NATO’s capabilities

  • Last updated: 21 Feb. 2022 09:55

NATO’s deterrence and defence posture is based on, among other factors, an effective combination of 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 targets for national or collective development of capabilities; and facilitating national, multinational and collective capability development and innovation.

NATO’s five RQ-4D “Phoenix” surveillance aircraft, based in Sigonella, Italy


  • 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; 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 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, conventional and missile defence capabilities;
    • 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;
    • employ the full range of capabilities at all times to actively deter, defend against and counter the full spectrum of cyber threats;
    • enhance its collective capacity to contribute to the fight against terrorism, including through improved threat analysis, consultations with partners, and the development of appropriate military capabilities, such as 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 medium- and long-term challenges

    The Allies provided Political Guidance for Defence Planning in 2019 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 2023.

    NATO Defence Planning Process

    The NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP) provides a framework within which national and Alliance defence planning activities can be harmonised to meet agreed targets in the most effective way. It is the primary means to facilitate the identification, development and delivery of NATO’s present and future capability requirements. By setting targets for implementation by Allies, either individually or, where appropriate, collectively, the NDPP guides national, multinational and collective capability development and delivery.

    Allies participate in the NDPP as independent states, coordinating their national defence plans with those of NATO without compromising their national sovereignty. This process helps each Ally determine and contribute a fair share of the overall forces and capabilities needed for the Alliance to be able to undertake its full range of missions.

    NATO Response Force

    The NATO Response Force (NRF) is a multinational force made up of land, air, maritime and Special Operations Forces (SOF) components, capabilities and support elements 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 in 2014 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.

    NATO agency support

    The North Atlantic Council can establish NATO Agencies to help Allies meet individual, multinational and collective defence capability requirements. Procuring and sustaining capabilities collectively, or in groups of interested countries, provides economies of scale and enhances the interoperability of Allied armed forces.

    NATO has two large agencies, of which all Allies are members. The NATO Communications and Information Agency (NCIA) is the Alliance’s principal consultation, command and control (C3) capability as well as communication and information systems (CIS) service provider. The NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) offers cost-efficient acquisition, logistics, operational and systems support and services.

    Allies have also established agencies to manage the procurement and sustainment of specific multinational capability programmes. These include management agencies for NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance capability (NAGSMA), the NH90 Helicopter programme (NAHEMA), NATO’s Airborne Early Warning and Control capability (NAPMA) and the Eurofighter and Tornado fighter jet programme (NETMA).

    The NATO Science and Technology Organization (STO) delivers innovation, advice and scientific solutions to meet the Alliance’s ever-changing needs. It ensures NATO maintains its military and technological edge to face current and future security challenges.

  • Critical 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 Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system, the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (NAEW&C Force) and Allies’ own ISR assets.

    In view of today’s rapidly changing security environment, JISR continues to adapt to ensure that the Alliance has the information and intelligence needed to make the right decisions at the right time. This is why NATO Allies endorsed a new capability development strategy in October 2020 and concrete implementation measures in October 2021. The strategy will help develop and field interoperable intelligence capabilities in a more agile manner, harvesting the power of cutting-edge technologies, such as big data, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems.

    The space domain plays a crucial role for JISR. At the 2021 NATO Summit in Brussels, Allies announced plans to develop a Strategic Space Situational Awareness System (3SAS) at NATO Headquarters. This capability will allow the Alliance to better understand the space environment and space events, and their effects across all domains. 

    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 is able to continuously detect and track objects that are moving on or near the ground (such as tanks, trucks or helicopters) in all weather conditions and provide radar imagery of areas of interest on the ground and at sea.

    As such, AGS complements the NATO Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), which already monitors Alliance airspace. The AGS Core is an integrated system consisting of air, ground and support segments. The air segment includes five remotely piloted surveillance aircraft.

    NATO Airborne Warning and Control System

    As one of the most visible and tangible examples of what cooperation between Allies can achieve, the NATO Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) provides NATO-owned and operated airborne command and control, air and maritime surveillance, and battlespace management capability. AWACS has continuously proven itself to be a critical asset to NATO and Allies, for example by safeguarding the Alliance’s eastern perimeter and providing support to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

    NATO 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.

