NATO’s capabilities

  • Last updated: 19 Jun. 2020 12:01

NATO’s modern defence posture is based on an effective combination of two key pillars: cutting-edge weapons systems and platforms, and forces trained to work together seamlessly. As such, investing in the right capabilities is an essential part of investing in defence. NATO plays an important role in assessing what capabilities the Alliance needs; setting goals for national or collective development of capabilities; and facilitating national, multinational and collective capability development and innovation.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visiting the AGS Global Hawk display



  • The Strategic Concept identifies collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security as NATO’s core tasks. Deterrence based on an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and ballistic missile defence capabilities, remains a core element of NATO’s overall strategy.
  • Allies have agreed to develop and maintain the full range of capabilities necessary to deter and defend against potential adversaries, using multinational approaches and innovative solutions where appropriate. The NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP) is the primary means to identify and prioritise the capabilities required for full-spectrum operations, and to promote their development and delivery.
  • Developing and procuring capabilities through multinational cooperation helps generate economies of scale, reduces costs, and delivers interoperability by design. NATO actively supports Allies in the identification, launch and implementation of multinational cooperation.
  • To acquire vital capabilities, the Alliance must work closely with industry; build a stronger defence industry among Allies; foster greater industrial and technological cooperation across the Atlantic and within Europe; and maintain a robust industrial base throughout Europe and North America.
  • Current objectives

    As outlined in the 2010 Strategic Concept, Alliance leaders are committed to ensuring that NATO has the full range of capabilities necessary to deter and defend against any threat to the safety and security of Allies’ populations and territories. Therefore, the Alliance will:

    • maintain an appropriate mix of nuclear, missile defence and conventional forces;
    • maintain the ability to sustain concurrent major joint operations and several smaller operations for collective defence and crisis response, including at strategic distance;
    • develop and maintain robust, mobile and deployable conventional forces to carry out both its Article 5 responsibilities and expeditionary operations, including with the NATO Response Force;
    • carry out the necessary training, exercises, contingency planning and information exchange for assuring its defence against the full range of conventional and emerging security challenges, and provide appropriate visible assurance and reinforcement for all Allies;
    • ensure the broadest possible participation of Allies in collective defence planning on nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces, and in consultation, command and control (C3) arrangements;
    • develop the capability to defend NATO European populations, territories and forces against ballistic missile attack as a core element of its collective defence;
    • further develop its capacity to defend against the threat of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons;
    • further develop its ability to prevent, detect, defend against and recover from cyber attacks by using the NATO planning process to enhance and coordinate national cyber defence capabilities, by bringing all NATO bodies under centralised cyber protection, and by integrating NATO cyber awareness, warning and response capabilities with member countries;
    • enhance collective capacity to contribute to the fight against terrorism, including through improved threat analysis, consultations with partners, and the development of appropriate military capabilities – including helping to train partner forces to fight terrorism themselves;
    • ensure that NATO assesses the security impact of emerging technologies for inclusion in military planning;
    • continue to review its overall posture in deterring and defending against the full range of threats to the Alliance, taking into account changes to the evolving international security environment.
  • Meeting immediate and long-term challenges

    The Allies provided political guidance in 2015 that further refined the overarching aims and objectives of the 2010 Strategic Concept. This guidance established expectations for what the Alliance should be able to do in broad quantitative and qualitative terms, especially in the prevailing geo-strategic security environment. By setting related priorities, this guidance mandates the delivery of the required capabilities through the NATO Defence Planning Process. It will be reviewed in 2019.

    NATO Defence Planning Process

    The NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP) aims to harmonise national and Alliance defence planning activities. It details how the aims and objectives of the Alliance, as set out in the political guidance, are to be met. By setting targets for implementation by Allies, either individually or collectively, it guides national, multinational and collective capability development and delivery.

    By participating in the NDPP, Allies can harmonise their national defence plans with those of NATO without compromising their national sovereignty. This helps Allies identify, develop and deliver a fair share of the overall forces and capabilities needed for the Alliance to be able to undertake its full range of missions.

