The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is heralded as the world’s most successful military alliance. However, it finds itself under pressure from within and without. Some people in NATO countries do not understand the importance of its goal: to safeguard its members’ freedom and security by political and military means. This goal is executed through three mission sets: collective defence, crisis management, and cooperative security. Other people outside NATO countries understand those missions well – and seek to destroy the Alliance.
Recent comments that NATO Allies are free-riders and calls for the United States to leave the Alliance are rooted in ignorance and do not take into account the reforms that NATO has sought, nor the importance of the Alliance in the 21st century.
The end of the Cold War found 15 Allies in a defensive crouch in Western Europe. Since that time, NATO expanded its mission set to include crisis management, and its area of operations to include Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and Central Asia.
NATO has become the centre of the global coalition of the willing. The Alliance now has 28 members and another 41 partner nations through four different partnership programs. It has also reorganized several times, changing structure to account for changing mission sets. NATO today is an alliance that operates globally but is returning to its original mission of collective defence.
This article describes how the Alliance has changed since the end of the Cold War and where it is today. NATO has passed through the crisis management era and has returned to another era of collective defence.
After the Cold War
The 1990s. At the end of the Cold War, some thought that NATO should be relegated to the dustbin of history along with the conflict that had birthed it. The Alliance survived, however, and managed to adapt to the new era, establishing the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program in 1994 to engage its former opponents of the Warsaw Pact.
Additionally, NATO morphed the North Atlantic Cooperation Council to the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1997. It was designed to “strengthen and extend peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area, on the basis of the shared values and principles which underlie their cooperation.” NATO also contemplated expansion in the 1990s, producing a study on the subject in 1995. As its final pre-9/11 mission set, NATO conducted three different operations to Macedonia during 2001-2003 to help mitigate rising ethnic tensions.
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NATO also began to do out-of-area operations during the 1990s. The Alliance was designed to defend members against a Soviet offensive, not for expeditionary operations, but national forces did have expeditionary capabilities that NATO was able to tap into. Early operations included the deployment of both NATO Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft and the ACE Mobile Force (Air) and air defence packages to Turkey during the first Gulf War; assisting an international relief effort by flying teams of humanitarian assistance experts and medical advisors to Russia and other Commonwealth of Independent States nations in 1992 using AWACS trainer cargo aircraft following the breakup of the Soviet Union; and providing increased AWACS coverage of the Central Mediterranean to monitor air approach routes from the North African littoral in May 1992 after the United Nations (UN) imposed sanctions on Libya after the Lockerbie bombing.
When Yugoslavia broke up in 1992, NATO became involved, usually in support of UN declarations. Because they saw it as a Slavic area, Russia opposed outside intervention in Yugoslavia. In summer of 1993, NATO started to enforce the UN arms embargo in the Adriatic Sea and enforced a no-fly zone declared by the UN Security Council, where NATO conducted its first combat operations when it shot down four Bosnian Serb aircraft on February 28, 1994. NATO began airstrikes in 1995, which were credited as a key factor in ending the war in Bosnia. The Alliance immediately deployed a 60,000-strong UN-mandated Implementation Force to the Balkans and then deployed a 32,000-strong Stabilization Force in December 1996 in support of the Dayton Peace Accords. NATO ended this operation in December 2004 and maintains a military headquarters in the country. NATO also entered Kosovo in June 1999 to end widespread violence and halt a humanitarian disaster, remaining there until 2008.
September 11, 2001. The 9/11 attacks gave NATO a new lease on life. In response to the attacks, NATO invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which states that “an armed attack against one … shall be considered an attack against them all” and went to the assistance of the United States. This is the only time that Article 5 has been declared and was recognized as a watershed event, demonstrating the utility of the Alliance. In an immediate response, NATO executed Operation Eagle Assist from late 2001 to early 2002, conducting over 360 sorties of seven AWACS aircraft on patrol over the United States.
