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NATO's transformation scorecard

Transatlantic debate: At their February 2005 meeting,
Alliance leaders committed themselves to "strengthening
NATO's role as a forum for strategic and
political consultation and coordination among Allies"
(© NATO)

Robert G. Bell assesses implementation of NATO's Prague, Norfolk and Munich transformation agendas.

I don't think of transformation as something that starts un-transformed and goes to something that is transformed. I think of it as a process where we are forced by the nature of our world in this 21st century to continue, and it's more a matter of culture and attitude than it is technologies and platforms.

US Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld

While serving as Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan, George Schultz once famously compared diplomacy to trying to keep your garden free of weeds: in both cases, he said, your work can never really be said to be done. The same can be said about "transformation". As Secretary Rumsfeld recently observed, transformation is more a process than an end-state, with new demands, new challenges and new security environments continually requiring further change, further adaptation.

Although the word "transformation" has been in vogue only in recent years, NATO has effectively faced a "transformational" imperative since the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade and a half ago. Since then, the Alliance has time and again addressed warnings that unless it could "adapt", "evolve", or "reform", it would risk both its relevance and its viability. A decade ago, NATO was challenged either to go "out of area" or "out of business". The political processes by which the Alliance in the late 1990s ultimately reached consensus on the necessity of waging war against a state (rump Yugoslavia) that had not actually attacked NATO territory can fairly be described as the Alliance's first great post-Cold War "transformation" success.

Today, there is no single "NATO Transformation Agenda". Rather, it can be said that there are three, each begun for different reasons at different times, but all now overlapping and interrelated. These are the Prague Agenda, initiated by former Secretary General Lord George Robertson in 2002 in response to the "lessons of Kosovo and 9/11" and focused on changes in capabilities, missions and structures; the Norfolk Agenda, initiated by current Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in 2004 in response to the "lessons of Afghanistan" and focused on changes in defence planning, force generation and common funding; and the Munich Agenda, initiated by German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in 2005 in response to the "lessons of the Iraq crisis" and focused on changes in NATO's role (or lack thereof) as a venue for genuine transatlantic strategic consultation and decision-making.

Prague Agenda

The 78-day NATO air campaign against rump Yugoslavia in 1999 to halt ethnic cleansing in Kosovo exposed critical "fault lines" between US and Allied military capabilities at the high end of the conflict spectrum. The statistics are now well-known: 90 per cent of the precision-guided munitions were delivered by US fighters and bombers, and few of the Allies could even carry out secure air-to-air communications, forcing NATO formations to transmit on open channels. The United States also provided 100 per cent of NATO's jamming capability, 90 per cent of the air-to-ground surveillance, and 80 per cent of the air refuelling tankers. Alarmed by this "gap", Lord Robertson began articulating his mantra that the top three NATO priorities had to be "capabilities, capabilities, capabilities".

But while the "lessons of Kosovo" were still being digested, NATO's strategic landscape was shaken by 9/11. The Alliance showed great agility and enduring respect for the principle of collective security in immediately invoking Article 5 for the first time in its history and, later, in dispatching AWACS aircraft to patrol the skies above US cities. At their meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, in May 2002, Allied foreign ministers formally confirmed the Alliance's resolve to go wherever necessary to combat threats to Allied security. And throughout 2002, NATO Headquarters staff diligently planned a comprehensive package of organisational changes and capability enhancements approved by Allied leaders that November at the Prague Summit, including creating the NATO Response Force (NRF), realigning its Strategic Commands, and endorsing the Prague Capabilities Commitment (PCC) modernisation programmes. Last but certainly not least, the Alliance invited seven countries to join NATO and agreed accompanying reforms in the Headquarters' structure and procedures needed to keep the North Atlantic Council functioning smoothly "at 26".

Two-and-a-half years on, implementation of the Prague Agenda is on balance positive, though some programmes are lagging. First, the North Atlantic Council has not proven unmanageable "at 26". As Czech NATO Ambassador Karel Kovanda observed in a speech at the Marshall Center in Germany in October 2003: "If the four or five Allies with important stakes of one kind or another reach a consensus among themselves", an overall consensus is "virtually assured", whether the total number of Allies is 19 or 26. Second, NATO's resolve to undertake "new missions" to "wherever" the threat required continues to be embraced and indeed extended by the Alliance, as exemplified by the Istanbul Summit decision to expand the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and agreement at the recent Brussels gathering by all 26 Allies to contribute in one form or another to the Iraqi Training Mission. Third, NATO's success in standing up its new Allied Command Transformation and in accelerating the first availability of the NRF reflects exemplary leadership from the NATO Military Authorities.

