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, NATO has the military capacity to undertake crisis prevention and management operations alone or in cooperation with other countries and international organisations.
- NATO is a crisis prevention and management organisation that has the capacity to undertake a wide range of military operations and missions.
- It is engaged in operations and missions around the world, managing often complex environments across all domains. The tempo and diversity of operations and missions in which NATO is involved have increased since the early 1990s.
- Since 1999, NATO has led a UN-mandated operation in Kosovo to ensure a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement, and to deter renewed hostilities.
- In 2018, NATO initiated a non-combat advisory and capacity-building mission in Iraq, which aims to help strengthen Iraqi security institutions and forces so that they themselves can prevent the return of ISIS, fight terrorism and stabilise their country.
- NATO is maintaining practical cooperation with the African Union, as it is a key international interlocutor for NATO regarding security challenges emanating from the South.
- The Alliance also conducts NATO Air Policing missions in several Allied countries, whereby NATO Allies with fighter aircraft capabilities help to ensure the integrity of the airspace of the countries that do not possess them.
- NATO’s contributions to maritime security include the Aegean Activity, Operation Sea Guardian in the Mediterranean and NATO’s Standing Naval Forces. The Alliance’s maritime posture helps maintain situational awareness, deter and defend against all threats in the maritime domain, uphold freedom of navigation, secure maritime routes and protect lines of communications.
- NATO also carries out disaster relief operations and missions in response to natural, technological or humanitarian disasters. In response to the devastating earthquakes in Türkiye in February 2023, NATO set up temporary shelters for thousands of people and coordinated an air-bridge to deliver vital supplies from Allies and partners.
NATO in Kosovo
Today, approximately 4,500 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 United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1244. It has since helped to provide a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all people and communities in Kosovo.
KFOR is committed to supporting all communities in Kosovo in an impartial manner underpinned by the principle of neutrality. As a trusted actor to Belgrade and Pristina, KFOR has played a key role in the peaceful de-escalation of tensions on many occasions.
NATO helps develop local security organisations capable of delivering security for Kosovo. Next to KFOR, the NATO Advisory and Liaison Team provides capacity-building support to the security organisations in Kosovo within the areas of crisis response, response to natural and other disasters and emergencies, explosive ordnance disposal and civil protection.
NATO strongly supports the European Union-facilitated Dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. The normalisation of relations between both parties is key to solving the political deadlock over northern Kosovo. NATO and the European Union work in close coordination and complement each other’s efforts.
NATO conducts three main operations and activities in the maritime domain: the Alliance’s Standing Naval Forces, Operation Sea Guardian and the Aegean Activity.
Standing Naval Forces
NATO’s Standing Naval Forces, or SNF, are NATO’s only standing forces in the maritime domain. They provide the Alliance with a continuous, credible and agile maritime capability that can be rapidly deployed in times of crisis or tension, and can be complemented with additional Allied ships when needed. The SNF carry out a programme of scheduled exercises, manoeuvres and port visits to strengthen the Alliance’s maritime posture. In response to Russia’s brutal and unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the SNF became the maritime component of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), part of the NATO Response Force.
NATO’s SNF consist of four groups: two Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMG1 and SNMG2); and two Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Groups (SNMCMG1 and SNMCMG2). They operate in the Atlantic Ocean and in the Baltic, North, Mediterranean and Black Seas, covering the entire maritime area of responsibility of NATO.
Operation Sea Guardian
Operation Sea Guardian (OSG) contributes to the maintenance of a safe and secure maritime environment in the Mediterranean Sea through three main tasks: maritime security capacity-building, situational awareness and counter-terrorism. It has been ongoing since November 2016 and is the successor of Operation Active Endeavour.
Every year, Operation Sea Guardian conducts five or six focused operations in specific areas of interest in the Mediterranean. These operations use sea, air, sub-surface and other assets to gather, develop and maintain an accurate picture of daily activity in different parts of the Mediterranean Sea. Most focused operations also include port visits to non-NATO countries to contribute to maritime security capacity building in the region.
NATO has contributed to broader international efforts to assist with the refugee and migrant crisis since February 2016. To that end, NATO ships have been conducting reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of crossings within the Aegean Sea, in cooperation with the Greek and Turkish coastguards and through the establishment of direct links with Frontex (the EU’s border management agency). NATO ships help to cut the lines of illegal trafficking within the Aegean Sea while providing maritime situational awareness.
