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The Strategic Concept and NATO’s Command Structure: Shifting Gears?

In document DIIS REPORT (Page 126-137)

Paal Sigurd Hilde

There is little room for big surprises in a consensus-based strategic concept, nor is such a document intended to bring any. One expected adjustment to NATO’s de-clared priorities in the 2010 Lisbon Strategic Concept was a rebalancing of emphasis between crisis response operations outside the Euro-Atlantic area (referred to here as ‘out-of-area’), and attention to Article 5, collective defence and challenges in NATO territory and at its periphery (referred to as ‘in-area’).1 Most of the previous decade was marked by an increasing and, from about 2005, almost exclusive focus in NATO on ISAF and other out-of-area operations. The emergence, particularly from 2007, of a renewed, often bluntly expressed self-confidence in Russia’s foreign and security policy saw, however, several NATO members call for more attention in NATO to potential challenges ‘at home’. After the Russian intervention in Georgia in August 2008, consensus quickly emerged on the need to emphasise in-area ‘vis-ible assurance’.

In line with the recommendations of the NATO Group of Experts, the New Strategic Concept on the one hand emphasises and develops NATO’s role in out-of-area opera-tions, for instance by stressing the need for a ‘comprehensive political, civilian and military approach’ to crisis management.2 On the other, it places ‘collective defence’

as the first of three core tasks (deterrence and defence came third in 1999) and stresses that the conventional threat (against NATO territory) cannot be ignored.3

The New Concept has been described as ‘a mercifully short, very plausible, and emi-nently readable document’.4 To a large part it achieves brevity by shifting into other documents, notably a new Political Guidance document due in March 2011. Most of the more detailed guidelines for NATO forces are found in Part IV of both the 1991 and 1999 concepts. The new concept thus gives limited insight into how NATO is going to implement the new balance in practice. The Lisbon Summit Declaration gives some more pointers. Notably, it states “We have agreed on a framework for a new NATO Command Structure, which will be […] better able to deploy on opera-tions, including Article 5 contingencies and providing visible assurance”.5

The NATO Command Structure (NCS) indeed stands at the heart of measures to confer substance to NATO’s new balance. It has also done so in the Alliance’s visible

assurance efforts during the last two years, notably in terms of contingency planning.

The Lisbon reforms shift the trend towards ever-greater emphasis on out-of-area operations that has marked the evolution of the Command Structure after the end of the Cold War. The NCS has never fully disengaged from in-area tasks. Commanding air policing, including the Baltic air policing mission, is just one example. However, the NCS’s overall focus has, over the last two decades, clearly and increasingly shifted towards out-of-area operations.

However, another goal has been even more important than NATO’s out-of-area ambitions in driving the latest round of command structure reforms: cost cutting.

With defence budget cuts in most NATO countries, common funded budgets in NATO have also come under pressure with expenditures on the command structure a prime target. This strong emphasis on reducing the cost – the size – of the command structure begs the question to what extent extensive cuts are compatible with giving the NCS a range of new, or renewed, tasks.

The aim of this chapter is first to very briefly describe the process that led up to reemphasis on visible assurance in the New Strategic Concept and examine in some detail the latest rounds of NCS reform. Based on this, the chapter will attempt to assess the degree to which the command structure reform strengthens or weakens NATO’s ability to fulfil the rebalanced set of objectives in ‘Active Engagement, Modern Defence’. Does the current NCS reform entail a change in emphasis, a shift in gears, consistent with rebalancing? The chapter will thus not only aim to contextualise the guidance given in the Lisbon Strategic Concept, but also high-light an issue that deserves increased attention: the operationalisation of strategic level decisions in NATO.