The early 2000s were a busy time for the Alliance. The largest and best-known mission was NATO leading the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan from August 2003 to December 2014. ISAF was one of the largest international crisis-management operations ever, bringing together contributions from over 50 countries. By the end of 2014, the process of transitioning full security responsibility from ISAF troops to the Afghan army and police forces was completed and the ISAF mission came to a close. On January 1, 2015, a new NATO-led noncombat mission called Resolute Support (to train, advise, and assist the Afghan National Security Forces and institutions) was launched.
During the second Gulf War in 2003, NATO deployed AWACS radar aircraft and air defence batteries to enhance the defence of Turkey. NATO later provided the training mission in Iraq from 2004 to 2011, training, mentoring, and assisting the Iraqi Security Forces.
NATO participated in protecting public events, deploying forces in support of the 2004 Olympic and Paralympic games held in Athens with Operation Distinguished Games and the Riga Summit in Latvia in 2006.
NATO practiced international disaster relief in the 2000s. In 2005, for instance, nine member nations moved 189 tons of supplies to the United States in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina while also delivering 3,500 tons of supplies, engineers, medical units, and specialized equipment. In response to a request from Pakistan, NATO assisted in the urgent earthquake relief effort, which was one of the Alliance’s largest humanitarian relief initiatives to date. NATO has also helped coordinate assistance to other countries hit by natural disasters, including Turkey, Ukraine, and Portugal. It does this through its Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre. In addition to missions in Central Asia and the Middle East, NATO moved into Africa in the 2000s, assisting the African Union in Darfur, Sudan, from 2005 to 2007, and beginning counterpiracy maritime patrols in the Gulf of Aden in 2008 and off the Horn of Africa in 2009.
Libya 2011. In the wake of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1973 of March 17, 2011, several nations began operations in support of UNSCR goals. Initially, NATO enforced a maritime arms embargo, then a no-fly zone and, on March 31, ultimately took over sole command and control of all military operations for Libya. The NATO-led Operation Unified Protector had three distinct components:
Starting on March 23, enforcing an arms embargo on the high seas of the Mediterranean to prevent the transfer of arms, related material, and mercenaries to Libya
Starting on March 25, enforcing a no-fly zone to prevent any aircraft from bombing civilian targets
Starting on March 31, commencing air and naval strikes against military forces involved in attacks (or threats to attack) on Libyan civilians and civilian-populated areas.
The operation officially ended on October 31, 2011, after participants performed over 26,500 sorties, including over 9,700 strike sorties.
Afghanistan Since 2015. NATO currently leads Operation Resolute Support, a noncombat mission that provides training, advice, and assistance to the Afghan National Security Forces and institutions. The operation launched on January 1, 2015, and includes approximately 13,000 personnel from NATO and partner countries and operates with one hub in Kabul/Bagram and four spokes in Mazar-e Sharif, Herat, Kandahar, and Laghman.
As NATO has given up the combat mission in Afghanistan, this operation works with the Afghan government, ministry of defence, and military, providing functions including support planning, programming, and budgeting; assuring transparency, accountability, and oversight; supporting the adherence to the principles of rule of law and good governance; and supporting the establishment and sustainment of processes such as force generation, recruiting, training, managing, and development of personnel.
Since NATO is an international organization that uses force, international law is an important basis for all operations. The legal basis of Resolute Support rests on a formal invitation from the Afghan government and the Status of Forces Agreement between NATO and Afghanistan. UNSCR 2189 of December 12, 2014, welcomes Resolute Support and underscores the importance of continued international support for the stability of Afghanistan, and it reflects NATO commitment to an enduring partnership with Afghanistan, reflecting the strengthening political consultations and practical cooperation within the framework of the NATO-Afghanistan Enduring Partnership signed in 2010.
