Military Periscope Logo




Note: The following summary with minor style changes is reproduced in part from the 2006 NATO Handbook:

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is an alliance of 28 countries from North America and Europe committed to fulfilling the goals of the North Atlantic Treaty signed in Washington on 4 April 1949.

In accordance with the Treaty, the fundamental role of NATO is to safeguard the freedom and security of its member countries by political and military means. NATO safeguards the Allies' common values of democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law and the peaceful resolution of disputes and promotes these values throughout the Euro-Atlantic area. It provides a forum in which countries from North America and Europe can consult together on security issues of common concern and take joint action in addressing them.

Relations between North American and European members of the Alliance are the bedrock of NATO. These countries share the same essential values and interests and are committed to the maintenance of democratic principles, making the security of Europe and that of North America indivisible.

The Alliance is committed to defending its member states against aggression or the threat of aggression and to the principle that an attack against one or several members would be considered as an attack against all.

NATO remains an inter-governmental organization in which each member country retains its sovereignty. All NATO decisions are taken jointly by the member countries on the basis of consensus. NATO's most important decision-making body is the North Atlantic Council, which brings together representatives of all the Allies at the level of ambassadors, ministers or heads of state and government. Each member country participates fully in the decision-making process on the basis of equality, irrespective of its size or political, military and economic strength.

The Allies therefore retain scope for independent action with respect to joint decisions and joint actions. However, Allied decisions, once taken, enable unified and concerted action to be reinforced by political solidarity. This was manifest, for example, in the decisions taken to provide assistance to the United States after the attacks of 11 September 2001. For the first time in its history, NATO invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which stipulates that an armed attack against one or more members of the Alliance is considered as an armed attack against all. All the members of the Alliance vehemently condemned the attacks and provided support to the United States in its response.

NATO has no operational forces of its own other than those assigned to it by member countries or contributed by Partner countries for the purpose of carrying out a specific mission. It has a number of mechanisms available to it for this Purpose, the defense planning and resource planning processes that form the basis of cooperation within the Alliance, the implementation of political commitments to improved capabilities, and a military structure that combines the functions of a multinational force planning organization with an Alliance-wide system of command and control of the military forces assigned to it. In other words, under the command of NATO's strategic commanders, the Organization provides for the joint planning, exercising and operational deployment of forces provided by the member countries in accordance with a commonly agreed force planning process. In sum, an important part of NATO's role is to act as a catalyst for generating the forces needed to meet requirements and enabling member countries to participate in crisis management operations which they could not otherwise undertake on their own.

Dialogue and cooperation with non-NATO countries have helped to overcome the divisions of the Cold War era and to extend security and stability well beyond NATO's borders. The Alliance is deepening and broadening its cooperation with Russia and Ukraine and with other Partner countries, some of which have since become members, as well as with countries in the Mediterranean Dialogue program and in the broader Middle East. It is also reinforcing cooperation with other international organizations and, in particular, with the European Union, with which it is developing a strategic partnership. NATO's structures and mechanisms provide the framework for these varying forms of cooperation, which are an integral part of the day-to-day activity of the Alliance.

The origins of the Alliance

From 1945 to 1949, faced with the pressing need for economic reconstruction, Western European countries and their North American allies viewed with concern the expansionist policies and methods of the USSR. Having fulfilled their own post-war undertakings to reduce their defense establishments and demobilize their forces, Western governments grew increasingly alarmed as it became clear that the Soviet leadership intended to maintain its own military forces at full strength. Moreover, in view of the declared ideological aims of the Soviet Communist Party, it was evident that appeals for respect for the United Nations Charter, and for respect for the international settlements reached at the end of the Second World War, would not guarantee the national sovereignty or independence of democratic states faced with the threat of outside aggression or internal subversion. The imposition of undemocratic forms of government and the repression of effective opposition and basic human and civil rights and freedoms in many Central and Eastern European countries, as well as elsewhere in the world, compounded these fears.

Between 1947 and 1949 a series of dramatic political events brought matters to a head. These included direct threats to the sovereignty of Norway, Greece, Turkey and other Western European countries, the June 1948 coup in Czechoslovakia, and the illegal blockade of Berlin which began in April of the same year. The signature of the Brussels Treaty in March 1948 marked the determination of five Western European countries, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, to develop a common defense system and to strengthen the ties between them in a manner which would enable them to resist ideological, political and military threats to their security.

The Brussels Treaty represented the first step in the post-war reconstruction of Western European security and brought the Western Union Defense Organization into being. It was also the first step in the process leading to the signature of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949 and the creation of the North Atlantic Alliance.

