NATO’s military structure
The highest military body within NATO is the Military Committee (MC). Its tasks include advising the North Atlantic Council on military matters. The Military Committee also provides directives to NATO Commander-in-Chief of the Integrated Military Command structure (see below).
The Military Committee reports directly to the North Atlantic Council and is made up of Member States’ Chiefs of Defense. Iceland, which lacks its own military defense, has a civilian representative on the Military Committee. At the level of Chief of Defense Staff, the Military Committee meets at least three times a year. The Chiefs of Defense, in turn, appoint deputies who make up the Committee’s permanent session at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. The Chairman of the Military Committee is the Alliance’s main military representative.
The Committee is assisted by a secretariat, the International Military Staff (IMS), at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels. The staff, of about 500 people – mainly military officers – is divided into five main divisions, which are engaged in, for example, coordination of intelligence, operations, war planning and logistics. According to Abbreviationfinder, NATO means North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
NATO’s military structure otherwise schematically consists of two parts: the integrated military command structure and NATO’s force structure.
The integrated military command structure
In the years 2002–2003, the NATO countries decided to fundamentally restructure NATO’s military parts, mainly due to the changed threat picture and the new tasks taken on by the Alliance. In 2010, the number of primary commands was reduced to six. Seven years later, in 2017, when the security policy situation had deteriorated again, the member states decided to establish two new commands that would become operational in 2019.
The Allied Command Operations Aco (Allied command operations) was responsible for the defense of Europe during the Cold War. Through a reorganization in 2003/2004, the ACO was given strategic responsibility for all NATO operations, regardless of where they are carried out. Its supreme commander is called Saceur (Supreme Allied Commander in Europe) – a post traditionally held by an American officer (general or admiral). He is also head of the US European command (Eucom) in Stuttgart, Germany. Eucom leads American troops based in Europe.
Saceur has its Shape (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) headquarters in Mons, Belgium. From there, the highest command and planning of all operations – both peacekeeping operations and those relating to traditional territorial defense – as well as military exercises with NATO units on a global basis are exercised.
When it comes to peace-promoting (peace-keeping and peace-building) efforts, the initiative is always at the political level. The North Atlantic Council must first decide that NATO must take action in a particular conflict, for example in Afghanistan, before NATO’s military authorities can act. In the event that any NATO country is involved in a war through an armed attack from outside, Saceur leads all land, naval and air combat forces in the area and must take the initiative for actions to come to the country’s defense. Saceur, however, like all other NATO military commanders, is subordinate to civilian leadership through the North Atlantic Council. This means, among other things, that each NATO country’s government must approve Saceur’s war planning in order for it to be allowed to dispose of the country’s military units. This means that each NATO country itself in each conflict situation can decide what form of support should be given, and this support is not automatically military. Iceland can only provide civilian support, as it has no defense force at all, but is nevertheless a full member of NATO.
In the case of peacekeeping operations, NATO members have even greater freedom of choice, as such operations generally do not concern the provisions on mutual assistance under Article 5 of the Charter. During NATO’s operations in Kosovo in 1999, Greece – which opposed the operations but did not want to veto them – refrained from contributing to them at all. Similarly, Germany and some other countries refrained from participating in NATO’s operation in Libya in 2011, despite the fact that – in contrast to the operation in Kosovo – it was based on a UN mandate.
Under Saceur and ACO, there are two subcommands at the operational level. One is the Joint Force Command Brunssum has a regional focus on Central Europe and northwestern Europe, including the Baltic Sea region and is based in Brunssum, the Netherlands. JFC Brunssum is usually led by a German general. The second, Joint Force Command Naples, has a regional focus on southern Europe and is located in Naples, Italy. JFC Naples is always led by an American admiral, who is also the commander of the US 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean.
Two more commands were added in 2019. Joint Force Command Norfolk on the east coast of the United States is a naval command that will ensure that troop and material reinforcements from the United States reach Europe and protect the North Atlantic sea routes. The Joint Support and Enabling Command in Ulm in southern Germany will secure transfers over land and coordinate the alliance’s logistical functions.
Partly parallel to the operational level is the tactical or defense line-specific level. Allied Air Command (Aircom) in Ramstein, Germany, is responsible for the Alliance’s air combat forces. The Allied Maritime Command (Marcom) in Northwood, UK, manages the Alliance’s naval forces, and the Allied Land Command (Landcom) in Izmir, Turkey, is in charge of the Army.
The Allied Command Transformation (ACT) is not part of the military command structure but has, among other things, the task of assisting in the development and transformation of NATO members’ military forces – from the Cold War structures to a focus on international high-tech international forces.