Visible assurance

With the price of oil surging in the mid 2000s and peaking in summer 2008, Vladimir Putin’s Russia gained financial solidity. This solidity again spurred self-confidence in Russian foreign and security policy. 2007 marked a turning point and saw a number of expressions of the new, forward leaning Russia. These included Putin’s famous speech at the Munich Security Conference, a Russian moratorium on its CFE commitments, a surge in flights by Russian strategic bombers, a cyber attack on Estonia with suspected official Russian involvement, and a highly publicised flag planting on the sea floor below the North Pole. With NATO almost singularly focused on Afghanistan, calls emerged for renewed

atten-tion in NATO to security challenges closer to home, for both security and wider political reasons. At the first ministerial meeting after the August 2008 Russian intervention in Georgia, the informal defence ministers’ meeting in London in September 2008, several members called for active and visible measures. Sugges-tions included tasking the NATO Response Force with Article 5 deployments and initiating contingency defence planning for the Baltic States.6 Both these measures were later adopted. A further set of concrete proposals was focused on the NATO Command Structure. In a non-paper titled Strengthening NATO – Raising its profile and ensuring its relevance, Norway suggested several meas-ures that, importantly but not only, would increase the NCS’ ability to react to in-area challenges.7 Two concrete proposals were central: the reintroduction of an in-area geographic focus for NATO’s operational level headquarters, the Joint Force Commands (JFCs), and the development of relations between JFCs and national, joint headquarters.

The size constraints of this chapter do not allow a closer look at what factors were important in the rapid emergence of consensus on a more visible, in-area profile for NATO. What is significant from the perspective of this paper is that that the two abovementioned, concrete measures proposed by the Norwegian non-paper were adopted and are specifically referred to in the Lisbon Summit Declaration.8 While details remain to be decided, the two measures thus form a core part of the decision to rebalance the focus of the NCS. Consequently, they also stand at the core of the overall NATO ‘in-area – out-of-area’ rebalancing act.

The evolution of the NCS

The NCS has changed fundamentally over the past 20 years.Just one expression of this is that the Peacetime Establishment (PE) – the total number of positions in the Command Structure – has been reduced from about 24,500 in the late 1980s, to about 13,900 in 2010.9 Political aspirations, military requirements (including new technologies), and cost cutting have all been important in shaping the NCS’s post Cold War evolution. The reform agreed at the Lisbon Summit constitutes the fourth major NCS reform since the end of the Cold War. The previous ones took place in 1991–92, 1994–97 and 2002–03. In addition, there were smaller, but significant adaptations between these. The adoption of two different concepts aimed to make the NCS more deployable, the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) in 1994 and the Deployable Joint Staff Elements (DJSE) in 2008, are the two most important.

Reform in the 1990s and the Prague watershed

The first two rounds of post Cold War reforms were clearly marked by the gradual adaptation of NATO to the new security situation in Europe. A new, streamlined command structure, ‘adapted to the new environment’, was adopted in the wake of the 1991 Alliance’s Strategic Concept. 10 Before it was implemented in 1994, however, it was evident that the reforms were inadequate. They reduced the size of a command structure still geared towards a Cold War threat that no longer existed.

Even more importantly, NATO had from 1992 gradually committed itself to support-ing peacekeepsupport-ing operations, as well as to buildsupport-ing a European security and defence identity. In January 1994, the Brussels Summit launched a more substantial revision of the NCS. At the core of measures to increase flexibility and capability stood the CJTF concept.11 CJTF was to provide NATO with a deployable HQ capability that would not only enable it to deploy headquarters to crisis response operations, but also to make command and control capability available for EU-led operations.

Agreement on details proved very hard, however. A breakthrough came at a North Atlantic Council (NAC) ministerial meeting in Berlin on 3 June 1996; later form-ing the basis for the Berlin Plus arrangement.12 Full agreement on a new command structure was only reached in 1997.13

The significance of the 1994–97 reforms, which were fully implemented in March 2000, lay in a clear reorientation on several levels. Most importantly, the nature of the main challenges NATO was seen to face in or close to the Euro-Atlantic region was such that it blurred the purely military distinction between non-Article 5 and Article 5 crisis response operations.14 Consequently the emphasis in the CJTF concept on flexibility and ‘jointness’, which was implemented in the new structure, was also applied to static, sub-regional commands.

