Floods, fires, refugees, airspace incursions and instability on its borders are all crises that NATO is dealing with on a daily basis. Simon Michell highlights how the Alliance has established a process, methodology and skill set to deal with some of the most intractable challenges on the planet

From its origins in ancient Greek, a ‘crisis’ is the turning point that a disease reaches when either recovery or death of the patient will occur. Nowadays, the term is generally used to describe volatile disagreements between countries, ethnic groupings and, on occasions, non-state actors that have the potential to descend into armed conflict. Although crises can be manipulated so that they fester on indefinitely, they can also be short-lived events during which the right decisions, taken at the right time, can resolve the predicament and bring back the tranquillity that preceded it relatively quickly.

Crises, however, are by no means exclusively military in nature. They also occur when a humanitarian disaster unfolds that threatens to spread not just misery, but also regional instability. Again, swift and decisive action can shorten the suffering and ease the tensions. Another, and much more modern, cause for crises relates to our growing dependence on technology and infrastructure. When these are destabilised, damaged or destroyed, tragedy can ensue within hours.


NATO prides itself on being a crisis management organisation. This is not an aspirational vision statement; rather, it reflects current activity. Approximately 18,000 military personnel are engaged in NATO crisis management missions in Afghanistan, Africa, Kosovo, the Mediterranean and now, increasingly, in the Black Sea Region.

When a crisis regarded as requiring, or potentially benefitting, from a NATO response is identified, political authorization from the member states’ national governments is sought before any planning, deployments or use of military force takes place. This authorisation is derived through the principal decisionmaking body – the North Atlantic Council (NAC) – which reaches decisions on a consensus basis. However, before arriving at a conclusion, it can call upon the support of an overarching NATO Crisis Response System (NCRS) process that draws upon a range of supporting elements. These include the NATO Civil Emergency Planning Crisis Management Arrangements, the NATO Crisis Management Process (NCMP), the NATO Intelligence and Warning System (NIWS) and NATO’s Operational Planning Process.

NATO’s involvement in helping to resolve and contain the multiple conflicts that arose out of the break up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s has not only kept it operationally active in the Balkans, it has also helped the Alliance develop a process and structure to better identify other crises as they evolve, in order to tailor an appropriate and bespoke response. This methodology has been refined over the years as crisis management has developed into a core NATO competence – the importance of which was underlined in the 2010 New Strategic Concept: “NATO will therefore engage, where possible and when necessary, to prevent crises, manage crises, stabilise post-conflict situations and support reconstruction.” To this day, that is what NATO is still doing in Kosovo as part of its KFOR mission, which began in June 1999.

The Balkans conflicts highlight NATO’s willingness to assist nations and populations that do not belong to the Alliance. NATO is also an enthusiastic supporter of the African Union’s (AU) growing peacekeeping role and has provided a range of training and transport assistance. Back in 2005, NATO helped the AU in Darfur, Sudan. Today, the Alliance is helping the AU mission in Somalia (AMISOM) by providing strategic airlift and sealift. Another collaborative activity is taking place between NATO and Europe’s border agency, Frontex, in response to the growing refugee and migrant crisis.


The border lands between Russia and NATO have become an area into which NATO has been projecting stability for many years. The Baltic Air Patrols that defend the airspace of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are typical examples of pre-emptive measures taken to lessen the likelihood of an unauthorized intrusion resulting in a deeper crisis. The Baltic Air Patrols are the most high-profile air defence missions of this nature, but they are not the only ones. NATO also patrols the skies above NATO members Albania and Slovenia to compensate for their lack of any fighter jets capable of undertaking the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) task. Fast jets are also being deployed to Romania to patrol the airspace of NATO member states in the Black Sea region.

As the military campaign in Afghanistan has moved to the Resolute Support Mission, the most pressing crisis management challenge for NATO is addressing Russia’s activities in Europe’s eastern and south-eastern regions. Without doubt, the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing instability in Ukraine represents heightened crisis management. The complexity and uncertainty of the instability in this region is unlike anything that NATO endured during the Cold War.

A united response to the problems in the east and south-east continues to emerge, with NATO placing additional deterrent forces to the outer edges of its members’ territories. Four multinational battalion-sized (circa 1,000 troops) Battle Groups have begun deploying to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, and a multinational framework brigade is being established in Romania. NATO is also boosting its presence in the Black Sea region, “on land, at sea and in the air”.


At the other end of the crisis spectrum lies the civil emergency spectre of humanitarian relief and disaster response. Just as NATO has created a combat capability to deal with armed conflict, it has also put in place a structure and methodology for helping nations who are struck by environmental, health or CNI (critical national infrastructure) disasters. The Euro- Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC), established in 1998, is the hub for these activities and has been extremely busy responding to disasters and training others to cope with them.

Recent operations in which the EADRCC has been involved include forest fires in Israel, the Ebola virus in West Africa, floods in Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the refugee influx from Iraq and Syria. On the CNI front, NATO helped Ukraine and Moldova when atrocious floods and snowfall took down power transmission cables in 2008.

NATO’s ability to manage crises is an evolving capability that will remain a vital tool in the Alliance’s kitbag. The utility this provides the United Nations is second to none, as there are no other military organisations with the scale and range of expertise that can manage these types of situations with a ready-made decision-making, planning and execution process.

Projecting Stability | ATA special publication for the Brussels Summit 2017

For the occasion of the NATO Special Meeting in May 2017, ATA has published a dedicated monograph where high level policy makers and experts tackle the strategic issues of the summit. This publication was distributed to all the delegations and representatives that were taking part to closed-doors discussions and parallel meetings that took place before and during the Summit.

The publication is available in its entirety here:  Projecting Stability | ATA special publication for the Brussels Summit 2017