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NATO at the Crossroads

For nearly half a century, the 16-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) stood ready to confront a massive air and land attack from its Eastern European counterpart, the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact. It was a strategy heavily invested in masses of heavy armor, air superiority, and nuclear weapons – essentially, a technologically advanced version of the World War II European theater.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact – most of whose members subsequently joined NATO – in the early 1990s, NATO found itself first struggling to justify its continuing existence, then dealing with continual structural, organizational, cultural, and mission-related pressures.

NATO Anti-Piracy

An example of NATO Russia cooperation at sea as the Italian Ship San Marco, the NATO flag ship to Operation Ocean Shield, maneuvers on the port (left) side of the Russian Federation ship Severromorsk during a joint counter piracy exercise that took place on Feb. 26, 2013 in the Gulf of Aden. NATO photo

As the organization expanded both its membership and area of operations, it also faced new language problems, the need to upgrade not only the equipment of its new Eastern European members, but also their tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), and language skills (including military terminology). NATO also had to transform its view of itself, internally, as well as how others saw and responded to it, from the citizens and politicians of its now 28 members to its ever-changing former nemesis, Russia, and the world as a whole.

Indeed, as it brought in new members and began its first actual combat operations in the Balkans in the 1990s, transformation became a growing concern. But the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States and subsequent attacks throughout Europe and around the globe brought a new urgency to NATO transformation – and an expansion of its operations that would have been unthinkable a decade earlier.

“NATO transformation is about changing both the mindset and the capabilities of the Alliance to best be capable of achieving, from a military perspective, the objectives of the Alliance,” noted Lt. Gen. James Soligan (USAF-Ret.), deputy chief of staff for transformation at NATO’s Allied Command Transformation (ACT).

“Over the years, we have found ourselves in a mode where we deployed with smaller multinational units against regular and non-conventional enemies, often mixed with criminal activities, such as the counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan or counter-piracy off the coast of Somalia. So many of the missions, tasks, and capabilities of the forces today are different from 10 to 15 years ago and we anticipate they will continue to evolve over the next 15 to 20 years in some pretty substantial ways.”

Today, NATO forces help patrol the heavily trafficked waters off the coast of Africa against the growing threat of modern-day pirates. The Alliance has been a primary driver of operations in Afghanistan, not only in combat against the Taliban and al Qaeda, but also in training and equipping the new Afghan army, who bear the brunt of attacks and casualties.

Some of these new missions – especially the anti-piracy operations – also have brought NATO into cooperative efforts with Russia and China, among others. But it is Afghanistan where NATO has faced its greatest challenges and where transformation plans and theories have had to translate into immediate combat implementation. As more than one Alliance commander has noted, while NATO and its 15 allies in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are changing Afghanistan, Afghanistan also is changing NATO.

NATO Afghanistan

Polish Army Sergeant Mariusz Pryzgon and Warrant Officer Rafal Marciniak raise the NATO flag for the first time over Camp Eggers during the ceremony marking the change of command and the official activation of the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan at Camp Eggers in Kabul, November 21, 2009. During the ceremony, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, IV, assumed command from Maj. Gen. Richard P. Formica, and the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan merged with the new NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan to create a unified command responsible for building capability and capacity within the Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior. During the Cold War Poland was part of the Warsaw Pact, but now is an important part of NATO. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist (SCW) F. Julian Carroll

“Afghanistan has impacted transformation in two ways. First is the focus and commitment of individual nations and the Alliance on quickly moving through the improvement of capabilities and training in areas where they might not have trained before, driven by the urgency of forces now at risk,” Soligan explained. “NATO uses crisis-response funding and a streamlined process for supporting ISAF’s urgent operational requirements.

“The commitment of forces to be at risk has accelerated the development and delivery of capabilities, from friendly force trackers to counter-IED to UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] to information sharing to intelligence fusion, as well as both national and NATO funding to improve interoperability. The ability to leverage those improvements and incorporate them into national forces and structures available to NATO and other international missions has made modernization happen faster across the Alliance than might otherwise have been the case.”

NATO had less than a decade – in most cases, fewer than five years – to bring former Warsaw Pact members into the Alliance, begin transforming them from Soviet equipment and TTPs to those employed by the West, and make them full contributing members before Afghanistan became a centerpiece of Alliance operations.

“The short-term focus for transformation is about improving the most important capability shortfalls and taking the forces as they exist today and adapting them and our procedures and processes and organizations to meet the kinds of responsibilities NATO has determined to tackle in the near- and mid-term,” Soligan said. “That is significantly informed by the Alliance’s view of its long-term mission requirements as well as its responsibilities in Afghanistan, Active Endeavor [anti-piracy and counterterrorism operations in the Mediterranean], Kosovo, and some of the partnership activities we’re doing with other nations.”

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...