NATO’s role in conventional arms control

  • Last updated: 22 Jun. 2018 13:35

NATO attaches great importance to conventional arms control and 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 selective implementation of the Vienna Document and Open Skies Treaty and long-standing non-implementation of the CFE Treaty have eroded the positive contributions of these arms control instruments. Allies have called on Russia to fully adhere to all its arms control commitments.
  • 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 ratify 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 has undermined peace, security and stability across the region, and its selective implementation of the Vienna Document and Open Skies Treaty and long-standing non-implementation of the CFE Treaty have 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 (VD), 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 VD, thousands of inspections and evaluation visits have been conducted as well as airbase visits and visits to military facilities; also new types of armament and equipment have been demonstrated to the participating states of the VD. With an aim to reflect the contemporary security policy environment, an updated version of the VD was approved by the OSCE in December 2016.

    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 1,100 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. However, these have to undergo a certification process, as foreseen by 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 n