Negotiations with the United States and Canada then followed on the creation of a single North Atlantic Alliance based on security guarantees and mutual commitments between Europe and North America. Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Norway and Portugal were invited by the Brussels Treaty powers to become participants in this process. These negotiations culminated in the signature of the Washington Treaty in April 1949, which introduced a common security system based on a partnership among these 12 countries. In 1952, Greece and Turkey acceded to the treaty. The Federal Republic of Germany joined the Alliance in 1955 and, in 1982, Spain also became a member of NATO. In 1990, with the unification of Germany, the former German Democratic Republic came under the security protection of the Alliance as an integral part of the united country. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined NATO in 1999. In 2003 seven more countries (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia) were invited to begin accession talks and formally acceded to the treaty in March 2004.

The North Atlantic Alliance was founded on the basis of a treaty between member states entered into freely by each of them after public debate and due parliamentary process. The Treaty upholds their individual rights as well as their international obligations in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations. Through the treaty, member countries commit themselves to sharing the risks and responsibilities of collective security and undertake not to enter into any other international commitments which might conflict with the treaty.

Since NATO's creation more than half a century ago, its central focus has been to provide for the immediate defense and security of its member countries. Today this remains its core task, but its main focus has undergone fundamental changes to enable the Alliance to confront new threats and meet new challenges.

NATO's fundamental security tasks

NATO's essential and enduring purpose, set out in the Washington Treaty, is to safeguard the freedom and security of all its members by political and military means. Based on common values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, the Alliance has striven since its inception to secure a lasting peaceful order in Europe. However, the achievement of this aim can be jeopardized by crisis and conflict outside the Euro-Atlantic area. The Alliance therefore not only ensures the defense of its members but contributes to peace and stability beyond the geographical space defined as the North Atlantic Treaty area through partnerships and crisis management operations.

The guiding principle by which the Alliance works is common commitment and mutual cooperation among sovereign states in support of the indivisibility of security for all its members. Solidarity and cohesion within the Alliance, through daily cooperation in both the political and military spheres, guarantee that no single member country is forced to rely upon its own national efforts alone in dealing with basic security challenges. Without depriving member countries of their right and duty to assume their sovereign responsibilities in the field of defense, the Alliance enables them through collective efforts to meet their essential national security objectives.

NATO's fundamental security tasks are described in the Alliance's Strategic Concept. It is the authoritative statement of the Alliance's objectives and provides the highest level of guidance on the political and military means to be used in achieving them. It remains the basis for the implementation of Alliance policy as a whole. However, changing threats and threat perceptions have resulted in a continuous process of adaptation of this strategy to ensure that the political framework, military structures and military capabilities needed to deal with modern security challenges are all in place.

The Strategic Concept, first published in 1991, differed dramatically from preceding documents both in content and form. It maintained the security of its members as NATO's fundamental purpose but combined this with the specific obligation to work towards improved and expanded security for Europe as a whole through partnership and cooperation with former adversaries. In addition, it was issued as a public document, open for discussion and comment by parliaments, security specialists, journalists and the broader public. The Strategic Concept was revised in 1999, committing the Allies not only to common defense but to the peace and stability of the wider Euro-Atlantic area. It comprises the following political elements:

  • a broad approach to security, encompassing political, economic, social and environmental factors, as well as the Alliance's defense dimension
  • a strong commitment to transatlantic relations
  • maintenance of Alliance military capabilities to ensure the effectiveness of military operations
  • development of European capabilities within the Alliance
  • maintenance of adequate conflict prevention and crisis management structures and procedures
  • effective partnerships with non-NATO countries based on cooperation and dialogue
  • the enlargement of the Alliance and an open door policy towards potential new members
  • continuing efforts towards far-reaching arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation agreements

    This broad definition of security recognizes the importance of political, economic, social and environmental factors in addition to the defense dimension. Partnership and cooperation with other countries, cooperation with other regional and international organizations such as the United Nations, and the strategic partnership that is evolving between NATO and the European Union all contribute to the establishment of mutually reinforcing and complementary relations and to more effective conflict prevention and crisis management.

    The specific tasks of the Alliance are also described in the Strategic Concept. They are as follows:

      • To provide one of the indispensable foundations for a stable Euro-Atlantic security environment, based on the growth of democratic institutions and commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes, in which no country would be able to intimidate or coerce any other through the threat or use of force.
      • To serve, as provided for in Article 4 of the Washington Treaty, as an essential transatlantic forum for Allied consultations on any issues that affect their vital interests, including possible developments posing risks for members' security, and for appropriate coordination of their efforts in fields of common concern.
      • To deter and defend against any threat of aggression against any NATO member state as provided for in Articles 5 and 6 of the Washington Treaty.
    And in order to enhance the security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic area:
      • To stand ready, case-by-case and by consensus, in conformity with Article 7 of the Washington Treaty, to contribute to effective conflict prevention and to engage actively in crisis management, including crisis response operations.
      • To promote wide-ranging partnership, cooperation, and dialogue with other countries in the Euro-Atlantic area, with the aim of increasing transparency, mutual confidence and the capacity for joint action with the Alliance.
    In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the priority has been given to aspects such as better sharing of intelligence relating to the threat from terrorism, strengthening cooperation and partnership with other countries outside the Alliance and with other organizations across the board but above all in addressing the threat from terrorism, reinforcing the role of NATO's Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Center in contributing to military preparedness to counter WMD threats and to the ability to operate in a WMD environment, adapting forces structures, and improving military capabilities in other relevant areas.