Kosovo Since 2008. Although the major NATO operation in Kosovo wrapped up in 2008, NATO maintains approximately 4,800 Allied troops there as part of NATO’s Kosovo Force, preserving the peace that was imposed in the wake of its deployment in 1999. Following Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008, NATO agreed that it would continue to maintain its presence on the basis of UNSCR 1244, and has helped to create a professional and multi-ethnic Kosovo Security Force.
Monitoring the Mediterranean Sea Since 2001. After the 9/11 attacks, NATO sought ways to counter the threat of international terrorism. In October 2001, it launched the maritime surveillance operation Active Endeavour, detecting and deterring terrorist activity in the Mediterranean. NATO has been systematically boarding suspect ships since April 2003. At the Warsaw Summit in July 2016, NATO leaders decided to transition Operation Active Endeavour to a maritime security operation now called Sea Guardian.
Counterpiracy off the Horn of Africa Since 2009. The UN Secretary-General requested maritime protection for food convoys in the Gulf of Aden in 2008. NATO responded with Operation Allied Provider between October and December 2008. The next iteration of NATO maritime protection was Operation Allied Protector, between March and August of 2009. The current mission is Operation Ocean Shield, approved on August 17, 2009, by the North Atlantic Council. During this time NATO forces have worked closely with the European Union’s Operation Atalanta, the U.S.-led Combined Task Force 151, and individual country contributors.
Supporting the African Union Since 2007. NATO also works ashore in Africa, supporting the African Union (AU) in its peacekeeping missions on the African continent since June 2007, providing airlift support for AU peacekeepers of the AU Mission in Somalia.
Air Policing Missions Since 2004. Air policing missions are collective peacetime operations that enable NATO to detect, track, and identify all violations and infringements of its airspace and to take appropriate action. Allied fighter jets patrol the airspace of Allies who do not have air superiority aircraft of their own such as Albania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Iceland, and Slovenia. Since Russia’s illegal military intervention in Ukraine in 2014, Russian operations tempo has risen while NATO has been taking extra reassurance measures for its Allies, including the deployment of additional aircraft to reinforce missions over Albania and Slovenia, as well as the Baltic region where NATO F-16s have intercepted Russian aircraft repeatedly violating allied airspace.
While air policing has been a viable mission for NATO, Russian revanchism has caused some NATO members to rethink this approach. Recently a senior NATO commander visiting the Atlantic Council remarked that it is time for the air policing mission to change to an air defence mission because of additional threats and the fact that NATO has stopped routinely practicing air defence and badly needs practice in this basic defence function. This lack of experience at air defence missions is an example of NATO’s lack of paying attention to high-end combat fundamentals, which became a second-tier priority when the Alliance paid more attention to crisis management rather than collective defence.
While NATO has expanded its mission set and conducted operations from Iceland to Afghanistan, there have been issues, mainly at the political level.
NATO Expansion. One major issue for the Alliance has been the expansion of membership from 12 to currently 28 countries. Founded with 12 members, NATO integrated Greece, Turkey, West Germany, and Spain during the Cold War. After a study of the subject of expansion in 1995, NATO further integrated the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland in 1999; Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia in 2004; and Albania and Croatia, who joined in 2009. Currently, Montenegro is an “invitee,” while three other countries “aspire” to membership: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia, and Macedonia.
The expansion into the former Warsaw Pact was contentious for two main reasons. First is the Russian reaction, while the second is whether the Alliance could actually defend some of the easternmost countries, particularly the Baltics-Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Russia has reacted negatively to NATO expansion into Eastern Europe. The Alliance is now less than 500 miles from Moscow. Russian issues with NATO expansion have become some of the major disinformation operations deployed by the government.
The discussion on defending countries such as those in the Baltics has two main thrusts: that they cannot be defended from Russian aggression and that Eastern European NATO members could drag NATO into an Article 5 situation by provoking Russia into an attack. One of the major discussion points at the July 2016 Warsaw Summit was preparation for the defence of the Baltics, while Baltic and Polish visits to the United States always contain a discussion about how to ensure that the Alliance provides Article 5 mutual defence.
