Operations and missions: past and present
NATO is an active and leading contributor to peace and security on the international stage. It promotes democratic values and is committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes. However, if diplomatic efforts fail, it has the military capacity to undertake crisis management operations alone or in cooperation with other countries and international organisations.
- NATO is a crisis management organisation that has the capacity to undertake a wide range of military operations and missions.
- Just under 20,000 military personnel are engaged in NATO operations and missions around the world, managing often complex ground, air and naval operations in all types of environment; with the outbreak of COVID-19, NATO is ensuring that deployed personnel are protected from the ongoing pandemic.
- Currently, NATO is leading operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo and the Mediterranean.
- In 2018, NATO initiated a training mission in Iraq, which aims at developing the capacity of Iraq’s security forces, its defence and security institutions, and its national defence academies.
- NATO is also supporting the African Union and conducting air policing missions on the request of its Allies. Furthermore, NATO is assisting with the response to the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe and has Patriot missiles and AWACS aircraft deployed in Turkey.
- It also carries out disaster relief operations and missions to protect populations against natural, technological or humanitarian disasters.
- While neither an operation or mission as such, NATO is supporting civilian efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in member and partner countries by transporting medical personnel and critical supplies, helping with the construction of field hospitals, and providing support for local authorities where NATO troops are deployed.
- The tempo and diversity of operations and missions in which NATO is involved have increased since the early 1990s.
NATO in Afghanistan
NATO is currently leading Resolute Support, a non-combat mission which provides training, advice and assistance to Afghan security forces and institutions. Resolute Support was launched on 1 January 2015. It includes approximately 16,000 personnel from both NATO and partner countries and operates with one hub (in Kabul/Bagram) and four spokes in Mazar-e Sharif (northern Afghanistan), Herat (western Afghanistan), Kandahar (southern Afghanistan) and Laghman (eastern Afghanistan).
Key functions include: supporting planning, programming and budgeting; assuring transparency, accountability and oversight; supporting the adherence to the principles of rule of law and good governance; supporting the establishment and sustainment of processes such as force generation, recruiting, training, managing and development of personnel.
The legal basis of the Resolute Support Mission rests on a formal invitation from the Afghan Government and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between NATO and Afghanistan, which governs the presence of Allied troops. Resolute Support is also supported by the international community at large. This is reflected in United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 2189, unanimously adopted on 12 December 2014. This resolution welcomes the new Resolute Support Mission and underscores the importance of continued international support for the stability of Afghanistan.
Resolute Support is a follow-on mission to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). ISAF was under NATO leadership from August 2003 to December 2014. It was established under a request for assistance by the Afghan authorities and by a UN mandate in 2001 to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists. In addition, ISAF was tasked to develop new Afghan security forces and enable Afghan authorities to provide effective security across the country in order to create an environment conducive to the functioning of democratic institutions and the establishment of the rule of law.
The mission in Afghanistan constitutes the Alliance's most significant operational commitment to date. Moreover, beyond Resolute Support and ISAF, Allies and partners countries are committed to the broader international community's support for the long-term financial sustainment of the Afghan security forces. NATO leaders have also reaffirmed their commitment to an enduring partnership between NATO and Afghanistan, by strengthening political consultations and practical cooperation within the framework of the NATO-Afghanistan Enduring Partnership signed in 2010.
NATO in Kosovo
While Afghanistan remains NATO's primary operational theatre, the Alliance has not faltered on its other commitments, particularly in the Balkans. Today, approximately 3,500 Allied and partner troops operate in Kosovo as part of NATO's Kosovo Force (KFOR).
Having first entered Kosovo in June 1999 to end widespread violence and halt the humanitarian disaster that was unfolding, KFOR troops continue to maintain a strong presence throughout the territory.
Following Kosovo's declaration of independence in February 2008, NATO agreed it would continue to maintain its presence on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 1244. It has since helped to create a professional and multi-ethnic Kosovo Security Force, which is a lightly armed force responsible for security tasks that are not appropriate for the police. Meanwhile, NATO strongly supports the European Union-sponsored Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. The normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo is key to solving the political deadlock over northern Kosovo.