    Facing the changing security environment

    The historic decision taken by NATO to invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty and extend its assistance to the United States following 11 September 2001 marked the beginning of a new impetus in NATO's transformation process that was to touch on virtually every aspect of Alliance activity.

    In addition to combating terrorism, a variety of other factors have reinforced the need for adaptation of Alliance structures and policies. These include the increased threat posed by weapons of mass destruction and the need for new operational capabilities in critical areas. The demands of NATO's enlargement have also had an impact, as have the developing role of partnerships with Russia, Ukraine and partner countries, the importance of the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, and the strategic partnership with the European Union. NATO's leading role in the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and its continuing role in the Balkans have also led the Organization to adapt itself to the requirements of these operations, of its missions in Iraq and Sudan, and of its relief efforts in Pakistan.

    Many of the changes needed to carry forward the transformation process were introduced at NATO's Prague Summit on 21-22 November 2002 and were pursued at its Istanbul Summit on 28-29 June 2004. Five major areas have been affected: membership of the Alliance, the reform of NATO's civilian and military structures, the acceptance of new roles, the development of new capabilities and the promotion of new relationships.

    The accession of new members

    The accession of the first three Eastern European countries in 1999 coincided with the Alliance's 50th anniversary, which was marked at the Washington Summit in April of that year. This was followed in 2004 by NATO's largest wave of enlargement since its creation, when seven new member countries were admitted. It was at the Istanbul Summit that the leaders of the 26 member countries gathered for the first time since the Alliance's fifth round of enlargement. Allied leaders reaffirmed that NATO's door would remain open to European democracies willing and able to assume the responsibilities and obligations of membership, in accordance with Article 10 of the Washington Treaty.

    Reforming NATO's civilian and military structures

    The enlargement process had repercussions on the physical working space needed at the political headquarters in Brussels, and the construction of new, larger premises was agreed in 1999. In addition, a number of internal reforms were adopted in 2002 to adapt the International Staff and the International Military Staff to the new missions and priorities of the Alliance.

    In parallel, NATO's military command structure was totally reorganized, reflecting a fundamental shift in Alliance thinking. The command structure had previously been divided into two main geographic areas, with one strategic command covering Europe and the other the North Atlantic area. These commands have been replaced by one operational command, Allied Command Operations (ACO), and a functional command; Allied Command Transformation (ACT). ACO is a strategic command for all NATO operations whereas ACT is responsible for the continuing transformation of NATO's military capabilities and for promoting interoperability. Although the command structure had already changed considerably since the end of the Cold War, this reform provided a structure with the capacity to focus systematically on facilitating the transformation of military capabilities on a continuous basis as new needs are identified. In effect, its role is to help to ensure that the Alliance has the capabilities it needs to carry out its tasks and that the forces needed to meet new commitments are available to NATO quickly and reliably.

    The increased scope of NATO's military operations

    The scope of the military operations undertaken by NATO has increased significantly since its initial involvement in restoring stability to Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s. Since then, NATO has committed itself to several peacekeeping operations in and beyond its traditional area of responsibility and has enhanced its efforts in confronting the growing threat posed by terrorism.

    At the Prague Summit in November 2002, the Alliance confirmed its intention to maintain a presence in the region and its readiness to assist the countries through individual assistance programs. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia and Montenegro have manifested their desire to take part in NATO's Partnership for Peace program, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has joined NATO's Member Action Plan, together with Albania and Croatia, to prepare for future potential membership.

    By the turn of the century NATO had committed itself to operations in the Euro-Atlantic area. However, at a meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland on 14-15 May 2002, NATO crossed the Rubicon by stating that it was prepared to engage in operations beyond its traditional area of responsibility. This decision opened the way to new challenges and opportunities for the Alliance, which later committed itself in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and Pakistan.

    NATO is progressively taking over a growing number of PRTs in different parts of Afghanistan, and although the UN mandate clearly stipulates that the ISAF mission is to assist the Government of Afghanistan in providing a safe and secure environment conducive to free and fair elections, the spread of the rule of law, and the reconstruction of the country NATO's role in Afghanistan can also be considered as part of NATO's efforts to combat terrorism. There are ongoing debates to examine to what extent greater synergy can be achieved between Operation Enduring Freedom and ISAF, especially since a number of NATO countries provide forces and equipment to both.

