NATO Undergoes Massive Transformation

February 2006
By Rita Boland


Photograph courtesy of NATO
NATO soldiers participate in exercise Urgent Quest at Salisbury Plain Training Area, part of the United Kingdom’s Army Training Estate Plain in the fall of 2005. The exercise gave allied warfighters conducting combined operations the opportunity to use advanced technology in the most realistic conditions achievable.

The alliance reshapes its philosophy and structure to support a global, responsive force.

Since launching its first offensive operation in Kosovo in 1999, NATO has been changing its command structure and improving its ability to deploy small troop units quickly to anywhere in the world. It has shifted from a regional focus to a global focus and from its traditional tendency of taking an immediate action outlook for the more proactive approach of preparing a vision for future operations.

In 2001, the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization located in Arlington, Virginia, published a report titled European Contributions to Operation Allied Force: Implications for Transatlantic Cooperation. RAND released the NATO Kosovo report as part of Project Air Force (PAF), a federally funded research and development center. PAF provides objective studies and analyses on topics relevant and important to the U.S. Air Force.

The report recommended a set of improvements for NATO in response to NATO’s 78-day air campaign against Slobodan Milosevic, former president of Serbia and Yugoslavia, and his forces in Kosovo. The recommendations, compiled by a group of RAND researchers, identify several major areas in which NATO and its individual member nations could improve their support of future coalition military operations. Though not singly influenced by RAND’s report, NATO has adopted—at least indirectly—the report’s ideas. Most of the report’s suggestions aligned with the thinking at the time, and NATO discussed and acted on several of the issues at the Prague Summit in 2002.

“A lot of the issues [addressed in the report] are still relevant,” says Nora Bensahel, a senior political scientist who worked on the report. “NATO has clearly taken on a much larger role.” Bensahel has continued to study the United Nations’ and the United States’ relations with foreign countries. She wrote a report in 2003 about how the United States should manage its relations in counterterrorism titled Counterterror Coalitions: How Should the United States Engage Europe?

In the 2001 report, RAND researchers offer suggestions for the United States, the European allies and NATO, with most relating to NATO. The alliance has worked to improve and to remedy several of the problem areas that were identified. “We hoped these recommendations would become part of the argument,” Bensahel says. “We were certainly not the only people saying that at the time.”

The first issue addressed in the report is the United States and its position as the military powerhouse in the alliance. In filling that role, the report asserts that the United States should remain the allied force integrator, advocate for more vigorous action in military operations, encourage allied air forces to use and to emphasize multipurpose capabilities, and develop and support NATO training exercises.

According to Bensahel, the United States has stepped up and taken action on these requests. The Allied Command Transformation (ACT), Norfolk, Virginia, formed at the Prague Summit, works to transform NATO’s military capabilities; to prepare, support and sustain Alliance operations; and to implement the NATO Response Force (NRF) and other deployable capabilities (SIGNAL Magazine, November 2005, page 37). Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT) Gen. Lance Williams, USAF, also is the commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), and the two commands often combine efforts and resources.

Cmdr. Denise Shorey, USN, public information plans and policy officer at ACT, explains the relationship between ACT and JFCOM as synergistic. “That’s one reason ACT is in Norfolk and the general is dual-hatted,” she says. “The U.S. has a very positive role to play in this whole concept of transformation. We have a lot of collaboration between the two commands.”

Despite larger defense contractor roles in military operations in the United States and overseas, Bensahel does not expect the greater use of defense contractors to play any significant role in NATO operations. “The increasing use of contractors on the battlefield is a huge issue, but it doesn’t have a large effect on NATO,” she says.

The next set of recommendations in the report identifies six major issues that relate to NATO as a whole: command structures, the Defense Capabilities Initiative (DCI), alliance-based assets, a system for operational decisions, doctrine and military practices, and the consultation process.

The alliance has made the most progress in the area of command structures. The overarching recommendation RAND made was for NATO to optimize command structures for coalition operations. In 2001, NATO had 65 commands. By 2005, that number was down to 20, and the two major commands had been realigned and renamed to ACT and Allied Command Operations. “That’s a very fundamental shift,” Bensahel says. “We tend to forget just how significant the types of changes they’ve made are. This is unanimity.”

Members of the alliance had to vote unanimously to accept the realignment. The reorganization changes NATO’s focus from regions to operations and from interoperability and strategizing to future coalition operations—an important paradigm shift as NATO becomes more than just an alliance protecting its members’ borders. The ACT also represents a transformation in NATO from being an entity that reacts to imminent threats to an organization that plans for future troop capabilities.

“Every morning we wake up and think of how to promote change and make things better,” says Lt. Gen. J.O. Michel Maisonneuve, CF, chief of staff, Headquarters SACT. “It is a revolution. I think some nations are starting to see the benefit of having a full time change-management, change-encouragement organization.”

The RAND report also addresses the now defunct DCI. The DCI, created to improve processes such as force sustainability and interoperability, was replaced by other initiatives, most notably the NRF promoted by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In contrast to the mass units used by NATO allies during the Cold War, the NRF uses smaller units that are capable of deploying worldwide on short notice.

The NRF reached partial capability in 2005 and should reach full capability in October 2006. A training exercise named Steadfast Jaguar will take place for 30 days in June near Cape Verde to test the operational readiness of the force. “NRF is the mechanism, the primary tool for which NATO will conduct operations in the future,” Gen. Maisonneuve says.