The idea of “cooperative security” as a mission set for NATO came from the Lisbon Summit in 2010. The main programs are the Partnership for Peace program, Mediterranean Dialogue, and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI). NATO also partners with the EU through the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) as well as with other like-minded nations around the world, often referred to as “partners across the globe.”
The PfP was founded in 1994 and consists of 22 members: Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland, Georgia, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Macedonia, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Twelve former PfP countries have become NATO Allies.
The Mediterranean Dialogue was also founded in 1994 and consists of Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. In the wake of the success of the Mediterranean Dialogue, the ICI was founded in 2004 and includes the following four countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
The EAPC consists of all NATO member countries and the following partner countries: Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland, Georgia, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Macedonia, Malta, Montenegro, Republic of Moldova, Russia, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.
“Partners across the globe” are a variety of countries who have similar goals, including Afghanistan, Australia, Iraq, Japan, Mongolia, New Zealand, Pakistan, and Republic of Korea.
Reforms. During the Cold War, NATO had a variety of subordinate commands designed to fight a war against the Soviet Union. In general, these organizations reflected the need to fight on land, sea, and air in the north, center, and south of Europe. With the end of the Cold War, NATO undertook a series of transformations to adapt to the new world. Now NATO has Allied Command Operations (ACO), which is the warfighting headquarters, and Allied Command Transformation, which is responsible for training, education, transformation, and so forth. Under ACO are two joint force commands as well as Allied Maritime Command, Allied Air Command, and Allied Land Command. There are nine rapidly deployable corps headquarters as well as Immediate Reaction Forces (Maritime).
Countering Terror. NATO announced its “Policy Guidelines on Counter-Terrorism: Aware, Capable and Engaged for a Safer Future,” at the Chicago Summit in 2012. NATO policy has been informed by 9/11 and subsequent terror attacks.
Cyber. Like many member nations, NATO has been challenged by the emergence of cyber operations. Russian political warfare has a large cyber component, which has been overtly used against Estonia, Georgia, and Ukraine and potentially used against national targets such as the Pentagon and U.S. Democratic National Committee. NATO made forward progress on developing cyber capabilities at the Wales Summit in 2014 and declared cyber to be a “domain” and announced further efforts to develop NATO capabilities while also assisting member nations to develop their own at the July 2016 Warsaw Summit.
Paying Their Way. Much has been made over the subject of NATO Allies providing funding to the organization. Nations agreed to spend two percent of gross domestic product (GDP) per year in 2010. Although the combined GDP of the other members is larger than that of the United States, the U.S. defence expenditure represents 73 percent of NATO spending, much of which is dedicated to high-demand, low-density capabilities such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, air-to-air refueling, ballistic missile defence, and airborne electronic warfare.
National Caveats. There are ongoing complaints by some Allies that others impose politically driven limitations on their operations through the use of national caveats. During Operation Unified Protector, some nations positioned general and flag officers at the Combined Air Operations Center in Poggio Renatico, Italy. Their mission appeared to be to ensure that national caveats were respected. At times the development of the daily Air Tasking Order resembled a bidding session, where the NATO planners sought to generate sufficient strike capabilities to complete the mission. In spite of the use of national caveats, members always complete the mission. Although it sometimes requires the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe to convene a force generation conference or the Supreme Allied Commander Europe to call an occasional minister of defence with a request to waive a national caveat, NATO still managed to provide 40,000 personnel to the Afghanistan mission and generate enough strikes to complete the mission in Libya.
Russia. Russia regularly accuses NATO of aggression. The Russian Federation identified NATO as its first main external military risk in its military doctrine. NATO has identified 32 different Russian claims about Alliance enlargement, NATO’s attitude toward Russia, NATO as a threat, promises and pledges, and NATO operations, and has refuted each of them. NATO engaged Russia following the Cold War and the two cooperated regularly, reflected in both the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation (May 17, 1997), and the announcement of the formation of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) at the Rome Summit on May 28, 2002. The NRC was formed to serve as the principal structure and venue for advancing the relationship between NATO and Russia; however, NRC operations were suspended in the wake of Russian actions in Ukraine in April 2014.