    The United States led Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003 and ousted the regime of Saddam Hussein. Poland agreed to assume the lead of a multinational division within the international stabilization force deployed in Iraq and, on 2 June 2003, the North Atlantic Council agreed to a request from Poland to provide support for this operation in a number of fields.

    A year later, NATO leaders agreed to assist the Interim Government of Iraq with the training of its security forces and established a NATO Training 24 Implementation Mission. Distinct from operational missions involving combat forces, NATO's training mission works closely with the Iraqi authorities as well as with the United States-led Multinational Force in Iraq. Security and protection for the mission itself is provided in part by the Multinational Force and in part by NATO. Other measures have been adopted since that time, such as the establishment of a NATO-supported Iraqi Training, Education and Doctrine Center that focuses on leadership training for Iraqi security staff, and NATO assistance in the coordination of training being provided bilaterally by different member countries both in and outside Iraq.

    Fighting terrorism

    Allied governments, in their individual and collective efforts to confront the growing threat posed by international terrorism directly, have also launched initiatives aimed at curtailing terrorist activity in the Balkan region that are implemented by NATO forces on the ground, as well as operations such as Operation Active Endeavor in the Mediterranean and Operation Eagle Assist.

    Operation Active Endeavor is a maritime operation led by NATO's naval forces to detect and deter terrorist activity in the Mediterranean. The operation was launched in October 2001 and, in view of its success and efficiency, was extended on two occasions, first to cover the Straits of Gibraltar in March 2003 and then to cover the entire Mediterranean in March 2004. The initial operation was limited to the eastern Mediterranean.

    Operation Eagle Assist was one of the measures requested by the United States in the aftermath of 9/11. Aircraft from NATO's Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS ) patrolled American airspace for a period of seven months from mid-October 2001 to mid-May 2002. Approximately 830 crew members from 13 NATO countries flew nearly 4300 hours and over 360 operational sorties.

    NATO Airborne Warning and Control aircraft have been used on several occasions to defend against the possibility of further terrorist attacks involving the use of so-called renegade aircraft, and in a more routine capacity when major NATO and E.U. events have called for extra protection. In July 2004, security protection was extended, at the request of the respective governments, to the European Football Championships in Portugal and the Olympic Games in Greece.

    Modernizing NATO's military capabilities

    The widened scope of NATO military operations has radically transformed the military requirements of the Alliance. The large defense forces of the past needed to be replaced by forces geared toward relatively small-scale crisis response operations dependent upon flexibility and mobility and on the ability to deploy at significant distances from their normal operating bases.

    At the Prague Summit , the member governments launched a modernization process designed to ensure that NATO can effectively deal with the security challenges of the 21st century. A package of measures to enhance the Alliance's military operational capabilities was agreed. It included a new capabilities initiative called the Prague Capabilities Commitment, the creation of a NATO Response Force, and the streamlining of the Alliance's military command structure. These are the three key military transformation initiatives that are essential to adapting NATO's military capabilities.

    In addition, NATO heads of state and government called for increased efforts in the areas of intelligence sharing and crisis response arrangements, as well as greater cooperation with Partner countries through the Partnership Action Plan against Terrorism and in the field of terrorism consequence management assistance, including the implementation of a civil emergency planning (CEP) action plan for civil preparedness against possible attacks involving chemical, biological or radiological (CBR) agents. Five nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) weapons defense initiatives were endorsed: a prototype deployable NBC analytical laboratory, a prototype NBC event response team, a virtual Center of Excellence for NBC Weapons Defense, a NATO biological and chemical defense stockpile, and a disease surveillance system. Other initiatives included the establishment of a multinational CBRN battalion, defense against cyber attacks, and missile defense, with the launch of a new NATO Missile Defense Feasibility Study (MDFS) to examine options for protecting Alliance territory, forces and population centers against missile threats.

    Implementation of the Prague Capabilities Commitment was pursued at the Istanbul Summit in June 2004, with the launching of a number of multinational projects aimed at enhancing military capabilities in critical areas such as strategic sealift and airlift capabilities, air-to-air refelling and the Alliance ground surveillance system. Usability targets were endorsed, involving commitments by member countries to maintain at all times the ability to deploy and sustain larger proportions of their forces on Alliance operations. Changes to NATO's defense planning and force generation processes were announced, designed to link political agreement to launch an operation to the provision of the forces needed to carry it out. However, important challenges remained, including the development of improved measures to combat threats posed by terrorism, failed states and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by state and non-state actors.