NATO has made great strides in being able to deploy quickly, especially among European partners. While the British and the French have had the ability to mobilize forces with little notice, the alliance realized after the Kosovo operation that creating a consensus for an offensive initiative is difficult and actions to create operational coalition plans and consensus should be taken in advance.

A NATO doctor from the Netherlands treats a small child near Bagh, Pakistan, injured in the October 8, 2005, earthquake. Medical personnel at the NATO field hospital treat several hundred patients a day and offer inpatient care.
The third recommendation for NATO was to expand the number of alliance-based assets. “There’s a difference between NATO and the capabilities of the individual members,” Bensahel says. “NATO relies on its members to provide assets.”

Progress under this recommendation has been slow because of debate among allies about budgeting and contributions, along with how the assets should be used. Bensahel is not surprised that reorganization came more easily than reallocation. “It comes down to money,” she says.

While individual member nations contribute most of the assets NATO uses, occasionally the alliance asks for common funding, for example, the purchase of the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), which NATO—not a member nation—owns. Gen. Maisonneuve explains that working within an alliance has challenges.

“Working in an alliance that’s based on consensus is never easy,” the general says. “Not everybody will agree all the time.” However, he adds that there is nothing more powerful than the alliance when all its members act together.

The fourth recommendation—for NATO to develop a more responsive system to request forces and assets from its members and to make operational decisions—has been addressed through the alliance’s command structure realignment and the NRF.

The last two NATO recommendations have resulted in improved peacekeeping missions but have not been tested in an operational setting. The RAND report urges NATO to “investigate new ways to forge agreements on doctrine and military practices in a way that will approximate a common operational approach” and “to perfect and institutionalize a process of consultation and deliberation among its members.”

While NATO has not attempted to create a common operational approach in a combat initiative since Kosovo, the creation of the ACT demonstrates NATO’s dedication to preparing its forces for future coalition operations. The ACT is designed to work on these types of issues and to find solutions to potential problems. In peacekeeping initiatives such as the one underway in Afghanistan, the alliance has real-world experience that is paying off in terms of finding ways to cooperate on these missions.

The consultation process among NATO members also has changed. NATO now has 26 members, up from 19 in 2001. The new members comprise mainly Baltic States and countries formerly under Communist rule, and they create greater diversity within NATO. According to Bensahel, the 26 nations have cooperated extremely well in the actions they have undertaken, but she cautions that the extent to which the cooperation will extend in an offensive strike has yet to be tested.

During the Kosovo campaign, the use of force and the type of force were causes for debate and deliberation among member nations. According to John E. Peters, a RAND senior researcher and project lead on the report, the allies were concerned about limiting the use of force, and they still have concerns over what is permissible in combat.

The final RAND recommendation addresses the need for NATO’s European members to dedicate more funding to troop modernization and key capabilities, especially in “complete, coherent, air-ground force packages.”

“The really high-tech stuff has become less central to allied operations,” Peters says. “In a world populated by Iraqs and Afghanistans, any air power matters. Whether somebody can do extended flights … is less compelling.”

Developing air power may prove especially important if an initiative like Kosovo plays out again. During strikes in Kosovo, NATO allies were eager to use only air power because they wanted to limit the use of force and ground troops. Europe has made little progress in this area, and in some countries defense spending has actually decreased. The United States bears the brunt of military spending and capability. European countries are still more likely to devote their funding to domestic issues.

While most of the recommendations made in the 2001 report have been adopted in some form, NATO’s role in the world has changed significantly in the past four years. The operation in Kosovo marked a transformation of NATO from a regional defensive alliance to a worldwide responsive and offensive force.

After September 11, 2001, NATO took on the role of peacekeeper in areas like Afghanistan and Iraq. The NATO presence in these countries marks NATO’s transition from a regional to a global mindset. “Talking about Afghanistan is very important to talking about the future of the alliance,” Bensahel says.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, NATO voted to invoke Article V, which states that an attack on one NATO state is an attack on all allies. This provision was originally instated so the United States could come to the aid of its European counterparts in the event of an attack. However, NATO invoked Article V for the first time to support the United States. Following the al-Qaida attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., NATO dispatched its own AWACS early warning aircraft, crewed largely by Europeans, to patrol the skies over the United States homeland.

Despite the transformation the alliance has undergone, Bensahel says she has not been greatly surprised by what she has seen, nor does she believe the report team would have greatly altered their recommendations if they could have foreseen the future organizational changes and world events, especially the terrorist attacks. “It’s very much in line with what we have envisaged,” she says.

The question of when to use NATO is a political decision made by delegates from member nations. NATO’s changes in the past few years allow it to be more effective when it decides to act. Questions still remaining for NATO transformation include whether the European countries will step up to provide more assets and funding and, if NATO does engage in future offensive operations, who will participate and in what roles. But the alliance is continuing to try to find the answers before trouble strikes.

“[ACT] is a beast here that’s been standing up and trying to find its niche in terms of promoting the transformation of NATO,” Gen. Maisonneuve says. “I think it’s accomplishing great things.”


Web Resources
European Contributions to Operation Allied Force: Implications for Transatlantic Cooperation Research Brief:
NATO Allied Command Transformation:
Project Air Force:
NATO’s Evolving Operations:


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