When a NATO operation or mission is deemed necessary, NATO member and partner countries voluntarily provide the personnel, equipment and resources required for the task. These national contributions operate under the NATO Command Structure.
- As an alliance of 31 sovereign countries, NATO relies on the military forces of its member countries to carry out an operation or mission, as it does not possess military forces of its own.
- Personnel serving in a NATO operation are referred to as “NATO forces”, but are actually multinational forces from NATO countries and, in some cases, partner or other troop-contributing countries.
- “Force generation” is the process by which Allies and potentially partner countries resource the personnel and equipment needed to carry out North Atlantic Council-approved operations and missions.
- National capitals take the final decision on whether or not to contribute to a NATO-led operation or mission.
- Allied Command Operations (ACO), commanded by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), is responsible for executing all NATO operations and missions, and the Deputy SACEUR coordinates troop contributions.
Obtaining troop contributions
When the North Atlantic Council consents to an operation or mission, NATO’s military authorities draft a concept of operations (CONOPS), which outlines the minimum military requirements that are needed. Force generation is the process in which those required resources are obtained from Allies (and in some cases partners) to provide the Operational Commander with the necessary capabilities at the right scale and readiness to accomplish the task. Force generation applies to all current NATO-led operations and missions.
The force generation process
The force generation process follows a standard procedure and is handled by the Allied Command Operations (ACO) Force Generation Branch and National Military Representatives (NMRs). For a given operation or mission, the Operational Commander outlines requirements in terms of equipment, staff and resources (referred to as the Combined Joint Statement of Requirements) to ACO. It is then passed to NATO member countries and, in some cases, partner countries. While the Force Generation Branch at ACO is responsible for resourcing the required capabilities, the final decision on contributions is taken by national capitals.
At the subsequent Force Generation Conference, NATO and partner countries then make formal offers of personnel and equipment to support the operation or mission. Since 2003, a Global Force Generation Conference has been held as required to discuss all NATO-led operations and missions.
These contributions may be subject to some national limitations (known as “caveats”) such as rules of engagement. These restrictions influence NATO’s operational planning. Therefore, the Alliance seeks national contributions with as few caveats as possible.
The force generation process is complete when nations reply with a Force Preparation (FORCEPREP) message, which provides the details of the national contributions as well as any caveats on the employment of forces.
Countries that provide leadership for an entire operation or mission, or take responsibility for central elements such as the land brigade in the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), are identified as “framework nations". They typically provide the command element and a significant part of the forces, and will coordinate with other Allies and partners to fill the remainder of the force required.
Although NATO as an alliance does own and maintain some specialised equipment (such as the Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system, the E-3A Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS) aircraft and strategic communications equipment), troop-contributing countries generally commit the equipment necessary to support their personnel in pursuit of operational objectives.
Coordinating troop contributions for non-NATO operations
Over the years, the Alliance has developed significant expertise in coordinating troop contributions for multinational operations and has offered this expertise in support of non-NATO operations.
Under the Berlin Plus agreement, the Alliance cooperates closely with the European Union (EU) in the resourcing of selected operations. When requested by the EU, NATO’s Deputy SACEUR and his staff provide support in coordinating member countries’ troop contributions. For example, the Deputy SACEUR is the operational commander for Operation Althea, the EU-led operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and is thus responsible for force generation.
NATO also provided force generation support to Germany and the Netherlands during their leadership of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in 2003 in Afghanistan, prior to its conversion into a NATO-led operation.
Force generation through time
For much of NATO’s history, the Alliance’s primary operational commitment was focused on the former border between East and West Germany. For over 40 years, NATO strategists spoke of medium- and long-term “force plans” because during that time the Alliance maintained static, “conventional” forces in the former West Germany, poised for an attack from the former Soviet Union. Beginning in 1986, conventional forces were reduced and bases of individual NATO countries in Germany were largely dismantled or converted to other uses after the Cold War.
NATO’s first major land expeditionary operation took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a result of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords. The NATO force generation process, which is still in use today, was developed during the NATO-led operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and later in Kosovo.
Transforming to meet operational needs
While the core procedures for contributing troops and equipment remain the same, the force generation process has been refined to reflect changes in the types of operations and missions that NATO conducts.
For example, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) established in Afghanistan under the NATO-led ISAF operation were comprised of a unique combination of military and civilian personnel who worked to extend the authority of the central Afghan government in remote areas, and to facilitate development and reconstruction. NATO was involved in generating forces for the military component of a PRT, while it was the responsibility of the contributing country to staff the civilian components. As a result, PRTs were a hybrid of personnel who fell under either NATO or national chains of command. Although PRTs were gradually phased out by the end of 2014 in agreement with the Afghan authorities, they illustrated the need for flexibility in force generation processes in order to achieve operational objectives.
Today, NATO military planners are looking beyond immediate needs, allowing both the Alliance and troop-contributing countries to plan their resources better. The goal is to understand the relationships at play in order to achieve fair and realistic burden-sharing during NATO-led operations and missions.
The new NATO Force Model
The Allies agreed a new NATO Force Model at the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid. The Model aims to have more high-readiness forces available to NATO across all operational domains. Furthermore, it seeks to ensure that these forces are better organised, more responsive and better linked to member countries, in order to harness Allied military capabilities more effectively and support the Alliance’s political and military strategic aims.