NATO Strives to Fill Capability Gaps

WASHINGTON, March 17, 2011 — 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.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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