While the 1997 reforms represented a change in emphasis, the third round of reforms following the 2002 Prague Summit represented a watershed. Apart from the new direction set by the 1999 Strategic Concept, the key driver behind the rapid and radical reform were the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001.15 Out-of-area now became the key task. An important expression of this was that on the operational level, former regional commands were no longer given a specific in-area geographic field of responsibility. The new structure saw the creation of a single strategic com-mand for operations, Allied Comcom-mand Operations (ACO), and a strategic functional command, Allied Command Transformation (ACT). Within ACO the two former regional commands were redesignated Joint Force Commands (JFCs). A third, smaller, Joint Headquarters was established in Lisbon. The operational level HQs were to be

flexible and generic, and thus able to assume command of a NATO, or EU, operation anywhere. Finally, the number of tactical level commands was cut drastically. Only three single service component commands remained for each of the two JFCs. The overall structure adopted in June 2003 will remain in place until the Lisbon reforms are implemented. Not long after 2003, however, pressure again mounted for further reform. Several factors played a role. One was the guidance given by the Senior Of-ficials Group (SOG) appointed by the Prague Summit to establish consensus on a new NCS. In its June 2003 report the group of senior representatives from all member states set the ambitious target of a 30% cut in NCS personnel numbers.16 This aim became a leitmotif of the 2006–09 Peacetime Establishment Review.

At least as important was that NATO’s Level of Ambition was changed in the 2006 version of Ministerial Guidance (MG 06), which gives political guidance for NATO defence planning. The previous (2003) version had established that NATO should be able to conduct three concurrent, major, joint operations. In 2006 the Level of Ambition was changed to two major and six small joint operations. Moreover, in line with the 2006 Comprehensive Political Guidance (CPG), which stated that,

“Large scale conventional aggression against the Alliance will continue to be highly unlikely” (note the phrasing ‘large scale’), Article 5 operations were reduced compared to previous MG documents.17 Finally, whereas the 1999 Strategic Concept refers to out-of-area operations mainly in a Euro-Atlantic context, CPG takes a global perspective. Focus thus changed both from a few large to several smaller operations and from mainly in-area or close to it, to strategic distance. This had significant implications for the NCS.

The 2006–2009 Peacetime Establishment Review

The same June 2006 meeting of defence ministers that approved Ministerial Guidance 2006 also endorsed the start of a new, major Peacetime Establishment review. The review was to cover the NCS and the new NATO Communication and Information Systems Services Agency (NCSA) established in 2004. It was to be based on the guidance given in CPG and MG 06 and thus be geared towards enhancing NATO’s ability to conduct out-of-area operations. Moreover, it was to make the NCS and NCSA more affordable. The review was to have two phases: phase 1 would cover mission, tasks and roles, and phase 2 the manpower requirements.

NATO Command Structure 2010, diagramAt least some member states and senior NATO officials sought to make the PE review into a larger reform. The 2002–03

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reforms saw the closing of a number of major headquarters, but many saw room for further cuts, particularly in ACO. This was not to succeed due to a traditional obstacle in command structure reforms: geographic footprint. The insistence of many member states on having a NATO HQ on their territory has been a persistent factor shaping the Command Structure throughout its history. It was also the most important ob-stacle to more radical reform in the 1990s. In 2006–07 such opposition prevented the Military Committee from reaching consensus on a comprehensive reform package.

New guidance from the NAC in July 2007 ended any hope of substantial reform as it held that neither the geographical footprint, nor the status of existing commands could be touched.

