NATO Military Adaptation and RAP

V.Adm. F. Sanfelice di Monteforte
Pres. Military Commission, Italian Atlantic Committee

28 November 2016

20150122_150122-chodsAccording to a prestigious English dictionary, the term “Adaptation”, used as the title of the latest NATO initiative, means, among other alternatives, “ a form or structure modified to fit a changed environment” [1]. In fact, the composition and structure of forces under NATO command has varied significantly, with time, and the latest “Adaptation” needs, to be fully understood, a brief historical recall of its precedents.

It is worth highlighting that, at the beginning of the Alliance, and for many years since, no military force waspermanently placed  under the direct orders of NATO Commanders.The latter, in fact, were in charge of commanding them in case of war, while in peacetime all forces remained under their National commands, and periodically met  only in occasion of NATO-led exercises.

The strategy of containment, in fact, relied heavily on the concept of “Massive Retaliation”, i.e. the intense use of nuclear bombs to stop an aggression against one NATO member. This act, which would have probably unleashed an Armageddon, was planned to be carried out only in case of invasion, by the Red Army, of Western Germany. The Strategic Air Forces from the USA and UK, as well as their Naval Battle and Amphibious Groups were in charge of this counteroffensive, which relied heavily on nuclear bombs.

Tactical air and land forces, provided by the majority of other allied Nations, were needed instead to slow down, in the meantime,the impetus of the Soviet attack, and hopefully to check it, in front of the main defense lines, on land. The approach followed was to station light forces well ahead, to comply with the “Forward Defense” concept and act as a sort of “trip wire” against the Red Army, while the bulk of them would be positioned in the rear.

At sea NATO naval forces were required to keep the sea lines of communication open, in order to allow reinforcements and resupplies coming from the American continent to reach Europe.

This strategy became obsolete in 1957, when the Soviets demonstrated their capability to carry out nuclear strikes even on the American Allies (USA and Canada), by using ballistic missiles. The successful launch of a satellite, the Sputnik, and the first mission of an astronaut in orbit around the earth werea clear demonstration that the era of absolute nuclear power by NATO nations was over for good.


In the 1960s, the Soviets, besides demonstrating an effective capability to carry out nuclear strikes, adopted also a new approach, to undermine the Western countries. The Soviet “Peripheral Strategy”, in fact,which consisted in favoring the struggle for independence of the Western colonies and protectorates, in Africa, America and Asia, had created a completely newsituation, which would not justify any “Massive Retaliation” by NATO, as this strategy took place well outside the area of responsibility of the Alliance.

Therefore, it became clear that military planning could not consider any  more only the “Case of War”, as opposed to the status of peace, but a third planning case should be introduced, i.e. “Tension”. The crisis of Cuba, in 1962, was an instance so powerful, that also NATO military planning had to consider a similar case.A situation of tension required forces already under NATO command, or at least capable of being quickly mustered, in order to cope with any unforeseen situation, in this kind of scenario. Not by chance, these forces were named “Contingency Forces”.

During this period, even before the approval of the newNATO Strategic Concept in 1968, a first step was made to allow the Alliance direct intervention, in order to prevent tensions, caused by a crisis, from degenerating into war. This risk of escalation was deemed to be especially probable in NATO’s peripheral areas.

In December 1961, The Allied Mobile Force (AMF), the first multi-national unit of the Alliance, under the direct orders of SACEUR, was established. It was an “On Call” force, which was usually mustered twice per year, for one month, to reach cohesiveness and readiness, and her aim was to demonstrate NATO solidarity in critical zones of the NATO area of responsibility, usually on the “NATO Flanks”, in Norway and Turkey [2].

AMF included initially four fighter-bomber squadrons (AMF-A), and a land force (AMF-L), ready to deploy in the areas of crisis in time of tension, and reached, with time the size of one Army Division. When no crisis implied her intervention, AMF met twice a year, to train and demonstrate Allied solidarity.

The deployment in the Mediterranean basin of the Soviet Naval Squadron (SOVMEDRON), in 1968, as a consequence of the “Six Days War” between Israel and Egypt, led to the establishment, one year later, of the NATO Mediterranean on-call Force (NAVOCFORMED), having an aim similar to AMF, i.e. to demonstrate the allied determination and cohesion [3].

