How did the term command come about?

A fundamentally new command structure for NATO

Air Force General Andrew Vallance explains how NATO's command structure has been reshaped to meet the security needs of the 21st century.

The ACT begins its work: The Allied
The command for questions of remodeling is available at the
Head of the alliance's military transformation.
(© NATO)

The heads of state and government of NATO committed themselves to transforming the alliance at the Prague summit last year. Against this background, they gave instructions to tighten military command arrangements in order to achieve "a leaner, more efficient and more easily deployable command structure" in order to meet the operational requirements for the entire spectrum of Alliance tasks. After intensive work by the military committee and the group of high-ranking representatives of the member states and the strategic command authorities, the defense ministers of the NATO countries agreed the revised command arrangements seven months later. The resulting new NATO command structure represents perhaps the most important development in the Alliance's military organization since NATO was founded more than 50 years ago.

NATO's extensive military command structure continues to distinguish it from all other multinational military organizations. The NATO command structure, which is fully operational in peacetime, enables the alliance to carry out the full spectrum of military activities - from less extensive peacekeeping tasks to large-scale operations under extremely risky conditions. It also provides, just as important, the essential foundations for supporting such activities. This includes not only the development of multinational and cross-armed forces doctrines, procedures and plans for the conduct of operations, but also the crucial basic elements that ensure that armed forces of NATO members and their partner nations can conduct joint operations in a truly integrated manner. In short, the NATO command structure is a means by which an essentially inconsistent collection of personnel and equipment from many different countries is merged into a unified, integrated and effective military instrument that is used to carry out all tasks - no matter how demanding - in is able to.

NATO's new command structure represents perhaps the most important development in terms of the Alliance's military organization since NATO was founded.

NATO's new command structure replaces a command structure that was itself considered to be a significant step forward when it was introduced in 1999. On the basis of the first experiences after the end of the Cold War, the NATO command structure from 1999 was designed to cope with the increasingly broad spectrum of alliance tasks (including in particular peacekeeping tasks), to support the development of the concept of Allied Armed Forces Commands (CJTF), Promote contacts with strategic partners and facilitate the development of the European Security and Defense Identity. Since, like all of its predecessors, it was primarily based on a geographical division of tasks, the Alliance's area of ​​responsibility was divided into two strategic command authorities with largely comparable tasks, namely the Allied Command Area Europe (ACE) and the Allied Command Area Atlantic (ACLANT) . Below the level of the strategic command authorities, there were seven subordinate command areas, and the Allied command area Europe also had a third management level with a total of eleven commands, each of which was assigned to a specific geographical area. In addition, a distinction was made between two regions: AFNORTH and AFSOUTH, each of which was subordinated to an air force and a naval force command as well as a number of cross-armed forces subregional commands (three in Europe North and four in Europe South). The Allied Command Area Atlantic was divided into three regions - EASTLANT, WESTLANT and SOUTHLANT - and had the two operational commands STRIKFLTLANT (Atlantic Emergency Fleet) and SUBACLANT (Allied Submarine Command Area Atlantic). The NATO command structure introduced in 1999 consisted of 20 commands, which, despite everything, was a significant step forward from the previous total of 65.

However, it soon became clear that further significant organizational changes were required. The Alliance's increasing territorial security reduced static defense requirements, while NATO's increasingly proactive approach to crisis management required increased deployability, flexibility, responsiveness and resilience (the latter indicates the extent to which a command is within its own peacekeeping resources able to perform operations). Linked to this was the realization that some areas of interest to NATO were outside its traditional area of ​​responsibility. Developments in the structure of the armed forces (in particular the establishment of high-readiness land and naval commandos), changing relations with the European Union, and the need to bridge the capabilities gap between the United States and its allies provided further arguments for the change. At the same time, increasing financial and personnel bottlenecks exacerbated the need to increase the efficiency of the alliance through institutional reforms. All of this was made possible after September 11, 2001 by the paradigm shift in strategic thinking, the subsequent participation of NATO in the US-led "war on terror", and growing concern about the threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction significantly strengthened. Taken together, these factors led to the groundbreaking Prague Summit. The implementation of the Prague Framework in the new NATO command structure meant an almost complete departure from previous organizational approaches and ushered in a far more ambitious further development of NATO than ever before in the history of the Alliance.

