NATO: Political to Tactical

15 March 2007

After almost four years as the Chief of Staff of the only NATO headquarters outside of Europe, I wonder whether Canada’s security interest are still coherent with those of the Alliance. Since the fall of the Berlin wall, NATO has struggled to reinvent its ability to deal with today’s operations – especially out-of-area – while continuing to be the best vehicle for transatlantic dialogue.

For Canada, itself in a period of re-thinking its approach to international and domestic security issues, the question remains whether NATO is meeting Canada’s expectations and is still a good fit in helping to meet its security interests.

It is of course acknowledged that the security environment has changed. The threat is mainly from non-state actors and extremists employing terrorism as their way of war. This threat knows no boundaries; it has unclear norms and values; it lacks moderating influences; has no ­discernable centre(s) of gravity; it is continuously engaged; it is cell-based and globally networked. The “three-block-war” has blended into one concurrent activity involving military and non-military ­warriors. As described by General Schoomaker, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, in a presentation to the Conference of Defence Associations’ annual general meeting, we are in an “era of uncertainty, unpredictability, misinformation, and misconception.”

The result is that Canada’s security interests are much more difficult to address and to assess; but this must be done.

The blending of the “three-block-war” leads one to deduce that Canada should approach operations with a comprehensive approach; what is called in Canada, a “whole of government” approach. In the military structure of NATO, this is referred to as an “Effects-based Approach to Operations.” In this approach, all ­elements of power need to be brought to bear to achieve the end-state, the solution. The NATO Summit declaration of November 2006 calls it a “comprehensive approach.”

This approach is not new. It has worked on the ground, in different ­missions, to a different extent for dozens of years. But the difference is that today’s threat requires that there be a higher-level (grand strategic and political) acknowledgement and support for the approach (nationally and in NATO) well before a crisis. The announced creation in Canada of an Associate Deputy Minister focused on Afghanistan is a step in the right direction, but there must be other pragmatic moves right across government – this is not a military issue.

Cross-jurisdiction Cooperation
More than ever, the Canadian Forces  must be trained and prepared to cooperate early – at the outset of a crisis – with the other (non-military) elements of power. Linkages and relationships with other government departments and NGOs must be created well before they are needed. This means assigning Liaison Officers and Exchange Officers, mutual and joint participation in training, etc.

Because of their inherent hierarchy and ability to provide clear command and control, the Canadian Forces will often continue to be faced with assuming leadership from the rear.

In years past, we saw a similar “unity of effort,” where there was a direct line of effort at all levels, across all pillars, from the political to the tactical. This approach worked in the Medak pocket, in the 1994 Sarajevo Exclusion Zone operation, and on every successful operation. An uncoordinated approach, such as was used in Albania/Kosovo during the refugee crisis of 1999, yielded no credit for Canada. The interests of Canada in the conflict were not clear, the operations of different government departments on the ground were diffused, CIDA’s funds were funneled through the United Nations, and Canada – as a country making a real contribution  – was virtually unidentifiable in Albania.

The approach used today in Afghanistan is much closer to the model Canada should be using. A Canadian footprint has been created there, and efforts are continuing to coordinate all assets, creating a “Canada message.”

NATO is also making an effort to update its approach to operations and improve its military capabilities. To promote and manage this change, the Alliance Heads of State and Government created Allied Command Transformation at the Prague Summit in 2002.
Headquarters Supreme Allied Com­mander Transformation, in Norfolk, Virginia, is manned by more than 650 ­military and civilian officers and enlisted personnel from 24 of 26 NATO Nations. There are also nine Partnership for Peace (PfP) Nations represented in the HQ, such as Azerbaijan, Albania and Croatia. It is one of only two Strategic Commands within the NATO force structure. All operations are commanded by the other Strategic Command, Allied Command Operations.

Allied Command Transformation has no geographic responsibilities; it supports operations through joint headquarters training, doctrine and concept development, management of the lessons learned process, and education. It is a functional command – with its area of operations “the future” – and acts as the permanent change agent for the Alliance and the Nations’ military forces.

Moving Forward
Without NATO, there would still be transatlantic dialogue, but it would be ad hoc instead of institutionalized.

In spite of its imperfections, the Alliance is making positive change. Led by the efforts of Allied Command Trans­for­mation, NATO is inter alia, encouraging Nations to change their static militaries into expeditionary forces; improving the training of its operational headquarters, and implementing a much more dynamic lessons-learned process.

However, NATO’s assumption of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan will undoubtedly be the greatest test for the Alliance – its greatest transformational catalyst. NATO has to show its ability to successfully manage this complex operation and achieve the desired end-state in the country.

Canada’s Minister of National Defence recently referred positively about some of the ongoing operational issues Canada has with NATO, especially in ISAF. He stated that Nations by and large are in the process of removing the caveats restricting their forces’ freedom of employment, and there are additional pledges of forces by Nations.

Another positive development is the growing acknowledgement within NATO of the need for a comprehensive approach to operations as described earlier. But even these positive developments still do not make NATO as effective as it could be. There remain areas of the NATO bureaucracy that have not changed since the Cold War. The entire decision-making mechanism is still antiquated and based on Cold War require­ments; Allied Command Trans­formation is making valiant efforts to demonstrate the usefulness of modern technology and methods in supporting political and senior military decision-­making, but there is still a great resistance to change.

In spite of this, as we question the utility of NATO, we should not forget all the progress it made over its 57-plus years of existence: all the standardization work for equipment and procedures; the joint training that has been accomplished; and the sharing of lessons over the years. Even non-NATO Nations worldwide want to adopt NATO procedures and standards. The Alliance can continue to be useful for Canada and all Nations; but it must make further efforts to improve interoperability through the development and enforcement of standards.

In the end, we must remember that NATO is an alliance of sovereign Nations – each with different national interests. When these interests coincide, nothing is more powerful; when they do not, the Alliance is nearly powerless.

To come back to original question, Canada’s interests are indeed coherent with those of NATO. As is often the case, Canada is faced with the choice of remaining in NATO and trying to “fix it,” or leaving it and focusing on coalitions of the willing and preferred Allies.

Canada can regain a large measure of influence within the Alliance and help move it along the path of transformation. Canada’s important current commitment to ISAF enables it to be heard at the table; something the country has not been able to do for many years. Canada can help NATO change and I believe it should.
Lieutenant-General J.O. Michel Maisonneuve has just retired as the Chief of Staff, NATO HQ Supreme Allied Commander Trans­formation. He testified in 2002 and again in March 2007 at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
© FrontLine Defence 2007