Over the years, NATO has established and adapted an agile force structure and technological infrastructure that defends Alliance member states from attack on a daily basis, writes Simon Michell

In times of heightened tension, NATO can rapidly call upon the military resources of its 29 member states, as well as, if appropriate, those of partner nations. However, the Alliance also maintains standing forces that are on constant watch across the air, land and sea of the European territories, regardless of the prevailing level of uncertainty. These forces are, for the most part, complementary to the NATO Response Force (NRF) elements that stand at high and very high states of readiness in case of a sudden need to respond to an incident.

That said, the four Standing NATO Maritime Groups (two mine countermeasures and two maritime security) that patrol the North Atlantic, as well as the North, Mediterranean and Aegean seas and, periodically, waters east of the Suez Canal, are integral parts of the NRF and are becoming ever more closely integrated with it. NATO is intent on revamping its maritime forces, and is, in its own words, “reinvigorating the Standing Naval Forces (SNF) so that, inter alia, they meet the requirements of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) Maritime, as reiterated in the Warsaw summit in 2016.” The SNF will now begin to operate more frequently in the Black Sea Region.

On land, and despite the drawdown of American and Canadian troops from Europe that began after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are still considerable numbers of North American forces stationed on the continent, together with a growing volume of pre-positioned stocks and equipment. Alongside the domestic NATO forces, the US has augmented the 65,000 military personnel it keeps in Europe. For its part, Canada has also recently agreed to expand the number of troops it sends across the Atlantic to European shores, as the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula has precipitated a bolstering of defences across NATO’s eastern and southern borders with Russia.

There is also an impressive amount of military infrastructure that has either been in service for many years, or is in the process of implementation and on the verge of full operational capability. This includes systems to defend against ballistic missile attacks, air command and control networks, and airborne surveillance platforms.


The five Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) RQ-4B Block 40 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles that are being procured on behalf of NATO by a consortium of 15 Alliance members are expected to have entered service by the end of 2018. They will be operated by a NATO component based at Italy’s Sigonella air base in support of the NATO Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (JISR) initiative. Once in service, they will protect ground forces by finding, identifying and targeting moving vehicles and other threats on the ground. They will join NATO’s efforts to persistently counter potential attacks on deployed forces and civilian populations and will play a key role in addressing hybrid warfare and terrorism.


Now achieving early operational capability, NATO’s Air Command and Control System (ACCS) is revolutionising the way in which the Alliance defends itself against attack from the air by integrating almost all of NATO’s airspace under one system. The final goal is to incorporate ballistic missile defence to create the NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence System (NATINAMDS). This unprecedented system is on a scale not replicated by any other military alliance and comprises 300 air surveillance sensor sites, 550 external systems in 800 different locations, and 27 operational site locations to watch over 81 million square kilometres of airspace.

Should the need arise, there is also a deployable ACCS that NATO can take on operations when it leaves the static ACCS coverage.


NATO’s E-3A airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) component – the unmistakable squadron of Boeing 707s with huge nine-metre rotodomes on their backs – represents the Alliance’s sole currently owned and operated unit. This unique organisation has been operating with multinational crews from its base at Geilenkirchen for almost 35 years and will hopefully continue until 2030. In order to make this continued service possible, the aircraft are being upgraded with modern digital systems and glass cockpits, which are becoming mandatory in some of the airspace in which the aircraft may undertake future missions. The component’s primary task of keeping up a constant watch for low-flying enemy aircraft and directing NATO interceptors to neutralise them is a critical requirement for NATO, and one that it will maintain for the foreseeable future, necessitating their eventual replacement.

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