A more functional than geographic approach

The central idea behind this organizational metamorphosis is that the alliance's governance arrangements should be based on a functional rather than a geographic approach. Geographical organizational models are always associated with the risk of fragmentation, since every organizational unit endeavors to develop "independent" skills. This then leads to a widespread double coverage of certain areas of responsibility and thus to a waste of resources. In addition, staffs working in parallel tend to develop different positions on a series of questions, and reconciling such positions later can often take a lot of time and effort without much gain. In contrast, functionally oriented organizational models help to increase the degree of integration, harmonization and cohesion. They eliminate the risk of unnecessary duplication and repetition within an organization, streamline work processes and allow employees to work more purposefully and faster. This in turn enables you to do more work with fewer staff. During the Cold War, when the framework was static and communication was limited, a functional approach to NATO command arrangements would not have been appropriate. In today's much more dynamic and changeable strategic environment, which also requires a more conscious handling of the available resources and in which a secure, global real-time transmission of large amounts of data is not a problem, such an approach is of crucial importance.

By choosing a functional approach to the concrete design of the Prague framework, NATO has achieved a fundamental reorganization, rationalization and redistribution of its military tasks with regard to the new security environment. Like the 1999 NATO command structure, the 2003 structure has two strategic areas of command. With that, however, all the similarities have largely been named. All operational aspects of NATO tasks fall under a single strategic command - ACO (Allied Command Operations) - which is now responsible for the entire area of ​​responsibility of NATO. In a rapidly changing world, however, it is never enough to focus solely on the here and now; it is crucial to look to the future. This is the responsibility of the Allied Command Transformation (ACT), which is at the forefront of military efforts to transform the Alliance. In practice, however, the division of labor is not as clear as this simple formula suggests. The capabilities of the two strategic commands are integrated and there is a fundamental mutual dependency. The two strategic commands share management responsibility, but one of them takes the lead on almost every topic or area of ​​responsibility, while the other has a supportive function. A special task force has been commissioned to put this groundbreaking functional reorganization into practice through organizational measures. This task force adapted modern business audit procedures from best industrial and commercial practice to the military area of ​​application and thus worked out the internal structures and personnel requirements for practically all units of the new NATO command structure within six months. This will lead to a far more rational division of labor in the strategic commands, both internally and between them, as well as to a truly integrated dual strategic management system and a significant downsizing, especially in the higher ranks.

At first glance, the Allied Command Operations Management resembles its main predecessor, the Allied Command Europe. It continues to have three levels of command, its headquarters being the Supreme Headquarters of Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons (Belgium) and it is led by the Supreme Allied Commander in Chief Europe (SACEUR). In both SHAPE and SACEUR, the reference to Europe no longer means for, but rather in Europe, which expresses the much larger geographical area of ​​responsibility. In addition, the Allied Command Operations Management is also very different from the Allied Command Europe, because the areas of responsibility of the various management levels have been fundamentally reorganized.

According to the new precautions, SHAPE should primarily focus on providing strategic advice "upwards" (for NATO headquarters) and "downwards" (headquarters of the second ACO management level) to make the strategic guidelines. This is an important step forward as it removes an ambiguity that arose in 1995 when the IFOR mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina was directly controlled by Mons. SHAPE will now lead the three new "operational" headquarters on the second level, which will be responsible for conducting all future Alliance operations. These are the two joint armed forces commandos in Brunssum (Netherlands) and Naples (Italy) and the joint headquarters in Lisbon (Portugal). Each Joint Forces Command must be able to carry out the full range of Alliance operations, including the provision of a land-based CJTF headquarters. In contrast, the Joint Headquarters, a more limited but nonetheless robust headquarters, will focus on sea-based command of the CJTF. The functional principle has also been extended to the six ACO component command authorities of the third management level; There are two headquarters each for air, land and naval forces, namely in Izmir (Turkey), Ramstein (Germany), Madrid (Spain), Heidelberg (Germany), Naples (Italy) and Northwood (United Kingdom). These component command authorities provide a flexible pool of executives who are experts in their respective fields, and any of them could be deployed in any second-level headquarters.

The functional rationalization within the Allied Command Operations Management will go far beyond the two large organizational units and will be incorporated into the overall structure. All ACO headquarters will adopt the same so-called "J-Code" division of staff tasks and the associated organizational structure so that mutual compatibility and streamlined work processes can be ensured between the various management levels, and each headquarters will be able to use the expertise of the other. The biggest impact will be here at SHAPE, which is not currently organized according to "J-Code" rules. The functional approach is followed down to the lowest management level that makes practical sense, and this results in a significant reduction in SHAPE staff as well as a significant increase in the "robustness" of operational headquarters.


Perhaps the largest single operational initiative, however, is building the NATO Response Force (NRF). The NRF, which has the size (maximum) of a brigade in terms of land forces and additionally has air and sea components, are intended to give the alliance an unprecedented ability to respond to crises. Since the NRF are run from a deployable headquarters, they allow NATO to react quickly and militarily and thus possibly defuse a crisis in the early stages. If this does not succeed, the NRF once deployed could, if necessary, be expanded into a much more extensive CJTF with greater sustainability. In addition, by imposing strict deployability and responsiveness criteria on NATO members, as well as much better capabilities in many areas, the NRF will also act as an important engine for the transformation of the Alliance. As a result, both strategic command agencies are involved in the development of the NRF.