The picture with regard to new capabilities, such as strategic sea- and air-lift, air-to-air refuelling and Alliance Ground Surveillance programmes, is less clear, and not as positive, though there is no question that some progress is being made. The sealift initiative, led by Norway, is well-advanced, with Danish and UK ships available now for use and access to others assured. At Istanbul, defence ministers signed a Memorandum of Understanding committing the German-led strategic air-lift project to achieve an operational air-lift capacity for outsize cargo through an on-call availability charter by the end of this year using up to six Antonov An-124-100 transport aircraft. Under Spanish leadership, NATO's working group on air-to-air refuelling has continued its planning. Alliance Ground Surveillance seems poised to advance into the design and development phase (assuming the current risk reduction effort is accepted and adequately funded by participating nations). NATO has also made definite gains since Prague in equipping its air forces with precision-guided munitions, in prioritising its armaments cooperation efforts in the defence-against-terrorism area, and in approving the blueprint for a NATO Theatre Missile Defence capability.

But in more cases than not, the "first availability" dates for these crucial strategic enablers remain years away, with the bulk of funding yet to come. In addition, as NATO Allies (including the United States) increasingly allocate defence spending to the operations and maintenance prerequisites of expanded global operations, this priority is beginning to crowd out funding that might otherwise be earmarked for the longer-term PCC modernisation programmes. Moreover, with the immediate difficulties of sustaining NATO's many crisis-response operations demanding much of the Headquarters' time and attention, the principal long-term PCC modernisation programmes are no longer scrutinised by the North Atlantic Council in the manner they were when Lord Robertson constantly exerted what he called his "own brand of political electro-convulsive therapy" to pressure nations to respond to his "capabilities, capabilities, capabilities" exhortations.

Norfolk Agenda

At a meeting at Allied Command Transformation last April, Secretary General De Hoop Scheffer invited debate on what he has come to term the "Norfolk Agenda". These possible changes in defence-planning, force-generation, and common-funding arrangements are, he believes, needed to correct "a disconnect between our repeated ambitious declarations and our ability to put the required forces on the ground" and a force-generation process that "is just not working anymore". Discouraged by constantly having to haggle with Allies over a helicopter here or a support unit there, he warned in an October 2004 speech to the US European Command that: "Unless Allies are able and willing to deploy these forces for NATO missions, the Damocles sword will hang over our operations and NATO's future."

As part of the Norfolk Agenda, NATO last November convened the first-ever "Global Force Generation" conference to try to reconcile individual nation's commitments to the various NRF rotations with their commitments to the crisis-response operations in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. Discussions within the Executive Working Group on the issue of improved predictability of national contributions to NATO forces have been intensified. The Chairman of the Military Committee, General Harald Kujat, has issued a Comprehensive Approach paper aimed at providing a military view on how best to rationalise the defence, operational, intelligence and resource planning disciplines.

Other force-generation options that are being explored as part of the Norfolk Agenda include receiving operational planning options and a clearer sense of individual Allies' willingness to contribute specific capabilities before the Alliance makes the political commitment to intervene in a crisis or conflict; developing better usability and output targets to assess a nation's ability to deploy its forces effectively in crisis-response operations; extending the time-frame for force commitments to two years to improve predictability; and requiring nations to "opt out" of that commitment rather than expecting nations to "opt in" through successive shorter-term commitments of troops or equipment to a particular crisis-response operation; and establishing new multinational structures dedicated to post-conflict stabilisation roles.

In the area of common funding reform, the Secretary General has invited discussion on increasing the common military budgets - the NATO Security Investment Programme (NSIP) and the Military Budget - and applying them to the more operational aspects of current NATO deployments; utilising more contractor outsourcing; building NATO contingency funding into nations' defence budgets; and establishing "NATO AWACS-like" groupings and budgets in the areas of logistics, medical services and helicopter lift.

At this stage, it is clearly too early to venture an assessment of progress in the Norfolk Agenda. Initial discussions in a number of the areas, though, suggest tough going ahead, particularly with regard to overhauling and expanding the eligibility rules for the NSIP and Military Budget accounts (where, among other things, a seemingly intractable dispute over national cost shares has produced a stalemate) and to overcoming some Allies' reluctance to provide NATO significantly greater information on the disposition of their forces.

