NATO: Backstage at Allied ­Command Transformation
MURIELLE DELAPORTE
© 2018 FrontLine Defence (Vol 15, No 2)

This article focuses on some of NATO’s challenges and the way the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is addressing them through the prism of the actions of one of its two commands, Allied Command Transformation (ACT). For this article, Murielle Delaporte conducted various interviews in Norfolk, Virginia, and in particular with Supreme Allied Transformation Commander (SACT) General Denis Mercier.

In the wake of the recent two-day NATO Defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels, the reform of the command structure, and the evolution of the NATO-EU (European Union) relationship have filled the headlines, and the context and analysis has been preparing grounds to be highlighted. Of key concern is the shared need for developing a common understanding picture, a common situational awareness and a common technological awareness.


As part of NATO’s Unified Vision 2016 Trial, seven member nations work together in the trial’s Combined Joint Task Forces (CJTF) room, tasking the collection, exploitation and dissemination of ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance).​

3-C: Developing a Common Understanding Picture
Numerous “3-C” rules exist in various fields. Some common examples include: marketing (Company, Customers, Competitors); credit (Character, Capacity, Capital); negotiation (Confrontation, Cooperation, Collaboration); web design (Content, Code, Conception); relationships (Communication, Cooperation, Compromise); and life (Choices, Chances, Changes), just to name a few.

Last March, in the midst of the public revival of NATO’s burden-sharing debate, triggered by the arrival of President Trump in the White House and prior to the May 2017 Brussels Summit, the Alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg defined the pending agenda based on NATO’s own 3C’s rule: Cash, Capabilities, Commitment.

I sat down with SACT General Mercier in January 2018. He confirmed that “the 3C’s rule is important and has been reaffirmed: the 2% GDP goal is one of the objectives each NATO nation must aim at.” Of that 2%, he says 20% should be spent on capabilities that are “interoperable with other NATO members’ armed forces and ready to be deployed under the Alliance’s umbrella if need be.”

Mercier further explained that while the GDP percentage allocated to military resources has been a “long-lasting goal,” it is important to recognize the “persistent federated approach” of a bond between the command structure on the one hand, the force structure on the other. 


Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, General Denis Mercier. (NATO Photo (2015): NIC Edouard Bocquet)

He stresses that “NATO is not just a command structure commonly funded by the member states – it is also the capabilities the latter provide to be able to fight as one. The goal is not to establish a catalogue listing of all available capabilities, but to best construct a force able to address today’s and tomorrow’s threats.”

That’s easier said than done, of course – particularly when the agendas, histories, and sensitivities of 29 nations (Montenegro being the latest nation to join, in June 2017) need to be aligned into one single political guidance, which will then rely on the enforcement capabilities of those nations. 

NATO is comprised of two strategic military commands: Allied Command Transformation (ACT) and Allied Command Operations (ACO), a third is planned for 2019 after the July Summit in Brussels. 

The continued adaptation of the Alliance to the new threat environment, as well as the reassertion of missions aimed at projecting global stability – such as the reinforcement of the post-war Iraqi training, which recently announced at the Defense ministers’ meeting – are among the guidelines sure to be pursued and proposed.

Common Strategic Goal
What does it take to have 29 nations agree to a common strategic goal? Finding an answer to that question is ACT’s task. It starts with the definition of a common understanding picture. Recognizing that each country’s threat assessment not only depends on its own geography, history and politics, and also relies on its own unique strategic culture, results in a structured capability development process that varies widely among nations. 

“Not all nations base their program laws on a formal defence review process or publish a defence white paper, and we can help those who wish to assess and match their priorities according to their political and strategic national ambitions”, explains Lieutenant-Colonel Pierre Ascencio, who is part of a 10-person staff at SPP (Strategic Plan and Policy) directorate, which is ACT’s brain. The staff brainstorm on a regular basis via thematic workshops gathering a network of about 2,000 military and civilian experts from armed forces, but also academia, industries and medias. 

The result comes under the form of three milestone documents: 

The Strategic Foresight Analysis (SFA), identifies trends affecting the long-term future (the latest, published last October, projects the Alliance to 2035, as it represents the time necessary to complete a full programmatic cycle from the decision to launch R&D until its Full Operational Capacity). 

The Framework for Future Alliance Operations (FFAO), which, along with ACO, narrows down the threats to military scenarios and implications for the Alliance (the next one is being reviewed and should be published by the time this article is out)

These two preparatory reports then feed the famous NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP), which is conducted by the NATO HQ in Brussels, and both strategic commands are aimed at advising nations in future program development to meet the Alliance’s level of ambition.

Future Investment
“One of the advantages of NATO”, underlines SACT, “is to be able to give an unfettered  military advice that nations are of course free to follow or not. Some of them have niche capabilities (such as Estonia, whose cyber expertise is remarkable) and we are able to orient them, so they can synchronize their future investments to complement other nations. We just happened to do that with Luxemburg, where satellite communications’ capabilities are to become part of the complex puzzle of forces that NATO assembles into a ready-to-deploy force. The NDPP is there to orient national defence plans and encourage countries to join forces in clusters of abilities such as smart defence initiatives or the Framework Nation Concept (FNC) developed by Germany a few years ago, enabling the building of large forces thanks to years of joint training between Germany and the nations willing to participate.”

