NATO’s Allied Transformation Command and Preparing for Trident Juncture 2018

By Murielle Delaporte

Recent interviews conducted in Norfolk, Virginia, and in particular with Supreme Allied Transformation Commander (SACT) General Denis Mercier, focused on how NATO is addressing its transformation.

In the wake of February’s NATO Defense ministers’ two-day meeting in Brussels and the reform of the command structure, the ACT is working a number of the practical aspects of transformation.

This effort can be characterized as shaping NATO’s version of the 3 C rule.  

“3 C’s rules“ exist in various fields and in every language.

In English, one can find a 3 C’s rule in marketing (Company, Customers, Competitors), credit (Character, Capacity, Capital), negotiation (Confrontation, Cooperation, Collaboration), web design (Content, Code, Conception), even relationships (Communication, Cooperation, Compromise) and life (Choices, Chances, Changes), just to name a few.

Last March, in the midst of the public revival of NATO’s burden sharing debate triggered by the arrival of President Trump in the White House and prior to the May 2017 Brussels Summit, the Alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg defined NATO’s own 3C’s rule: Cash, Capabilities, Commitment.

As SACT General Mercier explains:

The 3 C’s rule is important and has been reaffirmed: the 2% GDP goal is one of the objectives each NATO nation must aim at, but within these 2 %, 20 % must be spent on new capabilities, while making sure they are compliant with NATO’s standards of interoperability and ready to be deployed under the Alliance’s umbrella if need be. (…)

Besides the GDP percentage allocated to military resources, which has been a long-lasting goal in the past four years, what is changing in the midst of the adaptation process the Alliance is going through is what I refer to as a “persistent federated approach”, i.e. the establishment of a much more persistent bond between the command structure on the one hand, the force structure on the other.

One should indeed stress that NATO’s philosophy is based on a federated approach: NATO is not just a command structure commonly funded by the member states, but it is also the capabilities the latter provide to be able to fight as one. (…)

The goal is not to establish a catalogue listing all available capabilities, but to best construct a force able to address today’s and tomorrow’s threats.“ [1]

Easier said than done, when the specificities, histories, sensitivities of twenty-nine nations – Montenegro being the latest nation to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization last June – have to be aligned into one single political guidance, which will then be translated into military capabilities.

There was one issued in 2011, then another one in 2015, and the two NATO strategic Commands – ACT (as the leader in this process) and ACO (Mons-based Allied Command Operations) – are currently working on the strategic military considerations to support the next one planned for 2019 in the aftermath of the next July Summit planned in Brussels.

The continued adaptation of the Alliance to the new threat environment, as well as the reassertion of missions aimed at projecting stability – such as the reinforcement of the post-war Iraqi training, which has was announced at the Defense ministers’ meeting in February- are among the sure guidelines to be pursued and proposed.

Developing a Common Understanding Picture

But what does it take to have 29 nations agree to a common strategic goal?

That is exactly what ACT’s task is all about.

It starts with the definition of a common understanding picture, as, of course, each country’s threat assessment not only depends on its geography, history and politics, but also relies on its strategic culture and the existence of a structured capability development process that vary widely among nations.

Not all nations base their program laws on a formal defense review process or publish a defense white paper and we can help those who wish to assess and match their priorities according to their political and strategic national ambitions “explains Lieutenant-Colonel Pierre Ascencio, who is part of a ten person staff at SPP (Strategic Plan and Policy) directorate in ACT.[2]

SPP is ACT’s brain and brainstorm on a regular basis via thematic workshops gathering a network of about 2,000 military and civilian experts from armed forces, but also academia, industries and medias.

The result comes under the form of three milestone documents:

The first is the Strategic Foresight Analysis (SFA), which identifies the trends affecting the future over the long-term (the latest one published last October projects the Alliance towards 2035, as it represents the time necessary to complete a full programmatic cycle from the decision to launch R&D till its Full Operational Capacity).

The second is the Framework for Future Alliance Operations (FFAO), which, along with ACO, narrows down the threats down to military scenario and implications for the Alliance: the next one is being reviewed and should be published soon.

