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Marrying capabilities to commitments

John Colston examines how the Alliance is improving its military capabilities to meet the demands of its ever-increasing operations.

Mediterranean mission: The growth in Alliance operations raises questions about the forces and capabilities with which they are to be conducted (© NATO )

At a time when NATO is engaged in four operations - in Afghanistan, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Kosovo and in the Mediterranean - is supporting a fifth - the Polish-led Multinational Division in Iraq - and is expecting to support the Olympic Games and European Football Championships in Greece and Portugal respectively, a number of respected observers are suggesting that the Alliance should take on even more operational commitments. Such suggestions clearly reflect the perception that, alone among international organisations, NATO has the ability to organise, mobilise and resource major military operations involving countries from both sides of the Atlantic and potentially countries from across the globe.

But that, perhaps flattering, perception depends on a very basic assumption: that NATO is able to deliver the right forces at the right time with the right capabilities and in the right number to support our operational ambitions. The steady growth in Alliance operations, however, raises questions about the adequacy of the forces and capabilities with which they are to be conducted. Against the backdrop of the upcoming NATO Summit in Istanbul, it is worth asking some hard questions about the Alliance's progress in developing capabilities to match NATO commitments, both current and future, and in making those capabilities available.

Achieving the right match between capabilities and commitments requires a clear understanding of our strategic requirements. For the first 40 years of its existence, NATO was exclusively focused on the goal of collective defence, that is maintaining the military forces required to deter and, if necessary, defeat any strategic attack against the territory of any Ally by the Warsaw Pact. To achieve this, NATO needed to possess large numbers of predominantly heavy conventional and nuclear forces held at high readiness and optimised for a short high-intensity campaign on the territory of member states, primarily along the Alliance's eastern borders. Since most forces were pre-positioned along those borders, expected to fight in place and benefited from extensive host-nation support structures, the deployability and sustainability of forces beyond national boundaries were not significant considerations for most nations.

The decade or so following the Cold War saw NATO embrace the goal of expanding security and stability across more of the Euro-Atlantic area by means of partnership, cooperation and ultimately, in some cases, enlargement. As the large-scale conventional threat to NATO territory disappeared, other risks and challenges emerged including, among others, those posed by failed states, ethnic rivalry, instability, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. And as the Alliance became engaged in a number of crisis-response operations further and further afield, the very nature of the military forces which Alliance operations required changed fundamentally.

The importance of this latter development was further underlined in the aftermath of the tragic events of 11 September 2001.The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC not only led NATO to invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty for the first time in its history, but also served as a catalyst for the adoption of a new concept for defence against terrorism and agreement among Allies that NATO should be able to move forces quickly whenever and wherever they are needed.

Today, NATO requires forces that are modern, deployable, sustainable and available to undertake the full range of Alliance missions, including high-intensity operations far from home bases. Allied forces need to be agile and interoperable, well-equipped, well-trained and well-led, and capable of operating in complex environments and applying force in a discriminating manner. Since Alliance operations can last for years, as in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, the ability of nations to sustain deployed forces over the longer term has also become important. NATO now puts greater emphasis on the quality and usability of forces than on their quantity and, in contrast to the Cold-War era, not all forces need to be maintained at high readiness.

Improving capabilities

Having defined the Alliance's capability requirements, what are NATO and its member states doing to deliver them? The Alliance's force and command structures have been reshaped radically since the end of the Cold War. Allies have reduced conventional and especially nuclear force levels (and defence budgets). Forces were pulled back from what had been the line of confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact and many Allies re-cast their forces as expeditionary units for crisis-management operations. The Defence Capabilities Initiative, launched in 1999 at the same time as NATO 's new Strategic Concept was agreed, also sought to improve Alliance capabilities.

While positive, these past efforts did not yield all the required capabilities. This prompted an even greater focus on the requirement to transform Alliance military forces, which was reflected in many of the initiatives coming out of the Prague Summit of November 2002. Prague saw the launch of three key military transformation initiatives: the Prague Capabilities Commitment; the NATO Response Force; and the new NATO Command Structure. There was also agreement on a package of measures to strengthen NATO's ability to contribute to the struggle against terrorism, approval of a set of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons defence initiatives, and agreement to begin a new NATO Missile Defence feasibility study to examine options for protecting Alliance territory, forces and population centres against the full range of missile threats.

With the Prague Capabilities Commitment (PCC), NATO leaders made specific, individual commitments to improve national capabilities as quickly as possible in four key operational areas of critical importance to the full spectrum of Alliance operations, including the defence against terrorism. These were defending against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks; ensuring command, communications and information superiority; improving interoperability of deployed forces and key aspects of combat effectiveness; and ensuring rapid deployment and sustainability of combat forces.