While much more limited in scope than some had hoped, the completion of phase 1 in September 2007 nevertheless saw a number of changes to the NCS. Two were particularly significant. First, the name and status of Joint HQ Lisbon was changed to JFC Lisbon to reflect that, though smaller, it basically had the same tasks as the two other JFCs. Secondly, and more importantly, phase 1 introduced the Deploy-able Joint Staff Elements concept. In many ways the DJSE was a refinement of a modified CJTF concept developed for the NATO Response Force (termed Deploy-able Joint Task Force, DJTF). The core idea was to field a small, easily deployDeploy-able, forward HQ that would remain closely linked to a JFC, enabling the JFC to lead crisis response operations in situ.18 In February 2009 the recommendations of phase 2 were finally endorsed by the NAC. While substantially smaller in terms of personnel, the recommended structure was not cheaper to run. Individual member states have to cover the cost of their own officers working in NATO commands.

Thus, a reduction in the PE hardly reduces NATO’s expenditures, only the mem-ber states’. While the latter was an important aim, so was a reduction in common funded expenditures. Given that no headquarters could be closed, and that the establishment of six DJSEs required investments and additional civilian techni-cians (who are paid by NATO, not member states), the new NCS became more expensive. With a global financial crisis just unfolding, pressure for more radical reform quickly emerged with force.

The 2010–2011 reforms

The fourth and latest round of NCS reform is distinguished by a shift in emphasis away from the ever-increasing focus on out-of-area operations. While this is a notable result of the reform, it was not in itself an important reform driver. The key driver was clearly cost saving.

At the informal defence ministers’ meeting in Istanbul in February 2010, US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates came out forcefully in favour of a reform of NATO struc-tures, including the Command Structure. He gained support for tasking Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen with presenting a proposal for cuts by the June ministerial meeting. This was followed by a nine member state initiative, including the US, UK, Germany and France, presented in April 2010. Their non-paper called for an NCS that was “affordable, scalable, and able to support deployable operations”, that “the number of headquarters should be reduced substantially”, and the number of personnel should be “significantly less than 10,000 […] (towards a 7,500 level)”.19 To fulfil his February tasking, Fogh Rasmussen turned to the Chairman of the Military Committee and the commanders of the two strategic commands, earning the group the nickname the ‘twelve-star committee’. Its proposals for drastically cut structures were presented to NATO defence ministers in June 2010. The models, A and B, were 7,500 and 9,500 strong respectively and both proposed cutting all component commands in ACO, retaining only two (A) and three (B) JFCs. Instead of accepting either of these, however, the ministers again appointed a Senior Officials’ Group to hammer out an agreement. The SOG convened on 30 June 2010 and worked until late September. The ‘geographically unconstrained’ model it proposed was subse-quently endorsed by both the October meeting of defence and foreign ministers in Brussels and the Lisbon Summit. It retains the two strategic commands. While ACT is reduced somewhat in size, it is basically left untouched. ACO and to an even greater extent the NSCA see major change. In ACO, the number of JFCs is cut to two, and only one maritime and one air component command are retained.

Deployable HQs are to be fielded by the JFCs, which are also to develop a regional focus and relations with national, joint HQs. A much-reduced NCSA is to become a NATO CIS Group under the command of ACO. Overall, the number of person-nel is to be about 9,000. The approval of this model in Lisbon was only a first step.

Many decisions must still be taken; the Lisbon Summit set a June 2011 deadline for a “final decision on a new NATO Command Structure, including its geographic footprint”.20 It is no coincidence that geographic footprint is specifically mentioned – it will probably, as usual, be the hardest nut to crack.

Shifting gears?

As argued above, the NCS stands at the core of NATO’s new balancing act between out-of-area operations and in-area challenges. By placing greater emphasis on in-area, the NATO Command Structure may improve and demonstrate the Alliance’s abil-ity to deal with challenges in or close to NATO borders, and thus provide visible

assurance. One way this has been done, and something we are likely to see more of, has been to engage the NCS in efforts such as in-area contingency planning and relevant exercises.