    NATO leaders agreed to develop high-tech capabilities to protect both civilians and military forces from terrorist attacks. These capabilities include defense against weapons of mass destruction, protection of wide-body aircraft against shoulder-launched missiles, protection of helicopters from ground threats, protection of harbors and vessels, defense against improvised explosive devices, and improved mine detection. In addition, agreement was reached to improve intelligence sharing and to carry out a review of current intelligence structures at NATO. The mandate given to the Terrorist Threat Intelligence Unit, created after the terrorist attacks against the United States of 11 September 2001, was made permanent and extended to include analysis of terrorist threats as a whole in addition to those more specifically aimed at NATO. Furthermore, NATO governments agreed to enhance the Organization's ability to assist any member country in dealing with terrorist threats or with the consequences of terrorist attacks. NATO assets and capabilities such as AWACS aircraft, the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center and the Multinational Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense Battalion can be made available to member countries requesting such assistance.

    Strengthening and widening partnerships

    With the need for greater solidarity in today's security environment, especially in combating terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, NATO's Partnership policies have been steadily extended with a view to building closer and more effective relationships with a wide variety of countries and international institutions. This includes Partner countries in the Euro-Atlantic area, countries in the wider Mediterranean region, contact countries such as Japan, Australia, Pakistan and China, and international organizations such as the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United Nations. These policies have put the spotlight on the major contribution to international security that strengthened cooperation can offer.

    NATO-E.U. relations have evolved in leaps and bounds in a very short space of time. On 16 December 2002, the European Union and NATO adopted a joint declaration on the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), which provided a formal basis for cooperation in the areas of crisis management and conflict prevention. On 13 December 2002, the member countries of the North Atlantic Council declared that they were now in a position to give the E.U. access to the collective assets and capabilities of NATO for operations in which the Alliance as a whole was not engaged militarily and announced a series of related measures pertaining to this decision. These decisions paved the way for the two organizations to work out the detailed modalities for the transfer of responsibility to the European Union for the NATO-led military operations in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 2003 and, from December 2004, in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

* * * * * * * * * *

NATO Counter-Terrorism Efforts

On Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the New York and Washington, D.C., terrorist attacks, NATO invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty for the first time, authorizing members of the alliance to conduct collective action in response to a terrorist attack from abroad on an ally. NATO declared the acts represented attacks against all NATO member countries. Article 5 took effect on Oct. 4, 2001.

Immediately following the attacks, NATO's North Atlantic Council deployed seven E3 Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft in support of U.S. homeland security.

NATO reassessed its defense posture and plans in the light of the attacks. A new terrorist threat assessment was prepared; proposals for improving the alliance's preparedness against terrorism involving chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons.

Romania and Bulgaria worked closely with the U.S. in its campaign in Afghanistan in an attempt to prove their value as military partners, refueling aircraft on their way to Central Asia, allowing the U.S. the use of airbases and opening their airspace and ports unconditionally. NATO supported Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and several alliance members took part in the fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaida.

Following unrest in Ukraine, NATO added three frigates to Operation Active Endeavour in May 2014.

Anti-Piracy Efforts

In an attempt to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia, NATO dispatched four combat vessels to the Gulf of Aden in March 2009. Somali pirates hijacked a record number of cargo vessels in 2009, sparking an international outcry. Originally envisioned to last through April 2009, the NATO anti-piracy mission has been continuously extended and expanded. In March 2012, the alliance extended its anti-piracy operations through the end of 2014.

Ukraine pledged in April 2012 to deploy a frigate to participate in NATO anti-piracy operations. Kiev reaffirmed its commitment to NATO's mission in February 2013.

Conventional Weapons Treaty

The Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, signed in 1990, set limits on deployments of weaponry between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains. Russia suspended implementation of treaty obligations in December 2007.

In April 2010, NATO and the U.S. began efforts to revive the treaty. Officials said they hoped that progress made on conventional disarmament would lead to progress on nuclear disarmament. In April of 2013, a top member of Russia's Defense Ministry said the treaty has lost its usefulness.

Baltic Air Policing

Since Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined NATO in 2004, alliance members have been providing fighter aircraft on six-month to patrol their airspace. The mission has been repeatedly extended; in 2010, NATO agreed to provide aircraft until 2014. In February 2012, the mission was extended against to 2018, and then indefinitely extended. The extensions are intended to allow the Baltic states to develop initial defense capabilities.

NATO opened a second base for the Baltic mission May 2014. Four Danish F-16s and 60 support personnel were deployed to Amari air base in western Estonia. This base is in addition to the Siauliai Air Base in Lithuania. Estonia officially offered the base to NATO in April 2014. Four Danish planes arrived at the base the same month.

The Prague Summit and NATO Enlargement

During a summit meeting in November 2002 in the Czech Republic, NATO member states invited Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia to join the alliance. NATO ambassadors signed accession protocols for the seven new members on March 26, 2003. The countries became official NATO members on March 29, 2004.

