All for One in NATO

Sept. 28, 2015

NATO is reassessing and transforming its military capabilities and organization to better carry out its central mission: collective defense.

The alliance is engaged in a robust update of its training and exercises and re-tooling what members contribute to collective operations. The overhaul is needed to respond to 21st century threats, such as the “hybrid warfare” launched by Russia in its early 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

Since Russia’s seizure of Crimea, NATO has been busy with a series of initiatives meant to reassure its easternmost members. These include creating and reinforcing new rapid-reaction military capabilities, streamlining the alliance’s ponderous political-military decision-making process, and forming new joint headquarters and logistics nodes to enable future operations on the eastern front. The Crimea crisis also invigorated efforts to field better alliance-owned capabilities—intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance tools in particular—to provide better “strategic warning” and ISR collection to monitor threats, especially

preparations for war.

Rethinking NATO

NATO officials say collective defense—the driving provision of the 1949 treaty creating the organization—has really not been rethought since the alliance bloomed to 28 members in the post-Cold War era. Current reforms have implications far beyond today’s disagreement with Moscow over a nation, Ukraine, that is not a NATO member.

“We are not in a Cold War situation, but we are not in a strategic partnership with Russia, either,” Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in June, just prior to a meeting in Brussels of the alliance’s Defense Ministers. Beyond reassuring allies worried about Russian intentions, NATO is struggling to deal with the violence and turmoil of the Middle East and North Africa that directly affects members such as France, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Turkey, all of them awash in refugees.

From the east to the south, NATO must adapt to a “fundamentally changed” security environment, Stoltenberg said.

In March remarks at a NATO conference in Washington, D.C., Stoltenberg pointed out that “for the first time in NATO’s history” it must embrace and fortify its commitment to collective defense in light of Russia’s aggression and simultaneously reform its ability to quickly assess and respond to global crises wherever they emerge.

“We have to do both at the same time,” he said. By doing so, NATO nations and their militaries will better confront the challenges of hybrid war, which he called a “dark reflection” of the alliance’s approach to collective security. The term refers to using military and nonmilitary force to destabilize countries, using proxy forces, propaganda, special operations, and intimidation to lay a “thick fog of confusion” over aggressive military actions. This approach is nothing less than “a test of our resolve to resist and to defend ourselves,” Stoltenberg said, and NATO must respond.

According to Royal Danish Army Gen. Knud Bartels, head of NATO’s Military Committee from July 2012 to May 2015, what is now occurring in NATO is nothing short of a “reposturing of the alliance at the military level.” Ongoing assurance activities, such as exercises launched in the wake of the Crimean annexation, are being linked to NATO’s Connected Forces Initiative (CFI).

Started before Russia’s Crimea invasion, the CFI seeks to better connect NATO militaries and speed up response time. The long-running effort to transform NATO operations in the years after the Cold War will be “accelerated,” Bartels said last October.

For an organization placing high value on deliberation and consensus-building, the last year has seen a rapid pace of reform. Some of the revamped military capabilities and concepts—first articulated at the alliance’s September 2014 Wales Summit—are now operational, most notably the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), also known as the Spearhead Force.

The 5,000-strong rapid response group comprises land, air, sea, and special operations forces, organized and equipped to respond to threats within 48 hours. In April, it reached interim capability—full operational capability is projected for 2016—and began a series of exercises focused on alert procedures and rapid deployment.

Noble Jump

In early June, NATO carried out Exercise Noble Jump 2015, a full deployment exercise of the interim VJTF in Zagan, Poland, involving some 2,100 troops from nine alliance countries simulating a deployment from Central Europe to Eastern Europe. The event marked the first time the interim force deployed to conduct simulated tactical maneuvers as part of a reinvigorated NATO Response Force.

In February, NATO Defense Ministers approved the enhancement of the NATO Response Force in light of the new threats facing the alliance, declaring they would expand its size to 30,000 troops, representing two additional brigades’ worth of rapid reinforcement capability coupled to the VJTF.

The Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT), French air force Gen. Jean-Paul Palomeros, speaking with media at Noble Jump in June, said the event combined many of the concepts articulated in NATO’s CFI, and reinforced the creation of the Spearhead Force.

“Today is the mark of determination of NATO, of the allies, to regain on readiness, to re-emphasize credibility,” and show it has the capability to conduct high intensity operations rapidly, Palomeros said. Stoltenberg attended the event as well and touted its success days before the alliance’s June defense ministerial in Brussels.

