highly capable joint multinational force able to react in a very short time to the full range of security challenges from crisis management to collective defence.
- NATO Allies decided to enhance the NRF in 2014 by creating a “spearhead force” within it, known as the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF).
- This enhanced NRF is one of the measures of the Readiness Action Plan (RAP), which aims to respond to the changes in the security environment and strengthen the Alliance’s collective defence.
- Overall command of the NRF belongs to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR).
- In response to Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, NATO deployed high-readiness elements of the NRF for the first time in a deterrence and defence role. Allies have placed thousands of additional troops – along with armoured vehicles, artillery units, ships and aircraft – at high readiness earmarked for the NRF, ensuring that it continues to have the speed, responsiveness and capability to defend NATO territory and populations.
The NRF has the overarching purpose of being able to provide a rapid military response to an emerging crisis, whether for collective defence purposes or for other crisis-response operations.
The NRF gives the Alliance the means to respond swiftly to various types of crises anywhere in the world. It is also a driving engine for NATO’s military transformation.
A rotational force
The NRF is based on a rotational system where Allied countries commit land, air, maritime or Special Operations Forces (SOF) units for a period of 12 months.
The NRF is also open to partner countries, once approved by the North Atlantic Council.
Participation in the NRF is preceded by national preparation, followed by training with other participants in the multinational force. As units rotate through the NRF, the associated high standards, concepts and technologies are gradually spread throughout the Alliance, thereby fulfilling one of the key purposes of the NATO Response Force – the further transformation of Allied forces.
Operational command of the NRF alternates annually between Allied Joint Force Commands in Brunssum, the Netherlands and Naples, Italy.
A powerful package
NATO Allies decided at the 2014 Wales Summit to enhance the NRF by creating a “spearhead force” within it, known as the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force or VJTF. This enhanced NRF is one of the measures of the Readiness Action Plan (RAP) agreed by Allies to respond to the changes in the security environment.
The enhanced NATO Response Force includes:
- a command and control element: Operational command of the NRF alternates between Allied Joint Force Commands in Brunssum and Naples;
- the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF): This NRF element – about 20,000 strong – includes a multinational land brigade of around 5,000 troops and air, maritime and SOF components. Leading elements are ready to move within two to three days. Allies assume the lead role for the VJTF on a rotational basis;
- the Initial Follow-On Forces Group (IFFG): These are high-readiness forces that can deploy quickly following the VJTF, in response to a crisis. They are made up of two multinational brigades;
- a maritime component: it is based on the Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMGs) and the Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Groups (SNMCMGs);
- a combat air and air-support component;
- Special Operations Forces; and
- a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defence task force.
Before use, the NRF will be tailored (adjusted in size and capability) to match the demands of any specific operation to which it is committed.
The VJTF and Initial Follow-on Forces are based in their home countries, but are able to deploy to wherever they are needed for exercises, crisis response or collective defence. The VJTF participated in its first deployment exercise in Poland in June 2015 and is regularly tested during exercises on its ability to deploy and respond to any arising crisis.
Leadership of the VJTF rotates on an annual basis, with one Ally designated as the lead country and other Allies participating.
Altogether, the enhanced NRF comprises around 40,000 troops.
Any mission, anywhere
The NRF provides a tangible demonstration of NATO’s cohesion and commitment to deterrence and collective defence. Each NRF rotation has to prepare itself for a wide range of tasks. These include contributing to the preservation of territorial integrity, making a demonstration of force, peace support operations, disaster relief, protecting critical infrastructure and security operations. Initial-entry operations are conducted jointly as part of a larger force to facilitate the arrival of follow-on troops.
Elements of the NRF helped protect the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, and were deployed to support the Afghan presidential elections in September of the same year.
The NRF has also been used in disaster relief.
- In September and October 2005, aircraft from the NRF delivered relief supplies donated by NATO member and partner countries to the United States to assist in dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
- From October 2005 to February 2006, elements of the NRF were used in the disaster relief effort in Pakistan, following the devastating 8 October earthquake. Aircraft from the NRF were used in an air bridge that delivered almost 3,500 tons of urgently needed supplies to Pakistan, while engineers and medical personnel from the NRF were deployed to the country to assist in the relief effort.
Elements of the NRF were activated in August 2021 to support the evacuation and relocation of Afghans who worked alongside NATO, together with their families. This response included the establishment of Task Force Noble, a task force coordinating hundreds of NRF troops from 20 Allied countries. These troops are supporting the evacuation in locations across Europe, including with transportation aircraft, construction equipment, ambulances, medical teams, civil affairs teams and security personnel.
In response to Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, NATO deployed high-readiness elements of the NRF for the first time in a deterrence and defence role. Allies have placed thousands of additional troops – along with armoured vehicles, artillery units, ships and aircraft – at high readiness earmarked for the NRF, ensuring that it continues to have the speed, responsiveness and capability to defend NATO territory and populations.
The NATO Response Force initiative was announced at the Prague Summit in November 2002.
In the words of General James Jones, then NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), "… NATO will no longer have the large, massed units that were necessary for the Cold War, but will have agile and capable forces at Graduated Readiness levels that will better prepare the Alliance to meet any threat that it is likely to face in this 21st century."
