Deterrence and defence

  • Last updated: 10 Nov. 2020 08:58

NATO is a political and military alliance, whose principal task is to ensure the protection of its citizens and to promote security and stability in the North Atlantic area. The Alliance must be able to address the full spectrum of current and future challenges and threats from any direction, simultaneously. The Alliance has been strengthening its deterrence and defence posture in light of the changed and evolving security environment.



  • Today, the security environment is more complex and demanding than at any time since the end of the Cold War, reinforcing the need for NATO to ensure that its deterrence and defence posture is credible and effective.
  • In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alliance is implementing robust measures to limit the spread of the virus and minimise risks to its personnel. Allied armed forces are playing a vital role in supporting national civilian responses across the Alliance, while maintaining their readiness to respond to any contingency.
  • NATO continues to face challenges and threats that originate from the east and from the south; from state and non-state actors; from military forces and from terrorist, cyber and hybrid attacks. In particular, Russia’s aggressive actions undermine Euro-Atlantic security and the rules-based international order.
  • The Readiness Action Plan (RAP) launched in 2014 has significantly reinforced NATO’s collective defence.
  • In 2016, NATO leaders approved a strengthened deterrence and defence posture, which led, most visibly, to the deployment of multinational Forward Presence battalions in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
  • In 2018, NATO leaders adopted a Readiness Initiative to ensure that more high-quality, combat-capable national forces at high readiness can be made available to NATO.
  • NATO continues to adapt its deterrence and defence posture and bolster its readiness, responsiveness and reinforcement to respond to threats from any direction.
  • NATO and Allies remain committed to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation.
  • COVID-19 has demonstrated that Allies’ resilience is NATO’s first line of defence. Since 2014, NATO has produced guidelines to assist national authorities in improving their resilience across seven baseline requirements by reducing potential vulnerabilities.


Collective defence remains the Alliance’s greatest responsibility and deterrence is a core element of NATO’s overall strategy – preventing conflict and war, protecting Allies, maintaining freedom of decision and action, and upholding the principles and values it stands for (individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law). NATO’s capacity to deter and defend is supported by an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional, and missile defence capabilities, which complement each other, and is underpinned by an array of civil and military resources to support these capabilities and the posture more broadly. NATO also maintains the freedom of action and flexibility to respond to the full spectrum of challenges with an appropriate and tailored approach, at the minimum level of force.

NATO is responding to the COVID-19 crisis by protecting military personnel, facilitating the airlift of critical medical supplies, and harnessing resources to deliver innovative responses. Allied armed forces are supporting civilian efforts with logistics and planning, field hospitals and hospital ships, transport for patients, repatriation of citizens abroad, disinfection of public areas, and at border crossings. These efforts are helping to increase the national resilience of Allies, while the operational readiness of the Alliance remains undiminished. Lessons learned from Allies’ experiences with the pandemic are important for the Alliance to continue to address hybrid activities as well as future challenges that target Allies’ civil societies.

Russia’s aggressive actions, including the threat and use of force to attain political goals, challenge the Alliance and are undermining Euro-Atlantic security and the rules-based international order. Russia has become more assertive with its illegal annexation of Crimea, the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, its military build-up close to NATO’s borders, its hybrid actions, including disinformation campaigns, and its malicious cyber activities.

To the south, the security situation in the Middle East and Africa has deteriorated due to a combination of factors that are causing loss of life, fuelling large-scale migration flows and inspiring terrorist attacks in Allied countries and elsewhere. 

The Readiness Action Plan (RAP), launched at the Wales Summit in 2014, was a major driver for change in the Alliance’s deterrence and defence posture. The RAP was initiated to ensure the Alliance is ready to respond swiftly and firmly to new security challenges from the east and from the south. Building on the RAP, NATO Heads of State and Government approved a strengthened deterrence and defence posture at the Warsaw Summit in July 2016. It is providing the Alliance with a broad range of options to be able to respond to any threats from wherever they arise to protect Alliance territory, population, airspace and sea lines of communication. For instance, four multinational battlegroups were deployed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, and measures have also been taken to reinforce security in the south-eastern region of the Alliance. Furthermore, a number of measures have been undertaken to adapt the Alliance to the challenges emanating from the south, including capacity building, dedicated exercises and advance planning, as well as setting up the Regional Hub for the South in Naples, which contributes to NATO’s situational awareness.