“The establishment of this new Spearhead Force and the exercise in Poland sends a very clear signal that NATO is here. And NATO is ready,” he said.

The refinement of the NRF and the creation of the VJTF are only the first steps in NATO’s reboot of collective defense activities. US Ambassador to NATO Douglas E. Lute told reporters in June that since May 2014, the US and many NATO allies have ramped up exercising across NATO’s easternmost member states: those in the Baltics, plus Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania. The next step of the alliance’s readiness enhancement plans, he said, has to do with “how NATO is actually adapting,” he said. “What’s actually changing here?” he asked rhetorically. “Yes, we’re exercising more in the east, but what are we doing internally to reset ourselves for these new challenges?”

The answer came in the form of several enhancements to NATO’s reform plans, agreed to during the June defense ministerial in Brussels. These expanded the support mechanisms for the NATO Response Force and the Spearhead Force. Ministers approved an increase in the strength and capabilities of the NRF— particularly air, maritime, and special operations forces, Stoltenberg said in June. “All together, the enhanced NATO Response Force will consist of up to 40,000 personnel,” he said, more than triple its previous level of some 13,000 troops.

The range of forces available to the NRF and VJTF allows alliance leaders to change their compositions depending on the scenario and which allies contribute forces, a senior NATO policy official said. While Spain will lead the first fully operational Spearhead Force next year, seven other NATO allies have signed up to lead it in the future, Lute said. These additions and commitments show the VJTF has depth, he said, and the force is not just a concept on paper. “The European allies are stepping up in a meaningful way and taking the lead. That, of course, is very welcome,” Lute observed.

In addition, the alliance in June approved the design of six small headquarters elements in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. Each will be staffed by about 40 people and play a key role in planning NATO military events in those countries, exercising and assisting in potential reinforcement in the event of crisis. A senior NATO policy official, speaking on background, said these “NATO Force Integration Units” will be operational by Jan. 1, 2016.

“It’s slightly different for each country, but it is mostly a national process,” the official said in a June briefing at NATO headquarters. These integration units, experts on the character and capabilities of the local forces and facilities, are to “ease and speed up the incoming VJTF,” he said.

At the June meeting, alliance Defense Ministers approved formation of a Joint Standing Logistics Group (JSLG), inside of NATO’s command structure. It will enable reception, staging, and onward movement of NATO Response Force or spearhead units called to action. This group will provide all manner of supply to rapidly deploying NATO forces—from fuel and munitions to stocks—the official explained. Since the NRF is slated to be populated with forces from multiple nations, the alliance has decided it must “centralize” logistical support. “A fighting force does not function without this,” he said.

Getting Real

While building logistical support for its energized rapid response forces, NATO has revamped its political and military decision-making to enable swift response to hybrid events or other rapidly evolving contingencies. In a crisis, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, now has the ability to “alert, stage, and prepare” forces. This is a significant change: Previously, the North Atlantic Council had to approve any alliance preparations for potential operations. For the VJTF to act swiftly, it must be allowed to prepare while NATO’s political process plays out, the official noted. However, the North Atlantic Council must still approve any real-world mobilization of forces.

Exercises will be made more realistic to retain the credibility and effectiveness of these forces. According to two senior NATO military officials briefing at the June defense ministerial, NATO’s two strategic commands—Allied Command Operations (ACO) and Allied Command Transformation (ACT)—have completed updating and refining an exercise program that runs through 2020. This year alone, some 300 events will take place across the alliance—about a third organized and led by NATO and the rest conducted by NATO countries offering compatible training events. The expansion, one official said, is possible in part due to NATO’s drawdown from its Afghanistan International Security Assistance Force combat mission. This has freed up forces to develop high-intensity interoperability exercises.

The first major milestone in this plan begins this month. Exercise Trident Juncture 2015, running through Nov. 6 across locations in Italy, Portugal, and Spain, marks a major test for the Spearhead Force. The exercise is NATO’s largest since the end of the Cold War, with more than 30,000 personnel taking part in validating the concepts first explored in the Noble Jump event in June.

Noble Jump was “a brigade-sized unit,” one NATO military official said. “Here we have four [brigades’ worth] being tested and exercised.” The live portion of the event, slated to start later this month, will feature events and scenarios testing ISR collection and analysis; surveillance and target acquisition; and strategic communications and Air Force sustainment for the VJTF.