Munich Agenda

At the conclusion of their February meeting in Brussels, Allied leaders committed themselves to "strengthening NATO's role as a forum for strategic and political consultation and coordination among Allies, while reaffirming its place as the essential forum for security consultation between Europe and North America".

This initiative brought to an end a brief but intense period of consultations prompted ten days earlier by Chancellor Schröder's written intervention (read by Defence Minister Peter Struck, since the Chancellor had fallen ill) at the Munich Conference on European Security Policy. There, the Chancellor's assertion that NATO "was no longer the primary venue where transatlantic partners discuss and coordinate strategies" and his proposal for a "high-ranking panel of independent figures from both sides of the Atlantic to help us find a solution" for avoiding future Iraq-like crises provoked headlines and some consternation among senior NATO, as well as US, officials who had been caught off-guard.

NATO has faced a "transformational" imperative since the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade and a half ago

In the ensuing controversy, German officials went to great lengths to stress that the Chancellor had not been pronouncing last rites for NATO but had wanted to strengthen it. For their part, NATO and US officials tended to differentiate between the "outside panel" suggestion (which they rejected) and the underlying substantive criticism. After all, there was no question that the United States had not been willing to use NATO as the primary venue to discuss and coordinate such fundamental US strategic decisions as those on how and where to attack the Taliban and al Qaida in Afghanistan or how long to give the UN Security Council inspection process to produce results before going to war with Iraq. Nor has the North Atlantic Council been the primary venue for strategic consultations between the United States and its NATO Allies on such high-priority issues as preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons or the European Union's intention to remove the arms embargo on China.

In effect, Chancellor Schröder was questioning whether all the transformational reforms initiated at Prague and Norfolk would be for naught if the Alliance was unable to function as a genuine partnership in the pre-conflict strategic decision-making phases. In this sense, he was not only standing General Charles de Gaulle's dictum - "Of what use is strategic planning if the means of carrying it out are not forthcoming?" - on its head, but also echoing frustrations with the quality of political dialogue at NATO, previously broached publicly by other European leaders, including Secretary General De Hoop Scheffer himself.

By the time the Brussels Summit had convened, all parties had resolved to accentuate the positive. As President George W. Bush said at a press conference the next day: "I interpreted the comments to mean he wants NATO to be relevant, a place where there is meaningful strategic dialogue. And that was very clear to everybody sitting around the table. And the meeting ended with Jaap saying to everybody that he's going to come back with a plan to make sure that the strategic dialogue in NATO is relevant."

Agreeing to produce a plan is, of course, one thing. Achieving consensus on the terms of reference for freewheeling political debate is another. For their part, those European Allies who have traditionally been least willing to allow the North Atlantic Council to discuss issues they have considered as exclusively the European Union's business, such as Galileo or the China arms embargo, will now have to accept what before would have been seen as NATO "meddling". And for its part, the United States will need to find some means of broaching strategic issues in the North Atlantic Council that have yet to be agreed within the US inter-agency process, let alone vetted with Congress. That said, the challenge of genuinely "consulting" with Allies as opposed to simply "informing" them of decisions already taken is no more or no less daunting than the challenge any US administration routinely faces in trying to form genuine partnerships with the Hill, or, for that matter, with its main partners within "coalitions of the willing".

Soldiering on

NATO today is, on the one hand, being saluted by the leaders of its most powerful member as "more active than ever", "the most successful alliance in history", and "the vital relationship for the United States when it comes to security". It can justifiably point with pride to its success in expanding its membership, reorganising its Command Structure and Headquarters organisation, expanding its operations and its operational reach, and making progress in modernising its inventory of capabilities to meet new threats and security challenges.

On the other hand, doubts about the risk of failure persist. From the Secretary General on down, the organisation bemoans the disconnect between Allies' willingness to embrace new missions and new capabilities, on the one hand, and to pledge the manpower, equipment and resources needed to deliver on those missions and capabilities, on the other. In both cases, critics, and not just critics, wonder whether the requisite political will is really there. In addition, Chancellor Schröder obviously touched upon a raw nerve in publicly highlighting NATO's diminished importance as a venue for genuine transatlantic decision-making on issues of transcending strategic importance.

But NATO will soldier on, as it always has. As the indispensable security alliance of the transatlantic community of nations, NATO can be counted upon to continue to pursue its three transformation agenda - Prague, Norfolk and Munich - with good intent and common purpose, however haltingly, however imperfectly. Much rides on the outcome.

Robert G. Bell was NATO's Assistant Secretary General for Defence Investment from 1999-2003 and now works in Brussels as a senior vice president of SAIC.