NATO representatives also adopted a new military structure for the alliance during the Prague Summit , saying it would be more streamlined and efficient. It consists of an operational strategic command and a functional strategic command. The operational command is headquartered in Belgium and is supported by two joint force commands capable of fielding a land-based Combined Joint Task Force headquarters. It can generate a limited joint headquarters for a sea-based force. (The structure is detailed on the NATO/Overview page.)

NATO began the process of implementing measures of military preparedness against security challenges. These challenges include: military concept for defense against terrorism; NATO response force; NATO's military command arrangements; the Prague capabilities commitment; defense against weapons of mass destruction; partnership action plan on terrorism; protection of civilian populations; missile defense; cyber defense; and cooperation with other international organizations.

Divisions Arise Over Operation Iraqi Freedom

A problem arose within NATO in January 2003, when Belgium, France and Germany attempted to block alliance planning for Turkey's defense against potential Iraqi reprisals during U.S.-led operations to oust Saddam Hussein. After a month of negotiations, Belgium and Germany acceded to pressure from other alliance nations. France held out, arguing that it was too early for NATO to plan Turkey's defense while U.N. weapons inspectors were continuing their mission in Iraq.

On Feb. 16, NATO's Defense Planning Committee, which did not include France, decided to begin planning for three possible missions to protect Turkey. NATO eventually deployed airborne early warning aircraft (AWACS ), theater missile defense systems and biochemical defense teams.

Following the completion of Operation Iraqi Freedom, NATO weighed its role in post-war Iraq. In late June 2004, NATO issued a statement of support of the interim Iraqi government. In February 2005, NATO provided training assistance for the Iraqis to rebuild Baghdad's capabilities and support the country's security institutions. NATO continued to back the training mission through in-country training activities, financial contributions and donations of equipment.

By late 2006, NATO had trained 2,000 personnel, including 1,150 officers and civilians in command and control. Other accomplishments in 2006 in Iraq included the July graduation of the first group of Iraqi senior officers from the Senior Staff Course at the NATO-supported Iraqi Joint Staff College; the official opening of the NATO-supported Iraqi Training and Doctrine Command, which will oversee all defense education and military doctrine development; and the opening of the National Defense College.

NATO Training Mission-Iraq expired on Dec. 31, 2011. Between 2004 and 2011, it trained more than 5,000 military personnel and more than 10,000 police.

NATO Response Force

In June 2004, NATO declared that the NATO Response Force (NRF) had reached initial operational capability and was ready to take on missions. The formation of NRF kicked off the beginning of NATO's transformation. NRF became NATO's first advanced response force; it combines land, air and sea units into one unit that is designed to be able to deploy to any location in the world in five days and to sustain itself for one month.

After the successful completion of a major live exercise in the Cape Verde Islands in June 2006 (intended to test fully the coordination and capability of NATO land, sea and air components of the NRF), the NRF was declared fully operable. However, the strain of combat deployments prompted NATO to examine the sustainability of the NRF. According to one NATO official in 2007, the alliance was looking into "possible ways in which the same objectives of the NRF could be met through different force planning commitments on the part of allies." For example, said the official, a smaller number of units might be reserved at highest readiness for NRF rotation, with others waiting in the wings at a lower readiness level if required.

Involvement in Afghanistan

NATO's participation in Afghanistan marked its first mission outside of the Euro-Atlantic region in the alliance's history. NATO took over command and coordination of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in August 2003. The ISAF's mission was initially restricted to providing security in and around Kabul. ISAF later expanded to include "provincial reconstruction teams" in the less violent north and west of Afghanistan. ISAF has also helped train the Afghan National Army, supported demobilization programs aimed at regional militia groups and helped run the international airport in Kabul.

In late 2005, NATO agreed to further expand its mission to take responsibility for southern and eastern Afghanistan from the U.S. The location of the expansion was significant, since there has been a much larger Taliban and drug-producing presence in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Under this expansion, troop totals under NATO command reached 32,000.

NATO faced several challenges in its new operations. Among others, NATO's ability to respond effectively to increased Taliban insurgency in the south was hindered by territorial and operational restrictions on troops imposed by contributing nations. This issue was raised at the November 2006 NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, resulting in several NATO members waiving the restrictions. Others refused.

In May 2009, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said that it could take up to two years for coalition forces to see a change in the violence in Afghanistan. Adm. Mike Mullen said that NATO troops needed more equipment, armored vehicles and helicopters with heavier engines to fight through the winter months. The helicopters would be necessary to transport troops and supplies in the higher altitudes of the Afghan mountains, something that wasn't needed in Iraq, the admiral said. Thousands of mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) all-terrain vehicles (M-ATVs) were seen to be central to the coalition strategy. That vehicle is a lighter, off-road vehicle suited to Afghanistan's rough terrain that offers the same protection from roadside bombs as its heavier cousins.