NATO Today and Tomorrow
While it is easy to quantify what military assets NATO brings to the table, the Alliance provides ineffable qualities. Allies and partners form the international coalition of the willing, that is, nations who support similar goals such as democracy, free trade, and rule of law. These states work together at the United Nations in regional fora and on a bilateral basis in support of global norms that have provided unparalleled peace and prosperity to the world. The Alliance sets standards of behaviour, concepts of operations, and equipment that are followed around the world. These member nations also provide excellent examples to other states around the world that seek to emulate their progress.
One of the most important responsibilities that NATO members can fulfill is the need to tell their populations why the Alliance is important and how NATO helps each of them maintain the independence and freedom that they currently enjoy. Many misunderstandings about NATO could be resolved with modest but effective public affairs and public diplomacy programs. This would make it easier to prevent attacks on NATO from within and would allow political leaders to make the case for spending two percent of GDP on NATO-usable equipment and formations.
Another imperative would be to study Russian political warfare. NATO members must understand what political warfare is and prepare to conduct counter-political warfare. Only then will NATO be resistant to outsider efforts to destroy the Alliance.
Although NATO has been a success, there is plenty of room for improvement. The ability to perform force generation has been an improvement; however, NATO has lost some of the capacity to perform modern force-on-force kinetic combat. This is particularly true of air defence, maritime operations, and combined arms operations integrating air, armor, and artillery. NATO should regularly exercise those capabilities.
Another lost art is generating and moving forces. At a recent conference about European defence, someone noted that the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), part of the NATO Response Force, deployed to Central Europe for an exercise on commercial aircraft, not using military airlift. This would cause problems if the VJTF were deploying into Poland or one of the Baltic states to reinforce a defence against Russia. Commercial companies would not be able to provide that type of transportation. Furthermore, NATO could no longer move military equipment and forces smoothly across European borders. During a recent deployment exercise, receiving nation customs and immigration officers stopped deploying forces at every border in order to clear them across. Since time is of the essence in a reinforcement scenario, NATO needs to develop the equivalent of a “Military Schengen Agreement” where forces are expedited across borders.
Dealing with infrastructure is another issue. During the Cold War, every bridge in West Germany was marked with a weight capacity and the Allies also had plans both to block and to cross all major rivers in their areas of operations. Bridges were built with chambers to facilitate the destruction in case of Russian attack, and bridging equipment was prepositioned to support crossing rivers heading east. Bridges in the Baltics and Poland are neither marked nor prepared for demolition, nor is equipment identified or prepositioned to facilitate crossing rivers. Although these seem like minor issues, they represent not only the conceptual underpinnings of combat but also the degradation of NATO capabilities across the board in air, maritime, and land operations.
NATO needs to return to the basics, dust off the old manuals from the Cold War, and think through what is really required to successfully defend Eastern Europe. Only then will NATO be able to provide a realistic deterrent to Russia.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is the world’s most successful military alliance, but it finds itself under pressure from within and without. NATO countries need to reexamine their roles in NATO’s goal to safeguard the Allies’ freedom and security by political and military means via collective defence as well as understanding that there are global actors who seek to destroy the Alliance. NATO has changed significantly since the end of the Cold War. Many of those changes have been for the good, but some have not. Issues remain. Reorganizations and global deployments have improved NATO’s capabilities, but at a cost to the fundamental capability to perform high-end kinetic operations. Like the U.S. military, NATO has to recover from crisis management and regain capabilities lost during the last 15 years, while maintaining the lessons learned from what could be called the Crisis Management Era.
Alexander Crowther, PhD, is the Senior Research Fellow for NATO/Europe and Cyber Studies at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the U. S. National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.