Securing the Mediterranean Sea
NATO operations are not limited only to zones of conflict. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, NATO immediately began to take measures to expand the options available to counter the threat of international terrorism. In October 2001, it launched the maritime surveillance Operation Active Endeavour, focused on detecting and deterring terrorist activity in the Mediterranean. The operation was terminated in October 2016 and was succeeded by Sea Guardian, a flexible maritime operation able to perform the full range of maritime security operations tasks.
Sea Guardian is currently performing three tasks in the Mediterranean Sea: maritime situational awareness, counter-terrorism at sea and support to capacity-building. If decided by Allies, it could also perform other tasks such as upholding freedom of navigation, conducting interdiction tasks and protecting critical infrastructure. More generally speaking, it is helping to maintain a secure and safe maritime environment while supporting the Alliance's three core tasks: collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security.
Training mission in Iraq
The "NATO Mission Iraq" was formally launched at the Brussels Summit in July 2018, at the request of the Iraqi government and in coordination with the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. It is a non-combat training and capacity-building mission that involves several hundred NATO trainers. The trainers are helping Iraqi forces secure their country and the wider region against terrorism, and prevent the re-emergence of ISIS. Training focuses on areas such as countering improvised explosive devices (IEDs), civil-military planning, armoured vehicles maintenance and military medicine; it is also helping Iraqi instructors to build more sustainable, transparent and inclusive national security structures and institutions to strengthen Iraqi military institutions.
From 2004 to 2011, NATO conducted a relatively small but important support operation in Iraq that consisted of training, mentoring and assisting the Iraqi Security Forces. It was known as the NATO Training Mission in Iraq (NTM-I).
Supporting the African Union
Well beyond the Euro-Atlantic region, the Alliance continues to support the African Union (AU) in its peacekeeping missions on the African continent.
Since June 2007, NATO has assisted the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) by providing air- and sealift support for AU peacekeepers following renewed AU requests. NATO is also providing capacity-building support, as well as expert training support to the African Standby Force (ASF), at the AU's request. The ASF is intended to be deployed in Africa in times of crisis and is part of the AU's efforts to develop long-term peacekeeping capabilities. ASF represents the AU's vision for a continental, on-call security apparatus with some similarities to the NATO Response Force.
Since Russia's illegal military intervention in Ukraine in 2014, NATO has been taking extra reassurance measures for its Allies. Among these is the boosting of NATO's air policing missions.
Air policing missions are collective peacetime missions that enable NATO to detect, track and identify all violations and infringements of its airspace and to take appropriate action. Allied fighter jets patrol the airspace of Allies who do not have fighter jets of their own. NATO has deployed additional aircraft to reinforce missions over Albania, Montenegro and Slovenia, as well as the Baltic region, where NATO F-16s have intercepted Russian aircraft repeatedly violating Allied airspace.
This air policing capability is one of three NATO standing forces on active duty that contribute to the Alliance's collective defence efforts on a permanent basis. They also include NATO's standing maritime forces, which are ready to act when called upon, as well as an integrated air defence system to protect against air attacks, which also comprises the Alliance's ballistic missile defence system.
Counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the Horn of Africa
Responding to a request from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, NATO naval forces provided escorts to UN World Food Programme (WFP) vessels transiting through the dangerous waters in the Gulf of Aden, where growing piracy threatened to undermine international humanitarian efforts in Africa. The NATO-led Operation Allied Provider was conducted from October to December 2008 and involved counter-piracy activities off the coast of Somalia.
Concurrently, in response to an urgent request from the African Union (AU), these same NATO naval forces escorted a vessel chartered by the AU carrying equipment for the Burundi contingent deployed to the AU Mission in Somalia.
From March to August 2009, NATO ran Operation Allied Protector, a counter-piracy operation, to improve the safety of commercial maritime routes and international navigation off the Horn of Africa. The force conducted surveillance tasks and provided protection to deter and suppress piracy and armed robbery, which are threatening sea lines of communication and economic interests.