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    NATO Response Force

    The NATO Response Force (NRF) is a technologically advanced, multinational force made up of land, air, maritime and Special Operations Forces (SOF) components that the Alliance can deploy quickly to wherever it is needed. It 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. In light of the changing security environment to the east and south of Alliance borders, Allies decided to enhance the NRF by both enlarging it and creating a spearhead force within it. Known as the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), this spearhead force is able to begin deployment at very short notice, particularly on the periphery of NATO’s territory.

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  • Critical long-term enabling capabilities

    Information superiority helps commanders in the battlespace make the best decisions, creating the circumstances for success at lower risk and greater speed. NATO will therefore continue to develop and acquire a range of networked information systems (Automated Information Systems) that support NATO’s Strategic Commands. These systems cover a number of domains – including land, air, maritime, intelligence and logistics – with a view to enabling more informed and effective holistic oversight, decision-making and command and control.

    Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance

    The Alliance has long recognised the fundamental importance of Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (JISR) to its strategic preparedness and to the success of its operations and missions. The aim of this capability is to support the coordinated collection, processing and sharing within NATO of ISR material gathered by the future Alliance Ground Surveillance system (AGS), the current NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (NAEW&C Force) and Allies’ own ISR assets.

    In early 2016, NATO defence ministers declared an initial operational JISR capability centred on enhancing the situational awareness of NATO’s highest readiness forces. This initial operational capability was only the first milestone for the overall JISR initiative. Further work is ongoing to sustain these achievements and expand their scope, indeed the follow programme to the initial operational capability has just been completed in June 2018. Through incremental upgrades, NATO aims to have an enduring JISR capability to strengthen the Alliance’s 360 degree awareness.

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    Alliance Ground Surveillance

    The Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) programme represents an excellent example of transatlantic cooperation, thanks to the multinational industrial cooperation on which the programme has been founded. The AGS system is an essential enabling capability for forces across the full spectrum of NATO’s current and future operations and missions. Using advanced radar sensors, it will be able to continuously detect and track moving objects (such as tanks, trucks or helicopters that are moving on or near the ground) in all weather conditions and provide radar imagery of areas of interest on the ground and at sea.

    As such, AGS will complement the NATO Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), which already monitors Alliance airspace. The AGS Core will be an integrated system consisting of air, ground and support segments. The air segment includes five unmanned aircraft and is expected to be operational in the 2019/2020 timeframe.

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    NATO Airborne Warning & Control System

    As one of the most visible and tangible examples of what cooperation between Allies can achieve, the NATO Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS) provides NATO-owned and operated airborne command and control, air and maritime surveillance, and battlespace management capability. An iconic capability, AWACS has continuously proven itself a critical asset over Libya and Afghanistan, and most recently safeguarding the Alliance’s eastern perimeter and providing support to the Global Coalition forces in their fight against ISIS.

    AWACS aircraft will continue to be modernised and extended in service until 2035. The modernisation of NATO’s AWACS fleet is vital to ensuring the security of all Allies and will strengthen the Alliance’s awareness and capacity for strategic anticipation.

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    Alliance Future Surveillance and Control capability

    At the Warsaw Summit in 2016, NATO leaders launched the Alliance Future Surveillance and Control (AFSC) initiative in order to determine how NATO will maintain its situational awareness and command Allied forces after the retirement of NATO AWACS in 2035. NATO is now moving forward to redefine its means for surveillance and control in the future.

    In cooperation with Allied experts from a range of communities and backgrounds – including military, industry, and science and technology – NATO is launching studies to evaluate new technologies. These studies will inform decisions by NATO, individual Allies or multinational groups to develop and acquire new systems in the future. These solutions could include combinations of interconnected air, ground, space or unmanned systems to collect and share information.

    Ballistic Missile Defence

    In the context of a broader response to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, NATO continues to develop Ballistic Missile Defence . Originally, this programme was launched in 2005 to protect deployed Allied forces against ballistic missile threats with ranges up to 3,000 kilometres. At the Lisbon Summit in 2010, NATO’s leaders decided to expand its scope to also protect NATO European civilian populations and territory. During the 2016 Warsaw Summit, Allies officially declared initial operational capability of NATO BMD, which offers a stronger capability to defend Alliance civilian populations, territory and forces across southern NATO Europe against a ballistic missile attack. The ultimate aim of NATO BMD is to achieve the full operational capability providing coverage and protection to all NATO Europe.