NATO’s advisory and capacity-building mission in Iraq
NATO Mission Iraq was launched at the 2018 Brussels Summit, at the request of the Iraqi government and in coordination with the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. It is a non-combat advisory and capacity-building mission that aims to strengthen Iraqi security institutions and forces so that they themselves can prevent the return of ISIS, fight terrorism and stabilise their country. All efforts of NMI are carried out with the consent of the Iraqi government and conducted in full respect of Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
NATO only cooperates with Iraqi security forces and institutions under direct and effective control of the government of Iraq. The mission fully integrates civil and military personnel. NATO advises relevant Iraqi defence and security officials and professional security education institutions in the greater Baghdad area. Specific areas of focus include: policy and strategy; force generation and development; resource management; Women, Peace and Security; leadership development; and good governance in the security sector. The mission closely coordinates with other international actors on the ground, including the European Union and the United Nations.
In February 2021, NATO Defence Ministers decided to expand the mission to the wider Iraqi security sector, following a request by the Iraqi government.
Cooperation with the African Union
Since 2005, NATO has been cooperating with and supporting the African Union (AU). The AU is a key international interlocutor for NATO in the South, particularly when it comes to tackling shared security threats and challenges. The relationship is guided by the principles of African ownership, with activities conducted following AU requests, and close coordination with other international organisations and partners.
Having first provided strategic airlift to the AU mission in Sudan in 2005, NATO also assisted the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) from June 2007 by providing air and sealift for AU peacekeepers. In 2023, NATO Allies agreed in principle to the provision of strategic lift support for AMISOM’s successor, the AU Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS). NATO is also providing capacity-building and expert training to the African Standby Force, which is part of the AU's efforts to develop long-term peacekeeping capabilities.
NATO maintains a liaison office at the headquarters of the AU in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This office is led by a Senior Military Liaison Officer, who is the principal NATO military point of contact for the AU.
NATO Air Policing
NATO Air Policing is a peacetime mission that aims to preserve the security of Alliance airspace. It is a collective task and involves the continuous presence – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – of fighter aircraft and crews, which are ready to react quickly to possible airspace violations and to take appropriate action. Allied fighter jets patrol the airspace of Allies who do not have fighter jets of their own.
Since Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, NATO has been taking extra reassurance measures for Allies in the eastern part of the Alliance. This includes the boosting of NATO's air policing missions.
NATO Air Policing is part of NATO’s Integrated Air and Missile Defence system, which protects Alliance territory, populations and forces against any air or missile threat or attack.
NATO support to earthquake relief efforts in Türkiye
Following the devastating earthquakes in Türkiye in February 2023, NATO delivered hundreds of temporary shelters, including tents and shipping containers, to house thousands of people displaced by the disaster. Several NATO Allies and partners coordinated flights carrying hundreds of tonnes of urgent supplies through the Alliance’s Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC). Furthermore, NATO Allies also provided airlifts from Pakistan to Türkiye to transport tents and other humanitarian aids, and NATO partner country Japan airlifted aid to Türkiye as part of a NATO-coordinated air-bridge, the first international emergency relief operation conducted by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces in cooperation with NATO. NATO has built and maintains three temporary relief sites housing thousands of people in Antakya, Iskenderun and Defne. In addition, NATO-provided medical treatment facilities have been set up near damaged hospitals in the area.
NATO in Afghanistan
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established under the request of the Afghan authorities and a UN mandate in 2001. ISAF was led by NATO from August 2003 to December 2014 and was succeeded on 1 January 2015 by the Resolute Support Mission (RSM), which was terminated early September 2021.
ISAF's 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 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. It was immediately succeeded by a new NATO-led, non-combat mission, Resolute Support, to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces and institutions.
The Resolute Support Mission (RSM) operated 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 included: 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 RSM rested on a formal invitation from the Afghan government and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between NATO and Afghanistan, which governed the presence of Allied troops. Resolute Support was also supported by the international community at large. This is reflected in UN Security Council Resolution 2189, unanimously adopted on 12 December 2014. This resolution welcomed RSM and underscored the importance of continued international support for the stability of Afghanistan.
In April 2021, the Allies decided to start the withdrawal of RSM forces by 1 May 2021 and the mission was terminated early September 2021.
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 security in the Mediterranean Sea. 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.
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 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 Türkiye, 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 Türkiye 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 was downsized in 2012, becoming the NATO Liaison Office (NLO) Skopje, which in turn was formally closed one year after the country's accession to NATO, in March 2021.
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, Türkiye, to monitor the crisis and provide coverage of southeastern Türkiye 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 Türkiye.
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.