The transformation is an extremely difficult challenge for the alliance. While the main objective of the transformation is to promote the expansion of the Alliance's capabilities and interoperability, it has, in terms of its scale, scope and speed, a far more ambitious objective than any comparable program in the history of the Alliance. When developing the restructuring concept, NATO used the Joint Headquarters of the Armed Forces of the United States (USJFCOM) as a model, i.e. the engine of change within the American armed forces. On this basis, NATO identified the following five "main pillars" of transformation: strategic concepts, doctrine and policy development; Needs, skills, planning and implementation; future cross-armed forces and multinational capabilities, research and technology; cross-armed forces experiments, exercises and assessment; Cross-armed theoretical and practical training.

The first four pillars should lead together to the determination, development and description of redesign concepts and strategies. The second pillar will represent the supporting instruments for selected redesign concepts, while the fourth and fifth pillars will coordinate and implement the results of the other pillars in the areas of training and exercises. The reshaping of NATO will not be a one-off event, but rather an ongoing development process with the aim of keeping the alliance at the highest military level.

This is why it is so important to have a dedicated command agency to take the lead in this effort.The second strategic command, the Allied Reshuffle Command, is headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia, United States, and this location not only helps maintain the strength of the transatlantic bond, but also provides a direct link to the nearby USJFCOM Headquarters allows. A completely new structure - with four main elements - has been developed to allow the ACT to support the various pillars of the redesign. The element "Strategic Concepts, Policies and Requirements" is partly the responsibility of the newly established ACT staff element in Europe. The development of cross-armed forces concepts, the second main ACT element, will be primarily the responsibility of the Center for Cross-Armed Warfare in Stavanger (Norway) and with the Center for Joint Analysis and Conclusions (in Monsanto, Portugal) and the Cross-War Training Center in Polish Bydgoszcz (Bromberg). The "Future Skills, Research and Development" element includes the underwater research center in La Spezia (Italy), but it will also be linked to other national and international research institutions. In addition, a NATO training center for naval forces is planned in Greece, which is assigned to the ACT. The last element - theoretical training - includes the NATO Defense Academy in Rome, the NATO School in Oberammergau and the NATO School of Communication and Information Systems in Latina (Italy). Each of these elements will be integrated with top management in Norfolk, Virginia. In doing so, they will be in liaison with the aforementioned NATO institutions and bodies and the various national "Centers of Excellence" involved in transforming the Alliance, as well as with USJFCOM.

Accelerating change

Rapid implementation will be one of the key criteria for the success of the new NATO command structure, and therefore the implementation of the restructuring plans is now being pushed ahead. The Allied Command for Transformational Issues and the Allied Command for Operations Management formally commenced their work on June 19 and September 1, 2003, respectively. Also on June 19, 2003, the former ACLANT Operations Command was assigned to the (then) Allied Command Europe, and responsibility for the NATO school was transferred to the Allied Command for questions of transformation. These were the simplest aspects of a task that will prove extremely difficult. Many of the headquarters of the 1999 NATO command structure will have to cease operations, while several completely new units will have to be built, sometimes from scratch. The massive functional reorganization that is required here will initially be achieved by coping with the work across staff boundaries, whereby the management regulations will change, but the staff will remain at their previous place of work. The recourse to seconded personnel "voluntary national contingents" will help to close the personnel gap, but there is great pressure to manage the transition to the new NATO command structure within three years. Ultimately, there will be a step by step personnel transfer within the various headquarters and between them. As with any organization, human resources are NATO’s most important resource, and great efforts are being made to ensure a smooth transition and to minimize the inevitable problems of such a far-reaching reorganization.

The fact that all of this must be achieved without reducing NATO's ability to conduct ongoing operations (by forces such as SFOR, KFOR and ISAF IV), while at the same time encouraging further partnership initiatives and integrating seven new members, shows how big the task is that NATO has set for itself. This is both a real and inevitable challenge. If NATO is to remain relevant, it must keep pace with rapidly evolving international defense and security needs. As the only international organization capable of carrying out the full spectrum of military operations, it has a unique role in ensuring security, the role of which is likely to be even greater in the future. Not only do their members and their partner states benefit from this, but also the international community as a whole, because NATO offers the armed forces of many different states the tools they need for effective joint operations. It can only achieve this if both the organization itself and the states of which it is composed work fully towards this transformation. In the meantime, both strategic commands are doing all they can to manage the transition to the new structure extremely quickly and to provide the necessary foundations as early as possible.

Air Force General Andrew Vallance is working with the SHAPE Chief of Staff to implement the new command structure.

For more information on SHAPE see