At a time of a renewal of the everlasting debate about the NATO-EU relationship, it is not a bad idea to recall that these kinds of nations’ arrangements – such as the FNC – can, and are, already be used by other organizations, including the EU. 

It is also useful to highlight the fact that NATO’s NDPP helped the EU to develop its own capability-building processes, tools and scenarii, while NATO centers of excellence can also be used by the EU. “Each organization has its own deliverables, but we make sure our priorities are well coordinated. We have indeed been working very closely with the European Defense Agency over the past two years”, says General Mercier.

For Lieutenant-Colonel Ascencio, the beauty of a tool like SPP is to project one’s thinking in another nation’s mindset. “You cannot understand America for instance, if you have not studied Gettysburg and General Sherman”, he notes, concluding that this effort to create and share a common vision and a global picture of the threat and geopolitical environment, has led ACT to become, paradoxically, “a place that the United States considers the voice of Europe and that Europe considers the voice of the United States.” It is seen as a place of open and constant discussion, where all can try to amend their own thinking if a proposition is proven valid, and where, at the end of the day, a certain form of stability begins. The fact that the recently issued SFA enacts a common perception of Russian activities for the first time since the end of the Cold war may seem obvious, but is no small achievement, considering the current propensity of nation states to look more inward for political and economic reasons or be at odds on sensitive issues. The current Washington-Ankara confrontation is a vivid illustration of such a characteristic of the Alliance.

Developing a Common Situational Awareness
Only 12 nations were founding members when NATO was created in 1949. Today, that number has more than doubled, and exercises can sometimes gather up to 50 countries. In order to go from a common understanding picture to a common operational one, it is necessary to develop a common situational awareness – and the key word here is “interoperability”.

Without the ability for the people, the process and the technology to work and talk together, there would not be an alliance and that is the strength (and at times the weakness) of such a unique organization – making it America’s remaining “number-one alliance” as U.S. Defense Secretary General Mattis recently referred to it (despite presidential rhetoric).

Interoperability is a rather young word; created in the 1950s, it did not become popular until the 1990s. The man in charge of developing interoperability within NATO, Johan Goossens, head of the branch of technology and human factors at ACT, faces that challenge. “First we look at what needs to be interoperable, then how to make it so. We develop specifications and standards. We work with industries and test equipment in their infancy to see if they can operate together. We mostly focus on information systems as opposed to platforms.”

With the advance of next generational equipment, the distinction between systems and platforms is beginning to blur. The challenge is to keep up with progress among allies across the globe and to be able to keep doing that virtual handshake.

Such a paradigm shift worries General Mercier, who was Chief of the French Air Force before becoming SACT. “As a pilot, I am indeed concerned when I see today’s exercises. In my Tiger Meet community, we used to share an enormous amount, and that is what made us strong. Today, with the new systems, aviators fly together, but with less and less awareness of what their wingmen are able to do. Debrief comes, and pilots share what they did, but not why they did it. This is a potential catastrophe in terms of interoperability, as it is a matter of mutual trust. If we are not able to solve it within NATO, it will never work… So NATO has a lot of work to do!”

There are, however, at least three good reasons to remain optimistic – no matter how vast the challenge seems today to make 4th and 5th generation air assets work together seamlessly and maintain a common situational awareness in all areas as best as possible.

First of all, this kind of technological revolution is not a first within the alliance. If each nation is doing its own research and defends its own industrial interests, the role of ACT is to coordinate and orient, so that too much technological unpredictability does not “break compatibility”, as Johan Goossens says, having witnessed breakthroughs over the many years he worked at NATO, whether in jet fuel technology or when cyber first emerged, or even in processes and culture changes. “With the end of the Cold war, the maritime situational awareness changed and brought with it a fundamental cultural change – the growth of pirate attacks in several parts of the world led NATO operators to track not only grey, but also white shipping. This was a major departure from a traditionally military-oriented prospective and it took a bit of time for nations to adapt.”

Second, technology differences among 29 nations is a basic fact that NATO has been accommodating for nearly 70 years through joint operations, but overall with robust exercise programs. The number of participating countries has fluctuated over the years, depending on budgets and the intensity of the perceived threat. 

Three types of exercises have alternated on a yearly basis among allies: “Live Exercise (LIVEX), Command Post Exercise (CPX) / Computer Assisted Exercise (CAX), or an Exercise Study.” Mr Goossens’ branch at ACT is organizing CWIX, which takes place every year in Poland and is a preparation to the next Livex, such as Trident Juncture 2018, which is to take place this fall in Norway. 

Symptomatic of how palatable the threat is today, these exercises have been gathering the largest number of participants – including from the “Top 6” or Non-NATO Nations, such as Finland or Sweden, since the height of the Cold war.