Another approach is to (re)introduce tasks for NATO HQs, as the ‘regional focus’

and ‘a new relationship with our national headquarters’ entail. The details of what this would mean in practice, and what resources the NCS should devote to them, remain to be decided. Their implementation does, however, hold the promise of further re-familiarising the NCS with the geography and climate, and the potential challenges in and around NATO’s treaty area. Cost cutting was the single most important mo-tive for the latest round of NCS reform. The Lisbon Summit Declaration appears to acknowledge this in the first sentence of the paragraph dealing with the NCS:

“We have agreed a framework for a new NATO Command Structure, which will be more effective, leaner and affordable.”21 Given that the total cost of maintaining the NCS amounts to a mere fraction of a per cent of total NATO defence spending, even the most optimistic assessment of savings remains a drop in the ocean in terms of the overall defence resource challenge. This only serves to magnify the paradox that, at a time when the aim to “develop and operate capabilities jointly, for reasons of cost-effectiveness and as a manifestation of solidarity” (Lisbon Strategic Concept) is held in such high regard, cooperation is being reduced in the NCS.22 Apart from the devoted membership of the United States, the NCS is perhaps the single most important element that makes NATO different from other international organisa-tions engaged in security affairs, such as the UN and the EU. The NCS also plays an important role as the ‘glue’ that binds NATO militaries and member states together.

Linguistic skills, cultural issues, varying emphasis on and quality of military educa-tion, and political caveats are all factors that will prevent NATO from becoming optimally efficient and the NCS is a key arena for levelling out such differences and for fostering interoperability. Learning about NATO procedures at a military acad-emy is a far less intensive experience than learning by doing in a truly multinational NATO command. While the existence of large NATO HQs in operations, such as the massive ISAF HQ, makes the problem less acute, cutting the size of the NCS will not benefit the development of doctrinal, procedural and cultural interoperability among NATO officers. Moreover, this is a move that will hurt new members more than old and thus, given that many new members are particularly concerned about in-area challenges, be seen to work against rebalancing.

The establishment of links between NATO and national headquarters and coop-eration with NCS HQs e.g. in organising exercises, may compensate. So may, even,

intensified cooperation between national headquarters using NATO procedures, and the plan to develop a system of certification of national HQs. All of these will, however, draw on scarce resources both in terms of finances and manpower, and thus compete with out-of-area operations – with out-of-area probably winning hands down until the end of ISAF.

The size of this chapter does not allow for an assessment of the degree to which the latest reform shifts the burden of fulfilling the still-valid 2006 Level of Ambition from the command structure to force structure and national headquarters, and the implications this has. In terms of the day-to-day workload, there is little evidence to suggest that the current NCS struggles significantly with meeting today’s operational tempo, although the workload is clearly unevenly shared. This despite – and this is a crucial point – the fact that the level of actual manning for many years has consist-ently been at 80–85 % – which is basically the personnel size of the newly adopted structure fully manned. Evidence thus suggests that with some synergy gained from concentration across fewer sites, even a much smaller NCS should be able to conduct on-going operations and even devote some resources to renewed, in-area ones.

If, however, as experience from the last two decades shows, member states continue to underman the new, smaller structure to the same degree, the new NCS may struggle to meet the full range of demands made of it. As long as NATO remains as heavily involved in high priority, out-of-area operations as it is today, in-area ambitions are likely to yield.

This returns us to the question this chapter set out to answer: namely, do the current NCS reforms entail a shift in gear consistent with the rebalancing act envisioned by the Lisbon Strategic Concept? The answer is that it is too early to tell and prospects are mixed. What does seem clear is that until the end of the Afghanistan operation, the shift will most likely only be a shift from first to second gear in the in-area, and from top gear down to fourth in the out-of-area operations.


1 Note that the out-of-area debate has changed character over the years. During the Cold War and most of the 1990s, out-of-area implied out of the NATO treaty area as defined in Article 6 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

Though the term is still used in the literature on NATO, by the late 1990s and clearly after 2001, there was no real debate in NATO on whether or not the Alliance should have a role outside the Article 6 area. The use of ‘out-of-area’ might thus seem anachronistic, but as the issues involved today bear semblance to those of the Cold War and 1990s, and for the sake of simplicity, I choose to use this (vaguely defined) term and its antonym ‘in-area’.

In document DIIS REPORT (Page 126-137)