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    Air command and control

    NATO is implementing a fully interoperable Air Command and Control System (ACCS). This system will provide a fully integrated set of tools to support the conduct of all air operations in both real-time and non-real-time environments. The system is composed of static and deployable elements with equipment that will be used within the NATO Command Structure and by individual Allies. With the further inclusion of command and control functionality for Ballistic Missile Defence, ACCS will provide a fully integrated system for air and missile defence. At present, ACCS is scheduled to be fully fielded in the 2021-2024 timeframe. Ultimately, ACCS will make available the capability to plan, direct, task, coordinate, supervise, assess and report on the operation of all allocated air assets in peace, crisis and conflict situations.

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    Federated Mission Networking

    Federated Mission Networking (FMN) is a key contribution to the Connected Forces Initiative (CFI), helping Allied and partner forces to better communicate, train and operate together. The program aims to support command and control, as well as decision-making in future operations, by enabling improved information-sharing through common standards, protocols and procedures.

    FMN is based on the lessons learned from the Afghanistan Mission Network (AMN) – particularly the need for harmonised operational processes and scalable supporting systems for all future coalition missions. The objectives of FMN are to ensure consultation, command and control (C3), interoperability and readiness. FMN will underpin the Alliance’s ability to connect its information systems and operate effectively, including together with partners, on training, exercises and operations.

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    Cyber defence

    Cyber threats and attacks are becoming more common, sophisticated and damaging. The Alliance is faced with an evolving, complex threat environment.   NATO and its Allies rely on strong and resilient cyber defences to fulfil the Alliance’s core tasks of collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security. NATO needs to be prepared to defend its networks and operational capabilities against the growing sophistication of the cyber threats and attacks it faces.

    NATO’s main focus in cyber defence is to protect its own networks (including operations and missions) and to enhance resilience across the Alliance.

    At the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales, Allies recognised that international law applies in cyberspace, and that the impact of cyber-attacks could be as harmful to our societies as a conventional attack. As a result, cyber defence was recognised a part of NATO’s core task of collective defence.

    At the 2016 Warsaw Summit, Allies reaffirmed NATO’s defensive mandate and recognised cyberspace as a domain of operations in which NATO must defend itself as effectively as it does in the air, on land and at sea. Allies also pledged to strengthen and enhance the cyber defences of their national infrastructures and networks. The Cyber Defence Pledge aims to ensure that the Alliance keeps pace with the fast-evolving cyber threat landscape and that Allies are capable of defending themselves in cyberspace. 

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    Logistics planning is an integral part of NATO’s defence planning process. In concrete terms, logistics planning is done through the force planning process and Partnership for Peace (PfP) Planning and Review Process (PARP). In consultation with participating countries, Strategic Commanders identify the logistic capabilities needed to deploy, sustain and redeploy Alliance forces.

    Logistic capabilities can be called upon by NATO commanders as part of the operational planning process to be used in a NATO-led operation. National and NATO logistic plans must ensure that logistic resources of sufficient quantity and quality are available at the same readiness and deployability levels to support forces as needed.

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  • Delivering capabilities through multinational cooperation

    NATO began to adapt its defensive posture in 2014 in response to the major changes in the security environment. Allies agreed at the 2016 Warsaw Summit to further strengthen the Alliance’s deterrence and defence posture in order to better protect their citizens, territories and forces and to enhance NATO’s efforts to project stability in its neighbourhood.

    Multinational approaches

    Many of the capabilities required to address today’s challenges can be very expensive when pursued by countries individually. Multinational approaches to capability delivery not only distribute the costs but can also generate economies of scale. For NATO, multinational cooperation remains an important means of delivering the capabilities that Allies need. Developing greater European military capabilities through multinational cooperation will continue to strengthen the transatlantic link, enhance the security of all Allies and foster an equitable sharing of the burdens, benefits and responsibilities of Alliance membership. In this context, NATO works closely with the European Union to ensure complementarity of efforts. Allies also contribute to maintaining a strong defence industry in Europe by making the fullest possible use of defence industrial cooperation across the Alliance.