It included escorts (Destroyer or Frigate), one from each Mediterranean ally, plus one British and one US Navy ships and, when possible, a tanker. Also NAVOCFORMED met twice a year, for one month, to conduct exercises and to carry on missions of “suasion” (or Naval Diplomacy), by performing goodwill visits into friendly and allied ports, and shadowing Soviet warships, when they were at sea.

In the Atlantic area, the Supreme Allied Command Atlantic (SACLANT) developed the concept of pre-notified forces (Earmarked) to be mustered with short delay, to support its contingency plans, since the outset of a crisis. This initiative concerned mainly the United States, whose commitments around the world prevented them from specifying beforehand which forces would have been dedicated to the Alliance, to implement SACLANT contingency plans.

In consequence of this lack of certainty about which assets and forces would be made available by the USA, and in order to fill the possible time gap between a situation of tension and the availability of US forces, in 1968 SACLANT requested – and was authorized to have under its direct orders – the Standing Naval Force Atlantic (STANAVFORLANT), composed by one escort per allied nation, as NAVOCFORMED, albeit on a permanent basis, with the scope to carry on “suasion” in time of peace, and to demonstrate allied solidarity and resolve, in case of tension.

In the meantime, the first Gulf War (1980-88), which saw an intensive use of mines, led to the establishment of two other NATO naval forces, devoted to Mine Warfare, one in the Atlantic and one in the Mediterranean. Their acronym was, respectively, MCMFOR NORTH and SOUTH, later named Standing MCM Groups 1 and 2.

These Naval Forces were the first to be used, during the former Yugoslav crisis, in 1992, to carry out the embargo proclaimed by the UN, and also led to the transformation of NAVOCFORMED into the Standing Naval Force, Mediterranean (STANAVFORMED), while keeping the same composition as before.

But the succession of crises, and the growing instability of the European neighborhood, called for a more radical transformation of military forces of the NATO Nations, as deploy-ability became increasingly needed, in order to allow the Alliance to carry out missions of stabilization.

The forces developed during the Cold War, in fact, were unfit for these missions, and the NATO Secretary General Lord ROBERTSON, on May 6, 2003, in Montreal, stated that “We are having to replace a Cold War sumo wrestler with a 21st century fencer”, thus highlighting the new requirements NATO forces had to comply with.

The list of real-world operations carried out by NATO, during the last thirty six years, is impressive. The names of the most important among them are ANCHOR GUARD/ACE GUARD (during the First Gulf War), SHARP GUARD, DENY FLIGHT and SFOR/IFOR (connected to the former Yugoslav crisis), ALLIED FORCE/KFOR (related to the Kosovo war), EAGLE ASSIST and ACTIVE ENDEAVOUR (after the tragedy of 9/11), DISPLAY DETERRENCE (during the Second Gulf War), ESSENTIAL HARVEST (to prevent a civil war in FYROM), ISAF (Afghanistan), ALLIED PROTECTOR/OCEAN SHIELD (containment of piracy in the Indian Ocean).


In fact, besides the need to radically reform NATO forces, at the 2002 Prague Summit, another NATO initiative had been decided, and it led, the following year, to the establishment of a new on-call force, whose aim was to intervene with a very short delay, in case of an emerging crisis.

The underlying idea was to build a powerful, multi-national and tri-service force, named NATO Response Force (NRF), modular in its composition – so that single units could be called separately, according to the requirements –capable of being deployed wherever needed, for the duration of one month, until other forces at a lower degree of readiness could replace it.

NRF was to remain on-call for six months in a status of high readiness, after a period of training and certification, and had to be replaced by another set of forces, at the end of its period of alert. These forces should have to be made available by European NATO nations, while the USA would supplement it when needed, on a case-by-case basis. The intent was to convince the European Allies to build enough “Top Notch” forces, able to act in the highest part of the “Warfare Spectrum”, thus complementing and supporting the already available forces used to stabilize the areas of crisis.

Its composition included initially one Naval Battle Group, one Amphibious Group, one Land Brigade and a shore-based deployable Air Force, thus reaching the number of 25.000 soldiers, seamen and aviators.