Building on previous counter-piracy missions conducted by NATO, Operation Ocean Shield focused on at-sea counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa. Approved on 17 August 2009 by the North Atlantic Council, this operation contributed to international efforts to combat piracy in the area. It also offered, to regional states that requested it, assistance in developing their own capacity to combat piracy activities. There were no successful piracy attacks from May 2012 onwards, but even though Somalia-based piracy was suppressed, it had not been eliminated. During the periods without surface ships, maritime patrol aircraft continued to fly sorties, and links to situational awareness systems and counter-piracy partners remained in place. In this effort, the NATO Shipping Centre played a key role. Ocean Shield was terminated on 15 December 2016 after having achieved its objectives.
Operation Active Endeavour
Operation Active Endeavour (OAE) was initiated in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to deter, defend, disrupt and protect against terrorist activity in the Mediterranean. It helped to secure one of the busiest trade routes in the world and was among eight initiatives launched by the Alliance in 2001, in solidarity with the United States. It was an Article 5 operation, i.e., a collective defence operation that, initially only involved NATO member countries until it started accepting non-NATO countries’ participation in 2004.
OAE hailed merchant vessels and boarded suspect ships, intervened to rescue civilians on stricken oil rigs and sinking ships and, generally, helped to improve perceptions of security. NATO ships also systematically carried out preparatory route surveys in “choke” points, as well as in important passages and harbours throughout the Mediterranean.
2010 was a turning point for OAE, when it shifted from a platform-based to a network-based operation, using a combination of on-call units and surge operations instead of deployed forces. In addition to tracking and controlling suspect vessels, it helped to build a picture of maritime activity in the Mediterranean by conducting routine information approaches to various vessels.
Active Endeavour was succeeded by Operation Sea Guardian in November 2016.
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan
Established under the request of the Afghan authorities and a UN mandate in 2001, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was led by NATO from August 2003 to December 2014.
Its mission was to develop new Afghan security forces and enable Afghan authorities to provide effective security across the country in order to create an environment conducive to the functioning of democratic institutions and the establishment of the rule of law, with the aim to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists.
ISAF also contributed to reconstruction and development in Afghanistan. This was done primarily through multinational Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) – led by individual ISAF troop-contributing countries – securing areas in which reconstruction work could be conducted by national and international actors. PRTs also helped the Afghan authorities progressively strengthen the institutions required to fully establish good governance and the rule of law, as well as to promote human rights. The principal role of the PRTs in this respect was to build capacity, support the growth of governance structures and promote an environment in which governance can improve.
ISAF was one of the largest international crisis management operations ever, bringing together contributions from up to 51 different countries. By end 2014, the process of transitioning full security responsibility from ISAF troops to the Afghan army and police forces was completed and the ISAF mission came to a close. On 1 January 2015, a new NATO-led, non-combat mission, Resolute Support, to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces and institutions was launched.
NATO and Iraq
NATO conducted a relatively small but important support operation in Iraq from 2004 to 2011 that consisted of training, mentoring and assisting the Iraqi Security Forces. At the Istanbul Summit in June 2004, the Allies rose above their differences and agreed to be part of the international effort to help Iraq establish effective and accountable security forces. The outcome was the creation of the NATO Training Mission in Iraq (NTM-I). The NTM-I delivered its training, advice and mentoring support in a number of different settings. All NATO member countries contributed to the training effort either in or outside of Iraq, through financial contributions or donations of equipment. In parallel and reinforcing this initiative, NATO also worked with the Iraqi government on a structured cooperation framework to develop the Alliance’s long-term relationship with Iraq.
NATO and Libya
Following the popular uprising against the Gadhafi regime in Benghazi, Libya, in February 2011, the UN Security Council adopted Resolutions 1970 and 1973 in support of the Libyan people, “condemning the gross and systematic violation of human rights”. The resolutions introduced active measures including a no-fly zone, an arms embargo and the authorisation for member countries, acting as appropriate through regional organisations, to take “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians.