Finally, bridging technology is already there for most of the challenges NATO needs to meet. If we go back to the “4th or 5th Gen” debate, the recent Red Flag 18-1 exercise, which ended February 16th at Nellis AFB, demonstrated the ability to upgrade tactical link 16 programs in order to make data sharing possible among all generations, the F-22 being a case in point.

For NATO planners, the problem is today’s exponential speed of technological development (mostly originating from the commercial sector now) and how to cope with such a trend by creating the appropriate framework for everyone. 

For SACT, this raises the key (and next) question of the acceptability level of technology by each NATO member.

Developing a Common Technological Awareness 
Being ready for the next battles, and anticipating new forms of combat beyond Maginot lines that may be required to “bring tomorrow’s topics to the table”, and especially where national political decision-makers meet. For General Mercier, one of ACT’s main missions is to raise the technological awareness of member leaders. There are two reasons: first of all, so that no one is caught by surprise by an adversary’s potential breakthrough in developing or capitalizing on a new technology; secondly, the rationale is to ensure that each nation is comfortable with the rules framing the use of disruptive technologies, and in some cases new concept of operation generated by a specific innovation.

In the past seven years, ACT has developed an “innovation hub” with a mission “to monitor and master all topics related to disruptive technologies,” explains Major Cedric Sauvion, Staff Officer in the Future Solutions Branch. The idea has been to join forces with industry, academia, think tanks and others, via NATO Industry Forums or NIF branded events, but also video conferences held on a regular basis with a large number of participants and experts.


Left to right: MGen Salvatore Cuoci, Kosovo Force commander; Goran Rakic, Mitrovica North mayor; Agim Bahtiri, Mitrovica South mayor; and Adm James Foggo, Allied Joint Force Command Naples commander, share a symbolic handshake on the main Mitrovica bridge in Kosovo on Feb. 1. The meeting of the four leaders follows the 16 January 2018 ­assassination of Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic.

If there is one single issue to bring to the general attention, the Transformation Chief bets on Big Data: “Big data is the strategic resource by excellence. It is everywhere. Why do need we interoperability? In order to share data via connected systems. Why do we do cyber? To protect data as well as data exchange, and be aware of an attack, so there is no doubt about the reliability and accuracy of the latter. But the real issue is how do we manage an increasing amount of data the human brain cannot process alone anymore; in other words, to what extent do we introduce artificial intelligence (AI) in our military digital architectures? That, from my point of view, is the key issue we need to address beforehand. And that is what our ‘Autonomy project’ is all about, since I am not convinced every nation will accept the same level of AI,” says General Mercier.

The shift from “data management” to “data managing” and the human-machine teaming evolution brings a genuine deontological ethical debate to the forefront, already partially addressed a posteriori when the Obama administration used armed drones on a regular basis against terror groups, provoking numerous voices of opposition in various parts of the world. 

Indeed, for François du Cluzel, CAPDEV/CEI/Future Solutions Branch, “what one has to be aware of, is that all these technologies overlap with each other. When you speak about autonomy, you cannot envision it without artificial intelligence, since it is a means to an end. With big data, the goal is to: first, protect our data; second, access our adversaries’data; and third, to manage data flow to obtain a Big Data Analytics via AI, which will ensure that we can access [correct] and useful information and are able to send it to the right recipient. That is what is at stake.”

Saving Lives
Anticipating the impact of lethal autonomous weapon systems – already considered by many scientists as a “third revolution” in military affairs to be banned since no human being would be in the “OODA loop” (the decision cycle of observe, orient, decide, and act, which was developed by military strategist and United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd) is therefore rather urgent. Indeed, with these systems currently in use, this coming generation of “fast leaders” is already confronting tomorrow’s challenge.

However, these systems can actually save lives if used appropriately – in hostage situations and certain type of commando operations, for instance – and AI creates a fantastic opportunity to improve interoperability and responsiveness in drastic ways. As Bob Work recently stated, it is the optimal “alliance-friendly offset strategy” because it is a great resource equalizer – since algorithmic warfare is cheaper than conventional weapons, even small nations within NATO do not have to be left out from this warfare revolution.

Furthermore, it is already alleviating the previously discussed problem of gaps in security levels among allies, by demonstrating the fact that it allows them to work together by using various sources of intelligence with different levels of clearance. It has been the purpose of the last Unified Vision exercise, which is to be re-enacted in 2018, and more generally of NATO’s Federated Mission Network. 

For General Mercier, “Unified Vision can be considered as the successful first trial of the Federated ISR NATO Transformation Command is thriving for.” The same way NATO is said to be “interoperable by design”, NATO Chiefs want to make it “flexible by design”, so that both the command structure and the nations’ armed forces can work closely together to face any type of military scenario thrown at them in the not-so-distant future. Technology seems to allow such a vision, which is the whole point of the command structure reform of NATO. 

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Based in Paris, Murielle Delaporte, is the founder and editor of Opérationnels SLDS, a bilingual magazine that focuses on sustainment and logistics.

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