A new task force NATO’s defense ministers agreed to form will explore “out of the box” concepts for improving efficiency while striving to build capabilities in the face of shrinking defense budgets, the alliance’s supreme allied commander for transformation said today.

In a meeting last week in Brussels, Belgium, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and his NATO counterparts endorsed the new task force to take a fresh look at the alliance’s capabilities-boosting initiatives, Gen. Stephane Abrial of the French air force told reporters.

“The objective is to first identify what is existing as far as multinational cooperation is concerned, identify what could be possible, and think new ideas [and] innovative ways for capability development,” he said.

U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Carol M. Pottenger, Allied Transformation Command’s deputy chief of staff for capability development, will lead the review, to be conducted by a mix of military and civilian representatives from across NATO.

Abrial said he expects the review will examine NATO doctrine, organizations, procurement, training, operations and maintenance, logistics, and battlefield medicine.

The task force members will have six months to formulate their ideas.

“The objective is a report in September for the [defense] ministers to consider in October, and then make decisions, either NATO as a whole or groups of nations inside NATO,” Abrial explained.

Though the global economic crisis has affected alliance nations’ defense budgets, Abrial said, every NATO nation has made clear it doesn’t want to “let the financial crisis turn into a security crisis.” That requires redoubling efforts to become more effective and more efficient, he added.

“With reduced budgets [and] reduced manpower, we need to be able to do better with less in the future,” he said. “While looking for new solutions, innovative solutions [and] multinational approaches, [we are] making sure that we … make the best possible use of every dollar, every pound, every euro that our governments spend on defense.”

Abrial cited innovative defense solutions already at work within NATO, the European Union or the European Defense Agency that the task force is likely to consider. Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark have a successful defense cooperation arrangement under the auspices of the Nordic Council. The Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and Denmark share part of the acquisition costs as well as operation and maintenance of their F-16 fighter jet fleets. Luxembourg has developed a maritime patrol capability to support NATO missions by leasing sensor-equipped civilian propeller aircraft.

Another far more revolutionary, and potentially sensitive, concept involves capability-sharing. In a nutshell, this might mean one NATO nation agrees to provide all of capability “X” for itself and one or more partner nations. Meanwhile, another nation that receives capability “X” from the first nation provides all of the capability “Y,” and another provides all of the capability “Z.”

Abrial acknowledged that some nations may be highly averse to giving up their own defense capabilities and relying on another nation to provide it. Such collaboration would require clear understanding and communication to work, he said.

While such sweeping recommendations aren’t likely to be adopted in the near term, Abrial said, he’s encouraging the task force to offer the broadest range of new approaches possible. “All aspects are on the table today,” he said.

What’s most important, he emphasized, is that despite budget cuts, the alliance continues to improve its capabilities so it’s ready to stand up to whatever threat or challenge comes its way.

“We are making sure [the] forces of NATO nations are ready to face any kind of situation today, tomorrow and the day after,” Abrial said. “What we see around us today shows the absolute necessity to be ready for everything.”