As this initiative involved a total of 75.000 military simultaneously (as one NRF would be in its training phase, one NRF on task and a third NRF de-mobilized for rest and reformation) it became difficult, for the European NATO Nations, to provide all required manpower and capabilities, especially after the expansion of NATO mission in Afghanistan (ISAF), which absorbed many among the best allied combat units.

In addition, the limited size and capabilities of naval forces within NATO nations has posed another problem for the effectiveness of NRF: there are few naval Battle Groups in Europe, as well as limited Amphibious Forces, the latter being most sought as these are the most capable di perform and Initial/Forcible Entry in territories plagued by war.

A number of modifications were therefore adopted, in order to ease the Nations’ burdens.Until before the Wales Summit, the NRF, through its successive modifications,had been reduced to a size of 13.000 troops and was composed of three elements:

- Command and Control element. A deployable Joint Force HQs, responsible to exert commend of the force during any operation, and therefore to be used in all kinds of deployment of the force, regardless of the specific circumstances;

- Immediate Response Force (IRF). A ready nucleus of the NRF designed to provide the first response to a crisis (in the past, this kind of units was known as Initial Entry Force) or to operate in the smallest operations;

- Response Forces Pool (RFP). The majority of NRF forces, able to display the full range of capabilities of the NRF. They would have been drawn from the wider pool of Allied and Partners’ national or multi-national deployable forces, the NRDCs (see below).

NRF has been activated, albeit in part, for the following events/emergencies:

  • Olympic Games in Athens in 2004;
  • Afghan presidential elections in 2004;
  • Humanitarian assistance following Hurricane Katrina in 2005;
  • Humanitarian relief following the earthquake in Pakistan in 2006.

This explains why NRF had been divided in three elements, as the above mentioned list of operations involving NRF shows that small missions were required more frequently than others.



NATO, in the meantime, being concerned by the lack of deploy-ability of her assigned forces, had also favored the establishment of 8Multi-National Rapid Deployable Corps (NRDC), led by one or moreFramework Nations, providing the majority of the Corp’s forces. In addition to them, a ninth force, the Franco-German- led EUROCORPS signed a MoU, which enabled it to be used by NATO, for crisis response operations.

The first to be activated, in 1992, was the British-led Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC), and the others followed between 2005 and 2006. They have been, until recently, divided among “High Readiness” and “Lower Readiness” Corps, and have been used by NATO, on a rotational basis, to provide the Command HQs of ISAF in Afghanistan, and can provide NRF, if needed, with their units.



In 2014, during the Wales Summit, the Heads of State and Government took stock of the new geo-political situation, whose main aspects were “Russia’s aggressive actions (and the) growing instability in (NATO’s) southern neighborhood, from the Middle East to North Africa, as well as transnational and multi-dimensional threats” [4].The Warsaw Summit of 2016, acknowledged that “there is an arc of insecurity and instability along NATO’s periphery and beyond” [5].

It is clear, from these lines, that NATO had been compelled to change her priorities, by placing once again “Collective Defense” at the very top of her tasks, after almost 24 years, during which there were no short-term threats to the territories of NATO Nations, and the scenario known as “Large Scale Article 5 Operations” was considered to be remote.

Therefore, in 2014, a change of approach was required, and it was acknowledged, once again, that “the greatest responsibility of the Alliance is to protect and defend our territories and our populations against attacks” [6].

The Heads of State and Government decided therefore to adapt the military posture of the Alliance, to cope with these threats, risks and challenges, by approving a “Readiness Action Plan”, including two types of measures:

- Assurance Measures. Increased military presence and activity for assurance and deterrence initially in the eastern part of the Alliance, and tailored measures for Turkey. These activities consist in the deployment of fighter jets on air policing patrols, deployment of ground troops to the eastern part of the Alliance for training and exercises, NATO AWACS and MPAs patrols along NATO eastern borders, NATO-led exercises in Eastern Europe, an intensified activity by NATO Standing Naval Forces in the Baltic sea, in the Black sea, and in the Mediterranean;

- Adaptation Measures. Longer term changes to NATO’s Forces’ and Command’s Structure that improve the Alliance’s ability to react swiftly and decisively to sudden crises, whether those arise from the east or the south.

