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Diego A. Ruiz Palmer, Head of the Strategic Analysis Capability staff in NATO’s Emerging Security Challenges Division

To tiår med NATO-operasjoner: holde vareopptelling, se fremover

This summer will mark the twentieth anniversary of the launching by NATO of its first ever operations, following the end of the Cold War. In July 1992, NATO initiated Operation Maritime Monitor in the Adriatic Sea, to monitor compliance by international shipping with sanctions imposed by the United Nations (UN) on the former Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY).


This spring will also mark the tenth anniversary of the creation, at NATO’s 2002 Summit in Prague, of the NATO Response Force (NRF). In the light of the central importance which operations, as well as the NRF, have assumed in defining the Alliance’s enduring relevance to the prevention and management of crises and the resolution of conflicts, it seems appropriate at this time to examine NATO’s two-decade long operational record and take stock. With its focus on 2020, the Chicago Summit also provides an opportunity to look forward and reflect on the operational adaptations that seem most sensible and desirable to ensure that NATO remains highly capable and ready to act, when necessary.

First steps in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The rapidly spreading wars across the Former Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) in the early 1990s were the trigger for NATO’s first foray beyond Alliance territory. They constituted the first test of NATO’s capacity to plan and conduct multinational operations in rapid succession and to deploy and employ forces at short notice, in an unfamiliar geographic environment and in shifting operational circumstances.

The short-lived Maritime Monitor was followed in the autumn 1992 by Operation Maritime Guard, which involved enforcement of an embargo and authorised NATO ships to stop, inspect and divert ships bound for FRY and, in June 1993, by Operation Sharp Guard, a combined maritime embargo enforcement operation between NATO and the Western European Union (WEU), a first at the time. In parallel, NATO launched Operation Sky Monitor to monitor with its multinational fleet of airborne warning and control aircraft (AWACS) unauthorized flights in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s airspace. In April 1993, Operation Deny Flight succeeded Sky Monitor to enforce, and not only monitor, the air exclusion zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In less than a year, NATO had become deeply involved, under successive UN mandates, in the International Community’s still tentative steps to contain the widening conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, albeit in a supporting role. The Alliance had demonstrated in just a few months its distinct, and in many ways unrivaled, capacity to adapt its Cold War planning processes, command and control arrangements and military capabilities to the unprecedented circumstances of operating in a conflict area, and to do so swiftly. The stepping stones for the conduct of operations continuously over the next two decades, across three continents, stretching from the Balkans to the Indian Ocean, and for anchoring NATO’s political and operational credibility as a reliable and trusted partner of the International Community, had been laid down in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Maritime Monitor and over 25 other NATO and NATO-led operations and missions conducted by the Alliance since then in Europe, Asia and Africa in support of the International Community were undertaken outside of the Alliance’s collective defence framework and common defence area, as set out in Articles 5 and 6 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Accordingly, they have been designated “non-Article 5” or crisis response operations. Since the end of the Cold War, the Alliance has also conducted a smaller number of deterrence and defence operations, pursuant to Articles 4 and 5 of the Treaty, in Turkey (Operations Southern Guard, Ace Guard and Anchor Guard in 1990-1991 and, Display Deterrence and Crescent Guard in 2003, coinciding with the first and second Gulf wars), North America (Operation Eagle Assist in 2001-2002, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States) and the Mediterranean Sea (notably, Active Endeavour since the autumn 2001, also following the 9/11 attacks). From 2004 and 2008 onwards, respectively, NATO has also been conducting air policing operations from airbases in Lithuania and Iceland, as extensions of NATO’s standing air defence mission throughout NATO Europe.


In all, some 35 distinct operations -- each fulfilling a particular mandate and mission, in very diverse theatres, involving in many cases a wide-ranging spectrum of non-NATO nations, most recently in Libya, and various sets of discrete operational capabilities – have kept NATO engaged continuously for the last 20 years (see table).