The updated ISAF military operation plan included the following tasks:

    • Assisting the Afghan government in extending its authority nationwide;
    • Conducting stability and security operations in coordination with the Afghan national security forces;
    • Assisting the Afghan government with the security sector reform process;
    • Mentoring and supporting the Afghan National Army;
    • Supporting Afghan government programs to disarm illegally armed groups;
    • Supporting Afghan government and internationally sanctioned counter-narcotics efforts within limits (not participating in poppy eradication or destruction of processing facilities or taking military action against narcotics producers);
    • On request, providing support to humanitarian assistance operations coordinated by Afghan government organizations; and
    • Supporting the Afghan national police, within means and capabilities.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen pledged to focus on efforts in Afghanistan when he began his duties in August 2009. He called for more NATO members to take a greater part in the war.

With the 2009 appointment of U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal to the position of ISAF commander, NATO endorsed his counterinsurgency strategy. At least 25 coalition countries pledged some 7,000 additional troops to support a U.S. surge in December 2009. A partial U.S. troop drawdown commenced as scheduled in summer 2011. McChrystal was replaced in June 2010 by U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Marine Gen. John Allen then took command of ISAF from July 2011 until March 2013, when he was succeeded by Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford. NATO leaders have announced an end combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014.

NATO merged the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan with the new NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) in November 2009. The new mission focused on expanding the training and mentoring of Afghan security forces.

NATO also solicited aid from Russia. The alliance requested helicopters, help in training the Afghan military and permission to transport military cargo through Russian territory. Russia agreed to offer assistance, hoping to gain more cooperation over the placement of missiles in Poland.

In April 2012, Georgia pledged an additional 750 troops to ISAF. There were already 800 Georgian soldiers in Afghanistan. (In February 2013, Georgia had 1,561.) As of May 2012, 50 nations were contributing to ISAF, which then had a total of almost 129,500 troops. Of that total, 90,000 were from the U.S. The next largest contributors were the U.K., 9,500; Germany, 4,700; and Italy, almost 4,000. By February 2013, ISAF had a total of 100,330 troops -- 68,000 from the U.S.; 9,000 from the U.K.; 4,400 from Germany; and over 3,000 from Italy.

By April 2014, total ISAF forces had dropped to 51,176 troops, with 48 contributing nations. This included around 33,500 from the U.S.; 5,200 from the U.K.; 2,730 from Germany; 2,000 or so from Italy; about 1,000 from Jordan; and another 1,000 from Romania. Those figures included 214 troops from Denmark, which concluded its participation in May 2014.

NATO finalized agreements with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in June 2012 permitting the alliance to transport vehicles and military equipment to and from Afghanistan.

NATO says it will launch a new framework for a training and advisory mission in Afghanistan when combat forces withdraw at the end of 2014. The mission will focus on training, advising and assisting Afghan security forces in a non-combat mission setting, officials announced in October 2012.

In June 2013, Afghan security forces officially had responsibility for security in all 403 districts. NATO held an official ceremony in Kabul handing over responsibility for the final 91 districts not previously under Afghan control. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said ISAF forces would assist when asked, but would no longer plan, lead or execute operations in Afghanistan.

The New York Times reported in October 2013 that NATO officials were concerned about corruption in Afghanistan. Any forces left after 2014 would likely consist of fewer military trainers and more military managers to oversee the billions of dollars in security aid to Afghanistan.

In December 2013, following Afghan President Karzai's refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States, NATO threatened to pull out all troops after 2014, not just combat personnel. Rasmussen said that no deployment could take place if the document was not signed. NATO had planned to sign its own similar agreement with Karzai once the U.S. pact was in place. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that the Afghan defense minister could sign the agreement if Karzai would not. As of May 2014, Washington anticipated signing an agreement with Karzai's successor.

President Obama announced in May 2014 that 9,800 American troops would remain in Afghanistan at the beginning of 2015. That would shrink to a 1,000-man force to provide embassy security in Kabul by the end of 2016.

2008 Bucharest Summit

The Bucharest Summit , held in Romania from April 2 through April 4, 2008, resulted in formal invitations being issued to Albania and Croatia to join the NATO alliance. Both countries had been engaged in a serious dialogue with the alliance over the previous several years, with the hopes of becoming full members. Both countries were granted full membership ahead of the April 2009 NATO summit in Strasbourg, France.

Another hopeful attendee in 2008 was Macedonia, but no invitation was offered. Macedonia's membership has been largely blocked by Greece, due to a bitter dispute over Macedonia's name, which is also the name of a historic region of northern Greece.

Also discussed at the summit were topics ranging from Moldova's potential future accession into NATO, energy security and deteriorating relations with Russia.

2009 Strasbourg-Kehl Summit

The Strasbourg-Kehl Summit , held in France and Germany from April 3 through April 4, 2009, marked the 60th anniversary of the alliance's establishment. Issues on the agenda included France's reintegration into NATO's military structure. France withdrew from the U.S.-led military command in 1966, when Charles de Gaulle was president.