Initially, NATO enforced the no-fly zone and then, on 31 March 2011, NATO took over sole command and control of all military operations for Libya. The NATO-led Operation Unified Protector had three distinct components:
- the enforcement of an arms embargo on the high seas of the Mediterranean to prevent the transfer of arms, related material and mercenaries to Libya;
- the enforcement of a no-fly-zone in order to prevent any aircraft from bombing civilian targets; and
- air and naval strikes against those military forces involved in attacks or threats to attack Libyan civilians and civilian-populated areas.
The UN mandate was carried out to the letter and the operation was terminated on 31 October 2011 after having fulfilled its objectives.
Assisting the African Union in Darfur, Sudan
The African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) aimed to end violence and improve the humanitarian situation in a region that has been suffering from conflict since 2003. From June 2005 to 31 December 2007, NATO provided air transport for some 37,000 AMIS personnel, as well as trained and mentored over 250 AMIS officials. While NATO’s support to this mission ended when AMIS was succeeded by the UN-AU Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), the Alliance immediately expressed its readiness to consider any request for support to the new peacekeeping mission.
Pakistan earthquake relief assistance
Just before the onset of the harsh Himalayan winter, a devastating earthquake hit Pakistan on 8 October 2005, killing an estimated 53,000 people, injuring 75,000 and making at least four million homeless. On 11 October, in response to a request from Pakistan, NATO assisted in the urgent relief effort, airlifting close to 3,500 tons of supplies and deploying engineers, medical units and specialist equipment. This was one of NATO’s largest humanitarian relief initiatives, which came to an end on 1 February 2006.
Over time, the Alliance has helped to coordinate assistance to other countries hit by natural disasters, including Turkey, Ukraine and Portugal. It does this through its Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre.
After Hurricane Katrina struck the south of the United States on 29 August 2005, causing many fatalities and widespread damage and flooding, the US government requested food, medical and logistics supplies and assistance in moving these supplies to stricken areas. On 9 September 2005, the North Atlantic Council approved a military plan to assist the United States, which consisted of helping to coordinate the movement of urgently needed material and supporting humanitarian relief operations. During the operation (9 September-2 October), nine member countries provided 189 tons of material to the United States.
Protecting public events
In response to a request by the Greek government, NATO provided assistance to the Olympic and Paralympic Games held in Athens with Operation Distinguished Games from 18 June until 29 September 2004. NATO provided intelligence support, provision of chemical, biological radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defence assets and AWACS radar aircraft. This was the first operation in which non-Article 4 or 5 NATO assistance was provided within the borders of a member country.
In the same vein, NATO responded to a request made by the Latvian government for assistance in assuring the security of the Riga Summit in November 2006. NATO provided technical security, CBRN response capabilities, air and sea policing, improvised explosive device (IED) detections, communications and information systems, and medical evacuation support.
Second Gulf Conflict
During the second Gulf Conflict, NATO deployed NATO AWACS radar aircraft and air defence batteries to enhance the defence of Turkey in an operation called Display Deterrence. This operation started on 20 February 2003 and lasted until 16 April 2003. The AWACS aircraft flew 100 missions with a total of 950 flying hours.
NATO in North Macedonia
Responding to a request from the Government in Skopje to help mitigate rising ethnic tension, NATO implemented three successive operations in the country (at the time, North Macedonia was a NATO partner; it became a member in March 2020). The operations were conducted from August 2001 to March 2003.
First, Operation Essential Harvest disarmed ethnic Albanian groups operating throughout the country.
The follow-on Operation Amber Fox provided protection for international monitors overseeing the implementation of the peace plan.
Finally, Operation Allied Harmony was launched in December 2002 to provide advisory elements to assist the government in ensuring stability throughout the country.
These operations demonstrated the strong inter-institutional cooperation between NATO, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In April 2002, NATO Headquarters Skopje was created to advise on military aspects of security sector reform; it still operates today.