Looking back, looking forward

NATO’s deepening engagement in the Balkans

Operation Deny Flight’s initial focus on air interception gradually expanded to the provision of close air support to UNPROFOR and the performance of air-to-ground strikes against belligerents under restrictive rules of engagement and in often complex circumstances on the ground. These increasingly demanding tasks paved the way in August 1995 for the three week-long Deliberate Force air campaign which, together with the engagement of a British-Dutch-French Rapid Reaction Force on the ground, created the conditions necessary for the cessation of hostilities, the conclusion of the Dayton Agreements, and the deployment in December 1995 of the 60,000 men-strong Peace Implementation Force (IFOR), NATO’s first peace-enforcement operation. A year later, IFOR was renamed Stabilisation Force (SFOR). In December 2004, under Operation Althea, a European Union Force commanded by NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, and directed from SHAPE as its operations headquarters, took over from SFOR, marking the first time that NATO supported with its assets and capabilities an operation led by the European Union (EU).

As the political and humanitarian situation deteriorated in Kosovo, NATO was solicited again, this time to provide air imagery to monitors of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Kosovo Verification Mission. Specialised aircraft contributed by France, the United Kingdom and the United States conducted air reconnaissance sorties over Kosovo under Operation Eagle Eye between October 1998 and March 1999. In January 1999, NATO also stood-up in the neighbouring Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) an “extraction force” ready at short notice to evacuate from Kosovo OCSE monitors if they had come under threat. Eventually, the collapse of international negotiations with the FRY at Rambouillet, in France, precipitated the initiation in March 1999 of NATO’s second, but much larger and longer lasting, air campaign, Allied Force. The growing flow of refugees from Kosovo fleeing the ethnic cleansing in their homeland that intensified during the air campaign quickly overwhelmed Albania. NATO reacted by launching Operation Allied Harbour, its first ever humanitarian assistance operation, and deploying promptly an Albania Force (AFOR) to help provide shelter and supplies on a large scale. Eventually, Allied Force opened the way in Kosovo to an uneasy but still genuine truce, which a 40,000 men-strong NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) was mandated by the UN to enforce.

NATO’s next and final new operational commitment in the Balkans took the form in 2001-2003 of three successive, small but urgent operations in FYROM – Essential Harvest; Amber Fox and Allied Harmony – to disarm irregular armed groups and collect their weapons, protect monitors dispatched by the European Union (EU) and the OSCE, and strengthen security, respectively. These operations were backed-up with closely coordinated and determined diplomacy by NATO and the EU, reflecting a new partnership born from the common experience in Kosovo. In March 2003, Allied Harmony was succeeded by the EU’s Operation Concordia, setting a pattern of the EU taking over operations from NATO when conditions on the ground and internationally so permitted.

Nearly 10 years of continuous involvement on the ground, in the air and at sea in helping contain and end conflicts in the Balkans had transformed the Alliance into a mature crisis-management institution that could back up its operational commitments with a strong and visible political engagement. It could also work in concert with other international organisations, planting the seeds of a “comprehensive approach” to crisis-management, well before the concept would catch-on nearly a decade later. If the dual political and military nature of NATO was insufficiently appreciated, the Alliance’s engagement in the Balkans had laid those misperceptions to rest.

Since the early days of NATO’s engagement in the Balkans, operations and missions have become the most salient aspect of a transformed Alliance. Over the last two decades, NATO has displayed repeatedly its unique capacity to plan and initiate at short notice and to conduct, sometimes at a strategic distance from Europe and often for an extended period of time, multinational operations of varying scale and complexity. These have involved joint, as well as land, air and maritime, operations, and various combinations of skills, assets and capabilities.

The types of operations undertaken have covered virtually the entire spectrum, from peace enforcement in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo to multi-faceted security assistance in Afghanistan, and from maritime embargo operations along the coasts of the FRY and of Libya to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in Albania and in Pakistan, respectively.

Some have been executed in a relatively benign environment, others in a hostile one. All have been characterized by tight political control, strict adherence to the mandate, mission and rules of engagement, and a shared concern for the protection of human life and the avoidance of civilian casualties.