German Maj. Gen. Erich G. Siegmann, chief of staff of Allied Air Command, said in a June interview that Trident Juncture will be a venue to validate alliance air operations in the context of the VJTF. In any rapid response scenario, NATO’s ability to quickly secure air superiority is paramount, he said. Any NATO force could be challenged immediately if these skills are not fine-tuned, and Trident Juncture will feature training in some of these tasks, such as conducting air defense and ISR in contested areas. An estimated 200 aircraft from NATO nations will participate in the event, he said.

The exercise will include the new NATO joint force air component node at Poggio Renatico, Italy, part of the Air Command and Control System. Declared operational July 3, the Italy node will participate in Trident Juncture to validate its ability to command complex air operations across the alliance. Eventually, the ACCS network will comprise more than 20 control centers covering more than 3.8 million square miles of airspace and will become a key building block in NATO’s plan to build a robust air and missile defense system.

Though many activities related to the VJTF’s validation are ground-centric, Siegmann said NATO will soon expand training and exercising for alliance air capabilities as well. Trident Javelin, scheduled for 2017, is one such large joint force exercise and will focus on alliance air operations.

NATO airpower is a key enabler for better strategic warning, crucial to inform the alliance’s political process as it chooses how to act against new threats.

To support this goal, NATO is pursuing the Alliance Ground Surveillance program, eventually to involve five Global Hawk remotely piloted aircraft. Members of the AGS test team began arriving at Naval Air Station Sigonella on Italy’s island of Sicily in July. Pilots are being trained in the US and maintainers are working with contractors for more “hands-on training” in operations, said German air force Col. Uwe Klein, AGS implementation team leader at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Belgium.

Initial operational capability for the AGS system is anticipated by the end of 2018, he said. The aircraft—eventually to have some form of support from all 28 nations of the alliance—address a critical shortfall in NATO’s ISR capabilities. The wide area ground surveillance aircraft not only provide strategic ISR, but also can send information directly to tactical commanders on the ground, Klein said.

Having this capability within NATO, rather than having to ask member nations like the US or UK to provide it for the whole alliance, will make a great difference in future operations, particularly Spearhead Force mobilizations, Klein said.

“Before you deploy, … you want to gather as much information as you can,” he said. NATO ISR operations will be more able to conduct “fact-finding missions” to verify evidence of rapidly changing events, such as the movement of troops or civil unrest. “If you can verify and monitor events, … you will create the evidence and contain the outbreak of crisis,” he asserted. The powerful ground sensors of AGS will complement NATO’s other organic ISR asset, its E-3 AWACS fleet, heavily involved in monitoring NATO’s eastern periphery since February 2014.


Using both active and passive sensors, the AWACS fleet is proving a “highly responsive” element of NATO’s reassurance activities and will also serve a vital battle management role in supporting VJTF operations, according to USAF Brig. Gen. Dawn M. Dunlop, NATO’s AWACS fleet commander. Integrating the two capabilities will take time, she noted, but as communications links with air operations centers mature, the pairing of the air and ground picture will give NATO commanders a perspective they didn’t always have before. “It’s [about] understanding how these integrate together and how they provide information for commanders” for future operations, she added.

NATO is pushing to expand training among its member nations in imagery analysis, to build a more robust cadre of targeting experts. Targeting analysis was identified as a key shortcoming by NATO “lessons learned” analysts after 2011’s Libya air campaign. “We want to enhance the alliance’s ability to conduct joint ISR operations and share data,” a NATO official said. “This is done by enhancing training, improving our procedures and doctrine, and upgrading network capability” to optimize the use of valuable but limited assets such as AWACS and AGS in future operations.

Stoltenberg declared “significant progress” is being made toward meeting goals with NATO rapid reaction forces in time for the alliance’s Warsaw Summit next year. Obstacles remain, however, beyond the situation in Ukraine that could affect the broad transformation push, most notably in funding. The US has earmarked high-end enablers for the NRF and VJTF—such as ISR assets, airlift, special operations forces, and other contributions—but the US is one of only five NATO allies that have met the alliance goal of contributing two percent of gross domestic product to defense. Those figures were confirmed by NATO officials just prior to the start of the June defense ministerial.

“That’s good news; however, the picture is mixed,” one official stated, given that at least 10 NATO members have not even moved toward meeting the self-imposed goal. Despite continued economic stresses across Europe putting pressure on defense spending of many NATO members, “we need to redouble our efforts to reverse this trend,” he said.