    Alliance Future Surveillance and Control capability

    At the 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw, 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 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 evaluating new technologies and solutions through studies that 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, manned or unmanned systems to collect and share information.

    Ballistic missile defence

    Proliferation of ballistic missiles poses an increasing threat to NATO populations, territory and forces. Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) is one of NATO’s permanent missions and is part of the Alliance’s response to this threat, as a component of NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD). NATO BMD is strictly defensive and contributes to NATO’s core task of collective defence. BMD capabilities are an essential part of NATO’s strategic mix, along with conventional forces and nuclear deterrence. During the 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw, Allies declared initial operational capability of NATO BMD, offering a capability to defend Alliance populations, territory and forces across southern NATO Europe against a ballistic missile attack. The ultimate aim of NATO BMD is to achieve full operational capability, providing coverage and protection to all NATO Europe.

    Air command and control

    NATO air command and control (Air C2) systems provide the Alliance with a capability to manage NATO air operations (including air policing) in and out of the Euro-Atlantic area. NATO Air C2 systems integrate air mission control, air traffic control, airspace surveillance, airspace management, command and control (C2) resource management and force management functions, among other functionalities. The systems cover a theatre of operations of 81 million square kilometres (not including deployable capability) from the northernmost point of Norway to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the easternmost point of Turkey to the North Atlantic. They constitute one of the major pillars in NATO aimed at safeguarding and protecting Alliance territory, populations and forces against any air and missile threat and attack.

    Electromagnetic spectrum superiority

    The electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) is a pervasive global commons and yet a finite resource. NATO forces exploit the EMS to build situational awareness within the operational environment; access it to communicate, share information, synchronise operations, navigate, and operate sensors and weapons systems; and control it by protecting friendly freedom of action within it, while denying use to a potential adversary.

    Synchronised activities associated with spectrum management, signals intelligence, electronic warfare, communications, and navigation warfare, among others, constitute electromagnetic operations (EMO). EMO enables greater effectiveness of military operations and activities.

    NATO’s EMS strategy aims to ensure military freedom of action of its forces through gaining access to and superiority over the EMS. This is supported by an increased cooperation between the various stakeholders within all operational domains, including cyber and space.

    Federated Mission Networking

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

    FMN is based on the lessons learned from operations in Afghanistan, particularly the need for harmonised operational processes and scalable supporting systems for all future 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.

    Cyber defence

    Cyber threats to the security of the Alliance are complex, destructive, coercive and becoming ever more frequent. This has been illustrated by ransomware incidents and other malicious cyber activity targeting critical infrastructure and democratic institutions in Allied countries, which might have systemic effects and cause significant harm. 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.


    Logistics planning is an integral part of the NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP). In concrete terms, logistics capabilities are built upon requirements identified by the NDPP and generated by Allies individually, multinationally or collectively.   

    Logistics capabilities can be called upon by NATO commanders, as part of the operational planning process, to be used in a NATO-led operation and any other activity in support of the Alliance’s posture. Cooperation and coordination in logistics ensures that national and NATO logistics plans are sufficiently resourced in quantity and quality, focusing on four main aspects: provision of capabilities, command and control, deployability and sustainability.

    Next-generation networks

    Many of the critical enabling capabilities described above are dependent on communications networks that are able to cope with exponentially increased requirements for bandwidth and data throughput. New technologies, such as 5G, are in a position to support these requirements, but they also raise concerns about security and resilience. NATO initiatives are addressing these concerns by ensuring that telecommunications equipment in use in the Alliance’s networks is meeting the highest possible level of security, and that fall-back capabilities are in place to account for interruptions in the networks.
    Consequently, much attention is on communication and information systems (CIS) supply chain security.

  • Delivering capabilities through multinational cooperation

    Allies provide the overwhelming majority of military capabilities needed for NATO operations. 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.

    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.