The Alliance has also demonstrated its readiness and capacity to work with other international organisations, such as the UN, WEU, EU, OSCE and AU; to take and hand over operations from and to others (e.g., IFOR from UNPROFOR and SFOR to EUFOR in Bosnia); and to operate alongside coalition operations, such as Provide Promise in Bosnia and Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, led by Allies.

Many operations and missions have involved all Allies, such as IFOR, SFOR, KFOR and ISAF, others various combinations of Allies and non-NATO countries from around the world. By involving the armed forces of NATO’s newest members and many of its partners, operations and missions have made the Alliance’s enlargement and partnerships visible and tangible.


Often, circumstances on the ground prompted the adoption by NATO of novel operational tools, such as Multinational Specialised Units (MSU) of French Gendarmes, Italian Carabinieri and other similar constabulary forces in SFOR and KFOR to provide second-line crowd-control support to local and international police forces, and civil-military Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan to enhance the synergy of ISAF with development assistance efforts.

The Afghanistan pivot and NATO’s widening operational engagement in Asia

More change, and on a grander scale, would come with NATO’s deepening engagement in Afghanistan following its assumption of command in August 2003 of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) that had been established two and a half years earlier in the framework of the December 2001 Bonn agreements. Since that time, the determination of the 50 nation-strong coalition built around ISAF has been confronted repeatedly with the inherent harshness of conditions in Afghanistan, the legacy of three decades of internecine war and the resilience of the Taliban insurgency. NATO has had to contend with the formidable challenges of leading one of the largest and longest-running international operations since World War Two and of sustaining in a remote and inhospitable theatre a force that has grown from 5,000 men and women garrisoned in Kabul to 140,000 deployed across the country, as well as of devising a comprehensive and compelling political-military strategy to underpin such an ambitious and demanding engagement.

NATO’s resolve and capacity to see its engagement in Afghanistan through have been called into question time and again. Yet, despite the enduring difficulties of a challenging and seemingly unrewarding commitment, several facts speak for themselves: NATO’s demonstrated capacity to deliver on its 2002 pledge to “field forces that can move quickly to wherever they are needed“; the steadfastness of purpose that derives from a permanent, treaty-based alliance, in comparison with a transient ad hoc coalition; and the attractiveness of NATO-led operations, for many non-NATO countries around the world – 22 contribute troops to ISAF currently -- that rely on NATO to offer the institutional framework for operationalising their commitment to advancing international peace and security. As a result, NATO’s engagement has helped set the conditions for two strategic developments -- the irreversible transformation of Afghanistan following its experience of greater stability and the irretrievable weakening of al-Qaeda’s central component – that have removed the essential conditions that pre-existed in 2001.

Beyond Afghanistan, the past decade also witnessed the Alliance conducting in 2005, for the first time, two disaster-relief operations following Hurricane Katrina in the United States and a major earthquake in Pakistan, in each case using readily deployable elements of the NRF. Starting in 2008 with Operation Allied Provider, NATO has also been contributing to wider international efforts to combat piracy at sea and to protect merchant, as well as humanitarian, shipping in the western Indian Ocean, alongside the U.S-led Combined Maritime Forces, the EU and countries such as China, India, Japan and Russia. In addition to traditional operations, NATO has also undertaken important training and mentoring missions in Iraq from 2004 to 2011 and since 2009 in Afghanistan, designed to build up the capacity of local security forces. These various operational engagements have often be accompanied with the pursuit of expanded political dialogue and the development of distinct partnerships, and benefited from NATO’s recognised expertise in the field of security sector reform.


The planning and execution of operations by NATO and by Allies, however, has not been exempt from shortcomings. These have included systematic shortfalls in the generation of the required capabilities (e.g., utility helicopters in Afghanistan; frigates and maritime patrol aircraft in the Indian Ocean); insufficient attention being given to the provision of non-military capacity, such as civilian development advisors and legal experts, to underpin stabilisation and reconstruction efforts; the imposition of national caveats on the deployment and employment of national forces by NATO commanders; discordant staff rotation schedules among troop-contributing countries that disrupt the tempo of operations; and an excessive reliance on ad hoc command and control arrangements that deviate from, and ultimately undermine, the agreed NATO chain of command concepts and structures. The effectiveness of individual NATO operations and missions would also have benefited from a more global political consideration by Alliance member nations of their overall management and resourcing.