A number of multinational project groups have been created to improve capabilities in areas where it would be difficult or impossible for Allies acting alone to acquire what is needed, such as airborne ground surveillance systems, strategic sea-lift, outsize strategic airlift, and air-to-air refuelling. Some notable successes have been achieved. These include the establishment of the NATO multinational Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defence Battalion in December 2003; the signature of a Multinational Implementation Arrangement, also in December 2003, by nine defence ministers to provide their nations with a strategic sea-lift capability; the agreement of 13 nations in March 2004 to develop an assured access contract for AN-124 transport aircraft services; as well as the April 2004 decision to pursue an Alliance Ground Surveillance capability for a mixed fleet of manned and unmanned air platforms with their associated interoperable ground stations, supplemented by interoperable national assets.

The NATO Response Force (NRF) was established in October 2003. When the NRF reaches its full operational capability in 2006, it will have dedicated capabilities to include a brigade-size ground force, fighter aircraft, ships, vehicles, combat support, combat service support and communications systems. The NRF is not only intended to provide a quick-reaction joint force with a global reach prepared to tackle the full spectrum of missions, but also meant as a catalyst for continuing improvements in Allied forces.

NATO requires forces that are modern, deployable, sustainable and available to undertake the full range of Alliance missions

The third major capability initiative from the Prague Summit, the implementation of the new NATO Command Structure, began in June 2003 with the creation of Allied Command Transformation (ACT) in Norfolk, Virginia, in the United States. ACT has already delivered concrete results in training the command elements of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and NRF rotations. This represents an important achievement since developing the required capabilities for NATO operations is not just a matter of new equipment or sufficient personnel, but also one of doctrine and training.

One of the fundamental tools employed by the Alliance to ensure that nations generate the necessary military forces and capabilities is the NATO Defence Planning Process. It is a comprehensive long-term process, encapsulating several planning disciplines including armaments, civil emergency, C3 (command, control and communications), logistics, resource, nuclear and, of course, force planning. Its keystone document, Ministerial Guidance, establishes the Alliance level of ambition in military terms and sets the goals for many of the planning disciplines. Subsequent elements of the process, most notably in force planning, set specific requirements to nations and assess the nations' success in meeting the assigned targets. This process has served the Alliance well over the years but no system is perfect. A review to update the process to make it even more responsive, efficient and coordinated, and to make sure it receives even greater political support in capitals, is due to be completed in time for the Istanbul Summit.

Assessing progress

So are these initiatives and tools sufficient to ensure that NATO will have the necessary military forces and capabilities to meet its commitments and successfully execute the full spectrum of tasks that might arise? Sadly, the answer to this question is not an unqualified "Yes". Success, ultimately, is a matter of political will.

Some nations have embraced the concept of transformation and have implemented the necessary changes to their force structures to ensure that they can contribute substantial modern, deployable, and sustainable forces able to undertake the full range of Alliance missions. Others have yet to follow this lead in full. And while some Allies fully endorse the tenets of transformation, a significant part of their military structures are still focused on the defence of national territory or other national tasks and are not in practice deployable. We are also facing the situation in many cases where nations possess the necessary military assets and deployable capabilities required by the Alliance, but are unable or unwilling to commit them in support of Alliance operations, sometimes because of cost considerations, sometimes because of political considerations, and sometimes because of other engagements.

Due to these imbalances among Allies, several ideas are being considered in preparation for the Istanbul Summit to enhance the Allies' collective ability to provide the necessary military forces for the Alliance, now and into the future. NATO is studying the idea of establishing politically agreed "usability" and "output" targets. Such targets could specify, for example, that nations agree to be able and willing to deploy and sustain a certain percentage of their structures on Alliance operations. Similarly, nations are examining the concept of "reinvestment goals", that is specific commitments to disband non-deployable military elements to release the resources to create new or improve existing deployable assets. The Alliance has also undertaken a comprehensive review of the force-generation process so that it is better suited to support the needs of multiple and enduring operations. The end point of this work must be a greater degree of assurance that, when Allies agree to undertake a particular mission, there is a high level of assurance that the forces will be made available to NATO's military commanders to undertake that mission successfully.

In summary, capability requirements stem from roles and missions. As NATO's role has expanded over the years, and may well continue to do so, and as the spectrum of its operations continues to broaden, the very nature of the military forces and capabilities the Alliance seeks has also changed fundamentally from the days of the Cold War. For the Allies themselves, this is likely to mean more operations, more interoperability, more defence reform, and, of course, more appropriate capabilities.

The Alliance embarked on the road to military transformation a long time ago. NATO has made a great deal of progress and, as a politico-military organisation, is second to none in this regard. But the road to develop the necessary capabilities appears never-ending, with twists and turns and a few bumps. The initiatives and tools described above will assist the recently enlarged Alliance and its member nations to stay on track.

NATO's success is, and will in the future ultimately be, a function of the willingness and ability of the member nations to make the necessary changes and the necessary investments in personnel, equipment, doctrines and training. Some nations already appear to be making all the required changes and there are encouraging signs that many others are actively considering such changes -but there is a long way to go before one can confidently say that NATO has successfully balanced its roles and missions with its capabilities. The work must, therefore, continue.

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