    Framework Nations Concept

    In June 2014, NATO defence ministers agreed the Framework Nations Concept, which sees groups of countries coming together for two purposes. Firstly, the FNC aims to maintain current capabilities and to act as a foundation for the coherent development of new capabilities in the medium to long term. This builds on the notion of multinational development of capabilities. Secondly, the Framework Nations Concept reinforces engagement between nations as a mechanism for collective training and exercises in order to prepare groupings of forces. For example, those Allies that maintain a broad spectrum of capabilities provide a framework for other Allies to “plug” into.

    Strategic and intra-theatre lift capabilities

    Strategic and intra-theatre lift capabilities are a key enabler for operations and allow forces and equipment to be deployed quickly to wherever they are needed. While there is significant procurement nationally, many Allies have pooled resources, including with partner countries, to acquire new capacities for additional transport to swiftly move troops, equipment and supplies across the globe.

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    Air-to-air refuelling (AAR) tankers are a critical enabler for the projection of air power. In coalition operations AAR tankers are a pooled asset, which means that interoperability is essential. The modernisation of AAR tankers in Europe has been achieved through a multinational programme that will lead to a fleet of multi-role tanker transport to be delivered in the 2020-24 timeframe. Through close cooperation with the European Defence Agency and the Joint Air Power Competence Centre (a NATO Centre of Excellence located in Germany), NATO continues to develop the interoperability and training required to enable this capability.

    Provision of precision munitions

    The supply of sufficient inventories of precision munitions is necessary for enabling NATO operations. Groups of Allies have established frameworks in the air, land and maritime domains for aggregating their individual requirements. These efforts will enable them to achieve lower acquisition cost and save money by pursuing multinational warehousing solutions for storage. At the same time, technical and legal hurdles for sharing and exchanging munitions are being reduced, giving participating Allies greater flexibility for managing their munitions stockpiles. In the long run, Allies aim to further harmonise their munitions inventories to enable them to operate seamlessly and effectively together.

    Special Operations Forces

    Special Operations Forces are an important and highly versatile tool in NATO’s deterrence and defence toolbox. NATO recognised their importance with the establishment of its Special Operations Headquarters in Mons, Belgium in 2010. The increasingly multinational nature of their operations makes cooperation in this area particularly compelling. Within this context, several Allies have initiated a series of efforts to create deployable multinational command and control elements and to cooperate on the creation of aviation units for employing Special Operations Forces in NATO missions.

    Anti-submarine warfare

    Modern submarines constitute one of the most demanding challenges to the Alliance in the maritime domain. Delivering the right capabilities will be critical in order to adequately protect NATO assets and ensure freedom of navigation and a NATO Future ASW Vision has been developed. Groups of Allies have started to cooperate on various approaches – including the development of Maritime Multi Mission Aircraft capabilities the fielding of Maritime Unmanned Systems and networking underwater assets via digital communication – to increase their maritime situational awareness and ensure that they can effectively respond to threats in this area.

  • Supporting national capability development efforts

    The overwhelming majority of military capabilities available for NATO operations are provided by NATO members. While national capability development is a sovereign responsibility, NATO plays an important supporting role in facilitating national capability development and delivery. In accordance with the NATO Defence Planning Process, which aims to harmonise national and Alliance defence planning activities, there are a number of national capability development efforts undertaken with the strong leadership and support of NATO bodies and agencies..

    Countering improvised explosive devices

    As seen in Afghanistan and elsewhere, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have proven to be the weapon of choice for non-conventional adversarial forces. NATO must be prepared to counter IEDs in any land or maritime operation involving asymmetrical threats, in which force protection will remain a paramount priority.

    Institutionalising counter-IED lessons learned across the last two decades of operations, NATO’s ambitious Counter-IED Action Plan has increased its focus on capabilities for attacking threat networks behind these destructive devices. Although developed in the counter-IED context, such capabilities can also contribute to counter-piracy, counter-proliferation and counter-terrorism operations.