Also on the agenda were the war in Afghanistan and improving Russia-NATO relations. The allies rebuffed U.S. requests for more forces for Afghanistan. About 5,000 alliance reinforcements were promised, some previously committed, for military trainers and police.

2010 Lisbon Summit

The next NATO summit, held in Lisbon, Portugal, took place Nov. 19-20, 2010. On the agenda was a new strategic concept for the alliance, begun in mid-2009, to formulate NATO's role in combating modern threats, including global terrorist networks, cyber attacks, energy conflicts and pirate attacks.

On the first day, NATO leaders agreed to establish a European missile defense shield. Russia has voiced concerns that the plan could affect its national security.

Russian President Dimitry Medvedev took part in the NATO-Russian Council in Lisbon. Russia announced it would jointly monitor nuclear programs in some countries, including Iran. Russia also committed to providing Mi-17 helicopters to Afghan forces.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai also addressed the summit, requesting that NATO return control of his country to Afghans by the end of 2014.

2011 Actions in Libya

On March 27, 2011, NATO Allies began a military operation in Libya under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 titled Operation Unified Protector . (See also the "Plans and Programs" section of the NATO Overview.) The purpose of the actions was to protect civilian-populated areas under threat of attack from the Qaddafi government. NATO was joined in this action by the Arab League.

Operation Unified Protector started by establishing a no-fly zone over northern Libya and a naval blockade. Prior to NATO taking full command of operations on March 31, coalition force actions were split with various national operations. On March 31, NATO took command of Operation Unified Protector . The coalition effort later expanded to 17 states.

In late summer and early fall 2011, NATO began to draw down its efforts over Libya. Rebel forces took control of Tripoli in August. Muammar Qaddafi was killed in October 2011. NATO military operations ceased officially on Oct. 31, 2011.

The post-Qaddafi government has had trouble dealing with rogue militia groups. Most of the southern Libya desert is lawless and home to terrorist groups. The proliferation of Qaddafi-era MANPADS is also of concern. In September 2012, jihadists believed to be linked to Al-Qaida attacked a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, killing four Americans. The U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens, was among those killed. It had become an open secret that the facility in Benghazi and the annex about a mile away were essentially CIA operations.

Libya has since fallen into disarray, with Islamist and secular militias largely out of control. In May 2014, former Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who defected from Libya in the 1980s, launched an operation against the Islamist militias and their allies in Parliament.

2012 Chicago Summit

A NATO summit was held in May 2012 in Chicago, where it was greeted by protesters in the streets. The agenda centered primarily on addressing Iran's nuclear program and planning a withdrawal from Afghanistan.

NATO ministers officially adopted a plan by President Obama to make a transition to an advisory role by 2013, with a full withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014. Several countries had already moved forward their departure plans. NATO members agreed that the "new post-2014 mission in Afghanistan" is to "train, advise and assist the Afghan forces. This will not be a combat mission."

Also during the summit, NATO ministers officially signed an order for five Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles to be used as part of the Alliance Ground Surveillance system. Operations over Libya in 2011 brought to light the alliance's poor surveillance capabilities.

During the summit, NATO officially ordered five Global Hawk Block 40 UAVs from Northrop Grumman for US$1.7 billion. Fifteen countries would help to pay for the aircraft: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the United States. Northrop announced in December 2013 that it had begun production of the first NATO UAV. Details of the production/delivery schedule were not disclosed.

The alliance said it would not intervene in the civil upheaval in Syria.


Summit NATO raised the prospect of a mid-2013 summit (possibly June) to mark a milestone in the handover of security responsibilities in Afghanistan to local forces. Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen mentioned the possibility in February 2013. Eventually, a summit was planned for late 2014.

The 2014 NATO summit will take place on Sept. 4 and 5 in Newport, Wales. The planned agenda includes a training and assistance program in Afghanistan. In December 2013, Rasmussen had his term as secretary-general extended to Sept. 30, 2014, in order to plan this summit. His successor, Jens Stoltenberg, will assume office on Oct. 1.

Please log in to continue reading.

Not yet a subscriber? Take a free trial.

Military Periscope gives you easy-to-use, integrated, open-source intelligence on…

  • More than 7,500 weapons systems and platforms
  • Nearly every country's armed forces
  • Militant organizations
laptop image

Try Military Periscope free for seven days

Military Periscope Logo

Your online source for military news, weapons, and nation's armed forces worldwide

Military Periscope FEDLINK information

Service ID: UC

Contract Number: LCFDL24D0002

Military Periscope is a product of GovExec.

600 New Hampshire Ave., Suite 510,

Washington DC, 20037, USA.

©Military Periscope 2024

All rights reserved. Redistribution of the content is prohibited without prior consent of Military Periscope.