These two preparatory reports then feed the NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP), conducted by the NATO HQ in Brussels and both strategic commands and aimed at advising nations in future program development to meet the Alliance’s level of ambition.

One of the advantage of NATO “, underlines SACT, “is to be able to give an unfettered military advice that nations are of course free to follow or not.

Some of them have niche capabilities (such as Estonia which cyber expertise is remarkable) and we are able to orient them, so they can synchronize their future investments to complement other nations.

We just happened to do that with Luxemburg, which satellite communications’ capabilities are to become part of the complex puzzle of forces NATO assembles into a ready to deploy force.

“The NDPP is there to orient national defence plans, and encourage countries to join forces in clusters of abilities such as smart defence initiatives or the Framework Nation Concept (FNC) developed by Germany a few years ago, enabling the building of large forces thanks to years of joint training between Germany and the nations willing to participate.

At a time of a renewal of the ongoing debate about the NATO-EU relationship, it is not a bad idea to recall that these kinds of nations’ arrangements – such as the FNC – can and are already be used for other organizations than NATO, including the EU.

It is also useful to highlight the fact that NATO’s NDPP actually helped the EU to develop its own capability-building processes, tools and scenarii, while NATO’s centers of excellence can be also used by NATO and the EU.

According to General Mercier: “Each organization has its own deliverables, but we make sure our priorities are well coordinated. We have indeed been working very closely with the European Defense Agency over the past two years.

For Lieutenant-Colonel Ascencio, the beauty of having a tool like SPP is to project one’s thinking in another nation’s mindset.

“You cannot understand America for instance, if you have not studied Gettysburg and General Sherman.” 

The effort to create and share a common vision and a global picture of the threat and geopolitical environment has lead ACT to become paradoxically “a place that the United States considers the voice of Europe and that Europe considers the voice of the United States.

In other words, ACT is where open and constant discussion can lead to common understandings and shaping a basis upon which to proceed with regard to more technical tasks.

For example, the recently issued SFA expresses a common perception of Russian activities for the first time since the end of the Cold war. To do so, now is in fact no small achievement considering the current propensity of nation states to look more inward or to emphasize there differences for domestic political consumption.

Developing a Common Situational Awareness

Only twelve nations were NATO’s founding members when the organization was created in 1949.

Today that number more than doubled and exercises can sometimes gather up to fifty countries.

In order to go from a common understanding picture to a common operational one, it is necessary to develop a common situational awareness and the key word here is “interoperability .“

Without the ability for the people, the process and the technology to work and talk together, there would not be an alliance and that is the strength – while at times the weakness – of such a unique organization, making it America’s remaining ”number-one alliance”[3]as General Mattis, US Defense Secretary, recently referred to and despite last year’s presidential rhetoric.

“[Interoperability] is a rather young word created in the 1950’s, which did not become popular until the 1990’s.

The reason is because we technically associate that word with technology and as we increasingly worked with computers, we found out that they were not working together “, explains the man in charge of developing interoperability within NATO, Johan Goossens, head of the branch of technology and human factors at ACT[4].

So how do we do it?

“How do we have the military of twenty-nine different nations do that same handshake?

“First we look at what need to be interoperable, then how to make it so.

We develop specifications and standards.

We work with industries and test equipment in their infancy to see if they can operate together.

We mostly focus on information systems as opposed to platforms.

With the coming of “next gen“ equipment the distinction between systems and platforms however tends to be blurred and the challenge is to keep up with the progress realized among allies across the board to be able to keep doing that hand shake.

Such a paradigm shift worries General Mercier, who was Chief of the French Air Force before becoming SACT: “as a pilot I am indeed concerned when I see today’s exercises.

In my Tiger Meet community[5],we used to share an enormous amount and that is what made us strong.

Today, with the new systems, aviators fly together, but with less and less awareness of what their wingmen are able to do. Debrief comes, and pilots share what they did, but not why and how they did it.

