NATO is working to shore up capability gaps - from those in its ability to defend against cyber and missile attacks to shortcomings identified during current operations in Afghanistan, the alliance’s supreme allied commander for transformation said here yesterday.
Gen. Stephane Abrial of the French air force called NATO’s new strategic concept, adopted during the alliance’s November summit in Lisbon, Portugal, a big step toward building capabilities needed to stand up to new and emerging threats.
“The world is changing fast, and the threat, as opposed to what it was years ago, is less visible, more diffused and more multiformed,” he told reporters during a media roundtable. “But nevertheless, it is very real.”
NATO leaders agreed to a strategic concept that better postures the alliance to face these challenges for the coming decade, the general said. Among its provisions is an agreement to enhance cyber defenses as well as missile defense capabilities able to protect not just NATO forces, but also European populations and territory.
NATO began defining a cyber policy in 2007 after a series of cyber attacks in Estonia inflicted heavy damage on military targets and key civilian infrastructure. But Abrial said the new strategic concept, in which NATO leaders formally agreed to enhance alliance cyber defenses, finally moves this effort to the front burner.
“Now we are engaged much more forwardly … and are developing an action plan to see which type of capabilities we need to build up to make sure we keep current in this environment,” he said.
Emphasizing that “NATO cannot wait,” Abriel described the challenges in defending against cyber attacks.
“Geography is not a factor anymore. The adversary can be anywhere in the world,” he said. “We have difficulties to identify who is the bad guy, but there are thousands of them out there. [So] we have to make sure we can defend ourselves and continue to operate in a cyber-heavy environment.”
Meanwhile, recognizing the growing threat of proliferation, NATO leaders also agreed in Lisbon to expand the alliance’s missile-defense capabilities. More than 30 nations possess or are working on ballistic missiles and other weapons systems, with some of those missiles already capable of striking parts of Western Europe.
The new strategic concept includes a plan to extend NATO’s capabilities to protect not just deployed forces, but also members’ populations and territories. The plan, Abrial explained, is to build defenses around member nations’ existing capabilities. NATO will serve as command and control, aggregating these resources into a single, broad-scale missile defense capability.
Abrial welcomed the decision to invite Russia to participate, calling it “a good test” in efforts to foster closer cooperation between NATO and Russia.
“It is extremely important to show we are out of the Cold War era,” he said, emphasizing Russia’s important role in regional security. “It is vital for the stability of Europe to ensure that Russia is an actor. The Lisbon summit has shown a willingness on both sides - NATO nations and Russia - to cooperate more and to make sure we improve the relationship in those domains.”
As NATO postures itself to better deal with new and emerging threats, it’s also working to shore up deficiencies affecting the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Three gaps it’s working to fill involve information sharing, battlefield medicine and logistics.
Abrial cited tremendous strides on the information-sharing front with the standup of the new Afghan Mission Network. The network, slated to reach full operational capability this summer, gives the United States and its ISAF partner nations the opportunity to link up over a common mission architecture.
Already, coalition forces are calling the network - which enables one coalition partner to share information that may affect another partner’s operations — a major asset, Abrial reported. “Pushing the information into the system enables the other nations in this area to better plan their own operations,” he explained, making them “more effective and safer for the troops.”
Abrial said he sees the network’s long-term benefit for future NATO operations. “My vision from the beginning was that we not build something that would be specific for Afghanistan, and then put it away when the operation [is] over,” he said.
Rather, Abrial said he envisioned a network “that can be useable in the future, whatever the operation,” with an open architecture adaptable for those specific circumstances.
“So it is not a one-time effort,” he said. “It is a good lesson for the future.”
On the military medicine front, Allied Transformation Command is working to ensure wounded warriors get the fastest and best care possible.
“One of the gaps is multinational medical support. How [do we] make sure we are more effective collectively?” Abrial asked.
The problem, he said, is that every NATO nation has a different way of handling combat casualties - some that he said take too long to get treatment to the wounded.
But implementing change isn’t as easy as it might seem. “It’s a very difficult matter, we understand, because each country has its own health and medical culture, and does not accept if it is modified for the sake of consensus,” Abrial said.
Allied Transformation Command also is looking at better ways to keep NATO forces supplied with equipment and provisions.
“We are not very good at pooling logistics,” Abrial acknowledged. Better processes will make logistics more efficient and save money at the same time, he said.
As NATO transformers strive to fill recognized gaps, they constantly are striving to identify deficiencies that might not be so obvious. One of the areas they’ve explored is space.
“NATO doesn’t own anything in space,” and relies on services provided by nations that do, Abrial said.
“Is it satisfying? Does NATO want to develop something specific [in space]?” he asked. “There’s no answer so far, but the question must be asked.”