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    21st century ground-based air defence

    Modern air defence systems must be able to respond to a wide range of airborne threats, from hypersonic cruise missiles and fifth-generation fighters to threats from low-altitude, small-size and low-speed unmanned aerial vehicles as well as from rockets, artillery and mortar systems. NATO’s 21st century ground-based air defence initiative aims to harmonise national requirements and industrial capacity to respond to the current and next generation of air threats. Multinational cooperation in science and technology, procurement and increased industry engagement is critical to the initiative’s success.

    Dismounted soldier systems

    In NATO operations, all individuals deployed in the field – regardless of whether they are soldiers, marines, sailors or airmen/airwomen – are equipped with the appropriate gear to successfully carry out their missions. In order to maximise battlefield effectiveness and survivability, it is essential that everything soldiers are wearing, carrying and consuming is safe, interoperable and reliable. As such, the aim of dismounted soldier systems is the standardization and harmonisation of individual combat and support equipment for NATO and partner nations.

    Deployable Air Base Concept

    The NATO Deployable Air Base (NDAB) concept provides NATO with the capability to deliver a deployed air base, which in the worst-case scenario would be built up from a bare-base airfield. The NDAB is designed to support military operations 24/7 in all weathers. With the addition of Deployable Air Traffic services the NDAB could also be available for use by civil air traffic.

    Digital acoustic underwater networks

    Aimed at enhancing anti-submarine warfare capabilities, NATO has developed the first-ever standard for digital underwater acoustic communications. Based upon the JANUS protocol, this standard is a key enabler for interoperability of maritime underwater systems. The advanced capability provides NATO maritime forces with a key technological edge as part of its efforts to improve maritime engagement capabilities across the Alliance.

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    Modular ship design

    Modular ship design specifications are innovative implementations in shipbuilding that expand the range of achievable missions, extend the lifespan of maritime platforms and enable reduced fleet sizes without impacting operational capacity. They also promote interoperability between Allied maritime forces as NATO works to improve overall maritime engagement capabilities. Allied navies are cooperating on the development and implementation of standards to enable a ‘plug-and-play’ concept that will allow ship combat and support systems to be optimised to each specific mission and share capabilities, with only minimal disruption to readiness and availability. Modular ship design principles are expected to be implemented on all next-generation Allied surface vessels.

  • Other initiatives

    Maritime security

    Alliance maritime capabilities have an enduring value and provide an important cross-cutting contribution to Alliance security. In January 2011, NATO adopted the Alliance Maritime Strategy. Consistent with the 2010 Strategic Concept, the Strategy sets out ways in which NATO's unique maritime power can be used to address critical security challenges and play a key role in deterrence and collective defence, crisis management, cooperative security and maritime security. In the current security context, the Alliance’s naval forces provide essential contributions to maritime situational awareness, assurance measures and current operations.

    The Alliance continues to implement its maritime strategy through capability development, an enhanced programme of maritime exercises and training, and the enhancement of cooperation with non-NATO partners, including other international organisations such as the European Union. NATO's naval forces contribute to helping address numerous security challenges, including NATO’s maritime role in the Mediterranean through Operation Sea Guardian (a broader non-Article 5 maritime security operation) as well as NATO’s activity in the Aegean Sea.

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    Total system approach to aviation

    The Alliance will continue to develop its capabilities to ensure appropriate access to airspace by addressing all aspects related to aviation – including air traffic management, aeronautical technologies, airfield capabilities, manned aircraft and remotely piloted air systems, airworthiness, licensing and training – in the context of global aviation developments in the civil and military domain. The success of Alliance air missions depends on a combination of technical, organisational, procedural and human factors – all working seamlessly towards the mitigation of hazards and risks – ensuring safety and security in order to strengthen support for training, exercises and operations in the air domain.

    Engagement with industry

    The majority of capabilities are produced, maintained and repaired, modernised and adapted, and retired by industry. Allies recognised the relevance of engaging closer, and earlier in the capability development process, with the defence and security industry. Allies also recognise the need to maintain a strong defence industrial base in Europe and across the Atlantic, including through small- and medium-sized enterprises. New challenges are dealt with through innovative capabilities. A sustainable, innovative and globally competitive industry is therefore critical to the Alliance’s success.

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