NATO’s first counter-terrorism operation
On 4 October 2001, once it had been determined that the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC had come from abroad, NATO agreed on a package of eight measures to support the United States. On the request of the United States, the Alliance launched its first-ever counter-terrorism operation – Operation Eagle Assist - from mid-October 2001 to mid-May 2002.
It consisted of seven NATO AWACS radar aircraft that helped patrol the skies over the United States; in total 830 crew members from 13 NATO countries flew over 360 sorties. This was the first time that NATO military assets were deployed in support of an Article 5 operation.
NATO in Bosnia and Herzegovina
With the break-up of Yugoslavia, violent conflict started in Bosnia and Herzegovina in April 1992. The Alliance responded as early as summer 1992 when it enforced the UN arms embargo on weapons in the Adriatic Sea (in cooperation with the Western European Union from 1993) and enforced a no-fly-zone declared by the UN Security Council. It was during the monitoring of the no-fly-zone that NATO engaged in the first combat operations in its history by shooting down four Bosnian Serb fighter-bombers conducting a bombing mission on 28 February 1994.
In August 1995, to compel an end to Serb-led violence in the country, UN peacekeepers requested NATO airstrikes. Operation Deadeye began on 30 August against Bosnian Serb air forces, but failed to result in Bosnian Serb compliance with the UN’s demands to withdraw. This led to Operation Deliberate Force, which targeted Bosnian Serb command and control installations and ammunition facilities. This NATO air campaign was a key factor in bringing the Serbs to the negotiating table and ending the war in Bosnia.
With the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord in December 1995, NATO immediately deployed a UN-mandated Implementation Force (IFOR) comprising some 60,000 troops. This operation (Operation Joint Endeavour) was followed in December 1996 by the deployment of a 32,000-strong Stabilisation Force (SFOR).
In light of the improved security situation, NATO brought its peace-support operation to a conclusion in December 2004 and the European Union deployed a new force called Operation Althea. The Alliance has maintained a military headquarters in the country to carry out a number of specific tasks related, in particular, to assisting the government in reforming its defence structures.
During the Cold War
When NATO was established in 1949, one of its fundamental roles was to act as a powerful deterrent against military aggression. In this role, NATO’s success was reflected in the fact that, throughout the entire period of the Cold War, NATO forces were not involved in a single military engagement. For much of the latter half of the 20th century, NATO remained vigilant and prepared.
After the Cold War
With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s came great changes to the international security environment. The Alliance witnessed the emergence of new threats and the resurgence of old but familiar ones.
With these changing conditions came new responsibilities. From being an exclusively defensive alliance for nearly half a century, NATO began to assume an increasingly proactive role within the international community. Before engaging in its first major crisis-response operation in the Balkans, NATO conducted several other military operations:
Operation Anchor Guard, 10 August 1990 – 9 March 1991
After Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990, NATO Airborne Early Warning aircraft deployed to Konya, Turkey, to monitor the crisis and provide coverage of southeastern Turkey in case of an Iraqi attack during the first Gulf Crisis/War.
Operation Ace Guard, 3 January 1991 – 8 March 1991
In response to a Turkish request for assistance to meet the threat posed by Iraq during the first Gulf Crisis/War, NATO deployed the ACE Mobile Force (Air) and air defence packages to Turkey.
Operation Allied Goodwill I & II, 4-9 February & 27 February – 24 March 1992
Following the break-up of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and the collapse of its centrally-controlled economic system, NATO assisted an international relief effort by flying teams of humanitarian assistance experts and medical advisors to Russia and other Commonwealth of Independent States nations using AWACS trainer cargo aircraft.
Operation Agile Genie, 1-19 May 1992
During a period of growing Western tension with Libya after the UN Security Council imposed sanctions designed to induce Libya to surrender suspects in the bombing of a Pan Am airliner over the town of Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988, NATO provided increased AWACS coverage of the Central Mediterranean to monitor air approach routes from the North African littoral. NATO AWACS aircraft flew a total of 36 missions.