    Multinational High Visibility Projects

    Over the years, NATO has pursued various approaches to encourage Allies to more systematically engage in multinational cooperation and increase their chances of reaping the benefits. The Conference of National Armaments Directors (CNAD), the senior NATO committee responsible for promoting cooperation between countries in the armaments field, launched a process to address existing obstacles toward multinational capability cooperation. The solution included the proactive identification, formulation and advocacy for specific cooperation opportunities, combined with a deliberate top-down political approach for capturing Allies’ buy-in and pursuit of these opportunities.

    Since its adoption in 2014, this approach led to an ever-expanding portfolio of multinational High Visibility Projects (HVPs) addressing a wide range of critical capability areas, for example air-to-air-refuelling, provision of precision munitions, Special Operations Forces, surface-based air and missile defence, and anti-submarine warfare.

    Framework Nations Concept

    In June 2014, NATO Defence Ministers agreed the Framework Nations Concept (FNC), which sees groups of countries coming together for two purposes. First, 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. Second, to reinforce engagement between countries 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. They allow forces to be quickly deployed to wherever they are needed and sustained in a timely manner. While there is significant procurement nationally, many Allies have pooled resources, including with partner countries, to acquire new capabilities for additional transport to swiftly move troops, equipment and supplies across the globe.

    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 operation involving asymmetrical threats, in which force protection will remain a paramount priority.

    Institutionalising counter-IED lessons learned across more than 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.

    21st century surface-based air and missile 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 surface-based air and missile 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 air personnel – need to be 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 technologically superior, safe, interoperable and reliable. As such, the aim of dismounted soldier systems is the modernisation, standardization and harmonisation of individual combat and support equipment for NATO and partner countries. It is crucial that all equipment, including vehicles and other platforms, provides adequate accommodation of embarked soldiers carrying full gear and ensures that their data and power connectivity needs are met with fully interoperable systems.

    NATO Deployable Air Base concept

    The NATO Deployable Air Base (NDAB) concept through Deployable Air Base Activation Modules (DAAM) 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 weather conditions. 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 (the first international digital underwater communication protocol, developed by NATO’s Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation), 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.

    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. Since the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales, the Alliance has set a renewed course for strengthening its maritime posture. At the 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels, Allies agreed to reinforce the Alliance Maritime Posture. It serves to reinvigorate NATO’s core maritime competencies and warfighting function. In the current security context, the Alliance’s naval forces provide essential contributions to maritime situational awareness and presence, maritime security, assistance and deterrence effect. 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 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.

    Total System Approach to Aviation

    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. NATO’s Total System Approach to Aviation (TSAA) supports the development of aviation-related capabilities through a holistic approach. TSAA High Level Principles were approved by the North Atlantic Council in 2015, and since then, significant progress has been achieved, including through the establishment of a Rapid Air Mobility (RAM) process, an Airworthiness NATO Recognition Process (NRP), remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) airspace integration support, as well as cybersecurity aviation assessments. In addition to supporting the development of specific capabilities, the TSAA is also a mindset to enhance cooperation across NATO bodies by identifying the relevant touchpoints that require coordination. Another important element for its success is the continuous cooperation with international and regional civil aviation organisations, as well as other relevant civil and military institutions in the aviation domain. 

    Remotely piloted aircraft systems readiness initiative

    NATO is undergoing a transformative shift with the adoption of remotely piloted aircraft systems. Five NATO commonly owned RQ-4D “Phoenix” aircraft are now operating out of the main operating base for NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) in Sigonella, Italy, and several Allies are actively operating – and procuring additional – remotely piloted aircraft. The demand for seamless integration of these assets into complex civil and military airspace structures requires swift adaptation. The remotely piloted aircraft systems readiness initiative (R2i) aims to ensure the Alliance is ready to meet the operational demand for this cutting-edge capability in line with NATO’s unmanned aircraft systems policy. The R2i initiative is operationally focused and supported by an enduring strategic communications plan, raising awareness of civilian and military personnel and stakeholders across NATO’s well-established position in the international aviation community.

    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 (SMEs). New challenges are dealt with through innovative capabilities. Increasingly, capabilities are dual-use and are permeating defence from the civilian sector. Therefore, more and intense efforts are directed towards attracting start-ups, SMEs and enhancing the dialogue with academia and research establishments. A sustainable, innovative and globally competitive industry is critical to the Alliance’s success. (For more information)