NATO’s new African horizon

NATO’s initial operational engagement in Africa between 2005 and 2007 resulted from an initiative by the African Union (AU) to solicit airlift support to the AU’s Mission in Sudan (AMIS). Support to AMIS was followed with the provision of airlift and sealift support to the AU’s Mission in Somalia. In addition, NATO is assisting in the strengthening of the AU’s capacity to plan and conduct its own peace-keeping operations and in the building up of the African Standby Force.

NATO’s engagement in Libya between March and September last year, which involved the protection of civilians and populated areas and the enforcement of no-fly zone and maritime embargo, demonstrated again NATO’s ability to act promptly and involve partners in its operations, this time four nations -- Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Sweden -- which participated in the air campaign.

Looking towards 2020, the prospect of a lower operational tempo, as well as the need to remain ready to act at all times, will prompt NATO to review and, in some cases, revise the design of its engagements in the direction of the following: new, visible forms of presence, including through an expanded reliance on the NRF as a standing, highly capable and deployable force, and a more regular scheduling of NATO exercises; a greater emphasis on naval forces and information-sharing hubs ashore to help meet a range of maritime security and other emerging challenges at and from the sea; a determined endeavour to use the new NATO Command Structure to command and control operations, as an alternative to ad hoc arrangements; a more deliberate effort to expand the pool of mentors available for NATO training missions to train and mentor local security forces; a greater reliance on military cooperation with partners to enhance their potential contributions to any future NATO operations and mission and to support local capacity-building efforts; and a more systematic reach-out by NATO’s family of multinational Centres of Excellence to partners to build-up together compatible and interoperable forces and capabilities. These reforms should help ensure that lessons learned from two decades of operations are reflected in NATO’s evolving operational capability. At the same, care will need to be exercised to ensure that the process of transition in Afghanistan and a gradual return of allied and partner forces to their home locations do not erode the habits of working together, and sometimes fighting together, that are at the heart of the Alliance’s recognized operational responsiveness and effectiveness.


Much has been achieved by NATO through its many operations and missions. NATO’s engagement in Libya demonstrated again its ability to act, and to do so promptly and successfully, with others, and in challenging and unprecedented circumstances. As the Alliance considers in Chicago the future direction of its transformation towards a 2020 horizon, as well as the next steps in the conduct of its engagements in Afghanistan and elsewhere, it has a strong baseline of operational experience to build upon and an impressive operational record to draw on.

NATO’s operations and missions, 1991 - 2012

A. Deterrence and defence operations

  1. Southern Guard
  2. Ace Guard
  3. Anchor Guard
  4. Agile Genie
  5. Eagle Assist
  6. Active Endeavour
  7. Determined Deterrence
  8. Crescent Guard

B. Crisis management and response operations

  1. Maritime Monitor
  2. Sky Monitor
  3. Maritime Guard
  4. Deny Flight
  5. Sharp Guard
  6. Deliberate Force
  7. IFOR
  8. SFOR
  9. Eagle Eye
  10. NATO Extraction Force
  11. Allied Force
  12. Allied Harbour (AFOR)
  13. KFOR
  14. Essential Harvest
  15. Amber Fox
  16. Allied Harmony
  17. ISAF
  18. NTM-Iraq
  19. Disaster relief operation – Hurricane Katrina (USA)
  20. Disaster relief operation – earthquake Pakistan
  21. NATO airlift support to AMIS (Sudan)
  22. NATO airlift and sealift support to AMISOM (Somalia)
  23. Allied Provider
  24. Allied Protector
  25. Ocean Shield
  26. NTM-Afghanistan
  27. Unified Protector

Barack Obama
Amerikansk senator, 2006
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