NATO’s capabilities

  • Last updated: 30 Aug. 2021 08:41

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 goals 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;
    • further develop its ability to prevent, detect, defend against and recover from cyber attacks, including by using the NATO Defence Planning Process to enhance and coordinate national cyber defence capabilities;
    • 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, including 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) aims to harmonise national and Alliance defence planning activities. It provides a process outlining how the aims and objectives of the Alliance, as set out in the political guidance, should be met. By setting targets for implementation by Allies, either individually or, where appropriate, collectively, NDPP guides national, multinational and collective capability development and delivery.

    By participating in the NATO Defence Planning Process, Allies can harmonise their national defence plans with those of NATO without compromising their national sovereignty. This helps Allies identify, develop and deliver 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 collective, multinational and individual defence capability requirements. Procuring and sustaining capabilities collectively or in groups of interested nations provides economies of scale and enhances interoperability.

    The NATO Communications and Information Agency is the Alliance’s principal consultation, command and control (C3) capability and communication and information systems (CIS) service provider. The NATO Support and Procurement Agency offers cost-efficient acquisition, logistics, operational and systems support and services. Allies also use multinational acquisition agencies to manage the procurement and support of specific capabilities, for example, Alliance Ground Surveillance, Airborne Warning and Control System, the Eurofighter and Tornado fighter aircraft and NH90 helicopter programmes.

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

    In early 2016, NATO Defence Ministers declared initial operational JISR capability centred on enhancing the situational awareness of NATO’s highest readiness forces. This initial operational capability was only the first milestone for the overall JISR initiative. Further work is conducted to sustain these achievements and expand their scope. Through incremental upgrades, NATO develops an enduring JISR capability to strengthen the Alliance’s 360 degree awareness. NATO JISR develops and fields interoperable intelligence capabilities in a more agile manner, harvesting the power of cutting-edge technologies, such as big data, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems.

    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 moving objects (such as tanks, trucks or helicopters that are moving on or near the ground) 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

    In the context of a broader response to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, NATO continues to develop ballistic missile defence (BMD). NATO’s BMD capability aims to protect NATO European forces, civilian populations and territory. During the 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw, Allies officially declared initial operational capability of NATO BMD, which offers a capability to defend Alliance civilian 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 is implementing a fully interoperable Air Command and Control System (ACCS). This system will provide a fully integrated set of tools to support the conduct of all air operations in both real-time and non-real-time environments. The system is composed of static and deployable elements with equipment that will be used within the NATO Command Structure and by individual Allies. With the further inclusion of command and control functionality for ballistic missile defence, this will provide a fully integrated system for air and missile defence. Presently, ACCS is being implemented in phases with the current addendum due to be completed by 2027. This will ensure the Alliance maintains the capability to plan, direct, task, coordinate, supervise, assess and report on the operation of all allocated air assets in peace, crisis and conflict situations.

    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 preventing the adversary’s effective use of it.

    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 on today’s battlefield through gaining access to and superiority over the EMS.

    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 and attacks are becoming more frequent, destructive, coercive and sophisticated. The Alliance is faced with an evolving, complex threat environment in which malicious cyber activity, including disinformation, hacking and espionage, is growing in persistence, speed and scale. 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 up on 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 ensure 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.

  • 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) 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 a 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 nations 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 timely sustained. While there is significant procurement nationally, many Allies have pooled resources, including with partner countries, to acquire new capacities 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 airmen/airwomen – 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 safe, interoperable and reliable. As such, the aim of dismounted soldier systems is the standardization and harmonisation of individual combat and support equipment for NATO and partner nations.

    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, 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 Brussels Summit in 2018, Allies agreed to reinforce the Alliance Maritime Posture.  It serves to reinvigorate the Alliance’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 non-NATO 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 Alliance will continue to develop its capabilities to ensure appropriate access to airspace by addressing all aspects related to aviation – including air traffic management, aeronautical technologies, airfield capabilities, manned aircraft and remotely piloted air systems, airworthiness, licensing and training – in the context of global aviation developments in the civil and military domain. 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.

    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)