NATO leaders reiterated their resolve at the 2018 Brussels Summit, by adopting a NATO Readiness Initiative to enhance the Alliance’s rapid-response capability, either for reinforcement of Allies in support of deterrence or collective defence, including for high-intensity warfighting, or for rapid military crisis intervention, if required. Since, Allies are delivering on the NATO Readiness Initiative or the so-called “four thirties”, having committed to providing 30 mechanised battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 battleships ready to use within 30 days or less. The Alliance continues to adapt its deterrence and defence posture and bolster its readiness, responsiveness and reinforcement to respond to threats from any direction in a 360 degree approach.

Civil society also plays a key role in setting the right conditions for NATO to operate. Enhancing resilience by strengthening societies’ capacity to absorb the full range of threats and hazards, is an integral part of NATO’s deterrence and defence posture. The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of resilience, including the ability to deal with mass casualties or ensuring the continuity of civil supply chains. At the same time, resilience impacts NATO’s ability to conduct its missions and the mobility of NATO troops and equipment. It requires close civil-military cooperation, and both a whole of government and whole of society effort to assure overall resilience.

NATO has recognised cyberspace as a domain of operations in which it must defend itself as effectively as it does in the air, on land and at sea. The creation of a new Cyberspace Operations Centre in Belgium and the formation of counter-hybrid support teams to assist Allies in need will also bolster the Alliance’s deterrence efforts.

At the December 2019 Leaders’ Meeting in London, NATO declared space as a fifth operational domain. The information gathered and delivered through satellites is critical for NATO activities, operations and missions, including collective defence, crisis response and counter-terrorism.  In October 2020, defence ministers decided to establish a NATO Space Centre in Ramstein, Germany, which will serve as a focal point for sharing information and coordinating Allies’ efforts.

NATO Allies are seriously concerned by Russia’s fielding of a nuclear-capable missile system, which poses a significant risk to Alliance security and is in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. In response, NATO is implementing a balanced, coordinated and defensive package of measures, ensuring credible and effective deterrence and defence. Allies do not intend to deploy new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe nor enter into a new arms race and remain committed to effective arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation.

Exercises remain an integral part of NATO’s deterrence and defence since military training is an essential requirement to maintain the Alliance’s readiness levels and flexibility.  NATO’s adaptation efforts will continue, including in such areas as forward presence, joint air power and maritime forces, as well as cyber defence, civil preparedness and countering hybrid threats, including in cooperation with the European Union (EU). Relations with the EU include increased cooperation, as well as complementary and interoperable capability development to avoid duplication and contribute to transatlantic burden-sharing.

The Defence Investment Pledge, adopted by NATO leaders in 2014, called for all Allies to stop cuts to defence budgets and meet the NATO-agreed guideline of spending at least 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence within a decade. Allies also agreed, in that same timeframe, to move towards spending at least 20% of annual defence expenditure on major new equipment, including related research and development. Finally, the Pledge committed Allies to ensuring that their land, air and maritime forces meet NATO-agreed guidelines for deployability, sustainability and other agreed metrics, and that their armed forces can operate together effectively, including through the implementation of NATO standards and doctrines. Since 2014, Allies have made considerable progress in increasing defence spending and investing in major equipment. Allies are not just delivering more of the heavier, high-end capabilities NATO needs; they are also improving the readiness, deployability, sustainability and interoperability of their forces. However, the security threats and challenges have not decreased and the need to invest in defence remains essential to ensure the Alliance has the forces and capabilities it needs.