The NRF concept was approved by Allied Ministers of Defence in June 2003 in Brussels.
In October 2004, at an informal meeting of NATO Defence Ministers in Poiana Brasov, Romania, the NATO Secretary General and SACEUR formally announced that the NRF had reached its initial operational capability and was ready to take on the full range of missions.
In June 2006, the capabilities of the NRF were tested in a major live exercise, Steadfast Jaguar 06, in the Cape Verde Islands. The challenging location was specifically designed to demonstrate and prove the viability of the NRF concept.
At NATO's Riga Summit in November 2006, the NRF was declared fully ready to undertake operations.
The way that the NRF is generated and composed has been adjusted twice, in 2008 and 2010. This was to provide a more flexible approach to force generation, thereby facilitating force contributions, which were being hampered by the enduring high operational tempo arising from Afghanistan, Iraq and other missions. To further support force generation, Allies have set themselves voluntary national targets for force contributions.
On 21 February 2013, NATO Defence Ministers agreed that the NRF would be at the core of the Connected Forces Initiative in order to maintain NATO’s readiness and combat effectiveness.
At the Wales Summit in September 2014, Allies decided to enhance the NRF and to establish the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), which is able to deploy within a few days to respond to any challenges that may arise. Allies also agreed to hold a multinational, high-visibility exercise – “Trident Juncture 2015” – hosted by Italy, Portugal and Spain. In addition, a broader and more demanding exercise programme started in 2016, with the NRF as a key element in the exercises.
NATO Defence Ministers decided on 5 February 2015 that the VJTF would consist of a land component of around 5,000 troops with appropriate air, maritime and SOF units available. France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Türkiye and the United Kingdom agreed to assume lead roles for the VJTF on a rotational basis. Defence Ministers also agreed that the VJTF would be operationally capable by the 2016 Warsaw Summit – a goal that was met.
On 9 June 2015, the VJTF deployed for the first time in Poland during Exercise Noble Jump, where over 2,100 troops from nine NATO countries participated.
In June 2015, NATO Defence Ministers took decisions on air, maritime and SOF components of the enhanced NRF, agreeing that it could consist of up to 40,000 personnel. Ministers further took measures to speed up political and military decision-making, including authority for NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe to prepare troops for action as soon as a political decision is made. Allies also approved a new advance planning tool – Graduated Response Plans – enabling executable operations plans to be generated exceptionally quickly, commensurate with the readiness requirements of the forces. Ministers also agreed on the establishment of a new standing joint logistics support group headquarters within the NATO Command Structure.
In October 2015, NATO Defence Ministers gave their green light to the completed military concept for the enhanced NATO Response Force, including its command and control arrangements.
During Exercise Trident Juncture in late 2015, the VJTF was tested and certified for 2016. The exercise also certified the NRF headquarters for 2016, JFC Brunssum.
On 10 February 2016, NATO Defence Ministers declared initial operational capability (IOC) for NATO’s Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (JISR) initiative. This IOC is centred on enhancing the situational awareness of the NATO Response Force through heightened proficiency in collecting, processing and exchanging intelligence.
At the Warsaw Summit, on 9 July 2016, Allied leaders welcomed the implementation of the Readiness Action Plan (RAP) and, through its longer-term adaptation measures, the enhancement of the NRF and a new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), able to begin deployment within two to three days.
During Exercise Trident Juncture 18, held in Norway from 25 October to 7 November 2018, the VJTF was tested and the exercise certified a German brigade – the 9th Panzerlehrbrigade – for 2019. The exercise involved around 51,000 personnel from member and partner countries, including six army brigades and Marine ground forces supported by air, maritime and Special Operations Forces units. It mainly focused on NATO’s ability to move personnel and armour quickly across Europe.
During Exercise Noble Jump II 21 (19 May - 1 June 2021), land elements of the VJTF were deployed to Romania. Some 4,000 troops from 12 countries were involved. The Headquarters Multinational Division Southeast and the NATO Force Integration Unit facilitated this deployment. Furthermore, NATO’s major joint exercise Steadfast Defender 21 (20 May - 22 June) focused on the reinforcement of the VJTF across the Atlantic and throughout Europe.
In June 2021, Allied Leaders agreed to further strengthen and modernise the NATO Force Structure, which will include changes to the NRF.
In August 2021, elements of the NRF were activated to support the evacuation and relocation of Afghans who worked alongside NATO and their families.
In February 2022, in response to Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, NATO activated high-readiness elements of the NRF for the first time in a deterrence and defence role.
Also in February 2022, as part of the ongoing work to strengthen and modernise the NATO Force Structure, Allies agreed on a new force model. In June 2022, Allies agreed to implement the new force model. This work is ongoing, and the NRF will continue to be force-generated in parallel until the new force model is fully implemented.
In March and April 2022, elements of the NATO Response Force participated in exercise Cold Response 2022 in Norway, which brought together over 30,000 troops from 27 countries. The exercise tested the NRF’s ability to reinforce Norway and integrate with the armed forces of other Allies and partners to defend NATO territory.