These measures, as they affect NATO in depth, deserve a more detailed description:

- NRF. The first measure has been the improvement of NRF, which has been brought to a size of 40.000 troops, including air, sea, land and special forces components. But the increase of size was not the major change. In fact, within the NRF, a new quick-reaction “Spearhead Force”, named Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) of 20.000 troops, of which 5.000 are ground forces, has been established. The VJTF must be able to deploy to wherever is needed, not only in Eastern Europe;

- NATO Force Integration Units.These are small multi-national HQs, placed in territories of Eastern Allies (Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia). They will be staffed by about 40 national and multi-national specialists, whose task is to improve cooperation and coordination between NATO and National forces, and to prepare and support NRF exercises and any deployment needed;

- Multi-national Corps Northeast(Poland). It is a Corps with three framework Nations: Germany, Denmark and Poland, and is based in Szczecin. It was a low-readiness HQs, but now its  readiness and capabilities have been raised, and its role as a hub for regional cooperation has been enhanced;

- New Multi-national Divisional HQs (Romania). It has been established, in order to deal with threats and challenges in the Southeast of Europe;

- Military Supplies. The pre-positioning of stocks of military supplies on the territory of Eastern Allies has been decided;

- National Infrastructures. Airports and ports of Eastern Allies will be improved, in order to allow their more rapid and effective reinforcement, in case of crisis;

- Joint Logistic Support Group HQs.It is being established, in order to better supportdeployed forces.



It is worth highlighting that the Warsaw Summit, held in 2016, has emphasized the need for other measures to be implemented, especially in the domains of Interoperability, Cyber defense and Ballistic Missile Defense. These measures will bring a renewed research and development effort, in order to cope with the new form of warfare which is increasingly used around the world.

Hybrid Warfare, in fact, is the new concern for NATO. It is “a broad, complex and adaptive combination of conventional and non-conventional means, and overt and covert military, paramilitary and civilian measures, employed in a highly integrated design by State and non-State actors to achieve their objectives” [7].

While “the primary responsibility to respond to hybrid threats or attacks rests with the targeted nation, NATO is prepared to assist an Ally at any stage of a hybrid campaign. The Council could decide to invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty” [8].

These lines show that NATO will not automatically invoke the “Collective Defense” clause, in case of Hybrid Warfare, but will monitor the situation and provide assistance, as done during the 2006 cyber-attacks against Estonia, and only when the magnitude of attacks might threaten the targeted Nation’s territorial integrity and her population, will decide to act more directly, up to the call for an all-out defense.


From what said, it is clear that the focus of the Alliance has shifted from crisis support operations – as done for twenty one years - to deterrence, protection and defense of NATO periphery. It is worth highlighting that, as compared to the Cold War times, now the Alliance is concerned not only about the defense of allied territories, but also of their populations.

The Russian behavior towards Ukraine had, in fact, compelled NATO to act in such a way as to discourage Moscow from undertaking similar actions against the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact States who are now members of the Alliance, and do not want to fall again under the influence of Moscow.

However, also the risks from the South are being taken into consideration. Apart from the “tailored measures” for Turkey, including the deployment of Patriot missiles batteries, the activity of the Standing Naval Forces has increased, as well as air surveillance, in order to timely spot any sign of imminent tension and crisis.

The inherent flexibility of these measures insures that unforeseen events will meet with a prompt reaction. This shows that NATO has reverted to her historical defensive role, as the situation in Europe is full of tension, due to the threats and challenges from the east and from the south. However, the European allies will have to do more in filling the gaps of their military instruments, by acquiring more capabilities in the domains where they are too weak, i.e. naval and air forces.

[1] WEBSTER’S College Dictionary. Ed. Random House, 1999, page 14.

[2] AA.VV. L’AlleanzaAtlantica (op. cit.). pag. 60.

[3] Ibid.

[4] NATO. Wales Summit Declaration, page 1 para 1.

[5] NATO Warsaw Summit Communiqué. Page 1 para 5.

[6]NATO Wales Summit Declaration. page 1 para 2.

[7] Warsaw Summit Communiqué. Para 72.

[8] Ibid.