This is a potential catastrophe in terms of interoperability, as it is a matter of mutual trust. If we are not able to solve it within NATO, it will never work…

So NATO has a lot of work to do!

There are however at least three good reasons to remain optimistic – no matter how vast the challenge seems today to make 4thand 5thgeneration air assets work together seamlessly – and be able to maintain a common situational awareness in all areas as best as possible:

First of all, this kind of technological revolution is not a first within the alliance.

If each nation is of course doing its own research and defends its own industrial interests, the role of ACT is precisely to coordinate and orient, so that too much technological unpredictability does not “break compatibility,“ notes Johan Goossens.

He has witnessed similar breakthroughs over the many years he worked at NATO, whether in jet fuel technology or when cyber first emerged or even in processes and culture changes.

“With the end of the Cold war, the maritime situational awareness changed and brought with it a fundamental cultural change, as the growth of pirate attacks in several parts of the world led NATO operators to track not only grey, but also white shipping.

This was a major departure from a traditionally military-oriented prospective and it took a bit of time for nations to adapt…

Secondly, technology differences among twenty-nine nations is a fact of life, which NATO has been accommodating for nearly seventy years through joint operations, but overall through a robust exercise programs.

If the number of participating countries has been fluctuating over the years, depending on budgets, but mostly on the intensity of the perceived threat, three types of exercises have alternatively been conducted on a yearly basis among allies: “Live Exercise (LIVEX), Command Post Exercise (CPX)/Computer Assisted Exercise (CAX), or an Exercise Study[6].

Preparing for Trident Juncture 2018

Mr Goossens’ branch at ACT is the one organizing CWIX[7], which takes place every year in Poland and is a preparation to the next Livex, such as Trident Juncture 2018, which is to take place this fall in Norway.

Symptomatic of how palatable the threat is today, these exercises have been gathering the largest number of participants – including from the “Top 6” or Non-NATO Nations such as Finland or Sweden – ever since the height of the Cold war.

Bridging technology is already there for most of the challenges NATO needs to meet and exercises like Trident Juncture 2018 provide a significant opportunity to address this key issue in an operational exercise setting with significant force engagement.

The exercises provide a forcing function opportunity to find ways to enhance the capabilities of the force working together in a force on force exercise.

If we go back to the “4th/5thGen “ debate, the recent Red Flag 18-1 exercise, which took place and ended February 16that Nellis AFB demonstrated the ability to upgrade tactical link 16 programs in order to make data sharing possible among all generations, the F-22 being a case in point.

In fact, for NATO planners, the problem is today’s exponential speed of technological development, mostly coming from the commercial sector as opposed to the military one,  the way it was just two decades ago – and how to cope with such a trend by creating the appropriate framework for everyone.

Large scale exercises like Trident Juncture 2018 provide an opportunity to work the challenges and move towards common solutions.


[1] Interview conducted at ACT, Norfolk, January 2018z

[2] Interview, ibid

[3] “[Just] to look around that room and see 29 nations all working together … you have to remember the fundamental strength of that alliance,” said General Mattis, as quoted in:

[4] Interview, ibid

[5] Here is the origin of the NATO Tiger Meet according to its official website: “Following the wishes of M.Pierre Messner, the then French defense minister, the USAFE (United States Air Force Europe) 79th TFS (Tactical Fighter Squadron) took the initiative and on 19 July 1961 they invited No.74 Squadron Royal Air Force and EC 1/12 Squadron of the French Armée de l`air to Woodbridge in England. And so the Association of Tiger Squadrons was established to improve relationships between individual squadrons within NATO. Each of these squadrons had a Tigers’ head in their squadron crest.“ (

[6] See:

The reforms to NATO’s command structure are reviewed in the following NATO document released in February 2018.


This article was first published on May 4, 2018.

The featured photo shows Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, Gen Denis Mercier, during a Joint Press Conference on November 4, 2017 after Trident Juncture 2015 live demonstration at San Gregorio training area, Spain.

(NATO Photo by NIC Edouard Bocquet)