Select Committee on Defence Seventh Report


The post 11 September strategic setting

23. The ending of the Cold War required NATO to adapt to a changed strategic setting and to undertake new missions. But the world changed again on 11 September, as we reflected in our report on The Threat from Terrorism at the end of last year.[12] The threat which terrorism poses to global security was suddenly perceived as more pressing and dangerous, because of the scale of the attacks, their goal of mass casualties, their perpetration by a highly organised and mobile terrorist network which acknowledged no boundaries to its activities, and the willingness of terrorists to sacrifice their own lives. As a result of 11 September, and if the Alliance is to be relevant against a threat which no longer has borders, the transformation which NATO has effected to date in its role and missions since the end of the Cold War will require another step change. A second, but equally important, consequence of the events of 11 September for NATO is the implications of the United States's reaction to the terrorist threat. We discuss later the ways in which this might affect the Alliance (see paragraphs 113-124)

24. The MoD believes that NATO's core tasks as set out in the 1999 Strategic Concept remain valid and that the Prague Summit should not seek to revise it, but that NATO needs to 'improve its preparedness and capabilities against new threats'.[13] The Secretary of State told us—

The five tasks set out in the Strategic Concept will, with some shifting of emphasis, be as valid for Prague as they were for Washington. The real issue is how NATO can best meet these tasks.[14]

However, the only reference to terrorism in the Strategic Concept is in a list of 'other risks' which, in addition to a conventional Article 5 armed attack on a member, might affect Alliance security; no definition of what is meant by terrorism, or how it might be tackled, is given.[15] Professor François Heisbourg, of the Foundation for Strategic Studies, believed that, if the Strategic Concept had become outdated after two and a half years, it demonstrated a weakness in its original drafting, particularly as the risk from groups prepared to engage in acts of mass destruction was already well-known in 1999.[16]

NATO's role in the campaign against terrorism

25. NATO's decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, met on 12 September and agreed that the attack on the United States should be regarded as an action covered by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. It declared that 'the United States' NATO allies stand ready to provide the assistance that may be required as a consequence of these acts of barbarism'.[17] In practical terms, this resulted in NATO sending seven AWACS (airborne warning and control system) aircraft to the United States, to free up the United States's own assets so that they could participate in the campaign against terrorism.[18] The operation (Operation Eagle Assist) began on 9 October and ended on 16 May 2002, and involved 830 crew members from 13 NATO nations, flying some 360 sorties. NATO's Standing Naval Force Mediterranean was also deployed to the eastern Mediterranean.[19] The NATO Secretary General, Lord Robertson, has described this deployment as 'historic', and the Secretary of State told us it was 'hugely welcomed by the United States'.[20] Both of these statements may be true, but it would also be fair to say that the effects of NATO's military contribution in the aftermath of 11 September have been minor and on the fringes of the international response to the terrorist threat, although it demonstrated allied solidarity, which the United States welcomed.

26. Lord Robertson has said that NATO 'is becoming the primary means for developing the role of armed forces to help defeat the terrorist threat'.[21] When NATO Heads of State and Government met in Reykjavik in May, they agreed that meeting the challenge of terrorism was fundamental to the security of NATO members, but were less than specific about how this might be approached, saying only that—

Actions taken to meet this challenge will be in accordance with our decisions and in full compliance with all our commitments under international law and relevant provisions of the United Nations Charter and national legislation.[22]

The Final Communiqué and the Statement on Capabilities issued after the meeting of NATO Defence Ministers on 6 June was similarly vague—

Above all, member nations must be ready to adapt their military capabilities to ensure that they can contribute to meeting the new demands, including those posed by terrorism ... for the Alliance to be able to fulfil its fundamental security tasks, there is a continuing need to adapt to new challenges, in particular to those posed by terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and to ensure that NATO and its nations have the structures and deployable forces capable of responding.[23]

If NATO is to have a significant role in the campaign against terrorism, it has a great deal of work to do to flesh out these proposals before Prague. The aim is that work currently under way in NATO will be brought together at Prague in a 'comprehensive package of measures to strengthen NATO's counter terrorist capabilities' and that these will include—

  a statement of NATO's adaptation to meet new threats, building on the Strategic Concept and providing for NATO assets and forces to be used flexibly as they are needed;

  new command and force structures to provide greater flexibility and deployability

  increased NATO preparedness for and improved capabilities against terrorist and WMD attack, in close co-operation with the EU.[24]

27. At the Reykjavik Summit, the Allies reiterated the provision in the 1999 Strategic Concept that any armed attack on NATO territory 'from whatever direction' would be covered by Article 5 but went further than this in saying that its forces needed to be projected to 'wherever they are needed'.[25] In subsequent discussion of what was agreed this has been interpreted as meaning that NATO will act against terrorism wherever this may arise, and has been flagged up by those we met within NATO as therefore being a significant change in policy. When asked if this meant that NATO now had a global role, the Director of International Security Policy at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Mr William Ehrman, said that 'NATO Foreign Ministers were very clear that we need to be able to field forces wherever they are needed' and cited the activity in Afghanistan as an example of how this was already happening.[26] The Secretary of State expanded on this—

We are talking about, as with the operations in Afghanistan, being able to reach the source of threats which might challenge our own security and challenge the security of our Allies. That does not mean engaging in each and every operation that might arise anywhere in the world, but it certainly means being able to engage in operations that have as their ultimate aim dealing with threats to our own safety and security and that has not changed. That has always been the case as far as NATO is concerned.[27]

This highlights the differences between tasks which NATO would consider undertaking and those which fall within the EU's European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP): the latter do not extend to high intensity war fighting (see paragraphs 106-112).

28. William Hopkinson, Visiting Fellow at the Centre for International Studies, University of Cambridge, giving evidence to us in June, argued that NATO has no real role in the 'war' on terrorism because it was not primarily a military task: it involved the police, intelligence, the judiciary, and financial institutions, but not the Armed Forces. His view was that terrorism is now a global phenomenon and NATO, even when it is enlarged, only represents a 'subset of the world'. However, where the campaign against terrorism focused on states which sponsor terrorism, and there was a clear need for military action, NATO could have a role in providing the basis for a coalition, promoting interoperability and providing command and control structures.[28] This view was largely supported by those we spoke to within NATO who agreed that terrorism should be addressed primarily by diplomatic and political means, but that, as the Afghan campaign had demonstrated, military force had a role in destroying safe havens and in deterrence, and that there was clearly a role for NATO in military operations against terrorists.

29. Charles Grant, Director of the Centre for European Reform, raised the possibility, apparently already being discussed in Washington, of the development of a European strike force within NATO, which could operate alongside US forces in high intensity warfare operations.[29] We asked the Secretary of State for his views on this and he told us—

There are certainly some emerging ideas. They have to be set out in detail. They are ideas of improving not only Europe's ability, but NATO's ability to deploy collectively a strike force more quickly than is the case at present and we strongly support that ... It is about NATO being able to respond effectively and quickly to the kinds of threats that exist in the world. We strongly support that and we strongly support the Alliance developing those sorts of capabilities ... Everyone agrees that rapidly deployable forces are where we need to go in a military sense. I hope that what I have said to the committee today about the kinds of reforms that we want NATO to engage in are wholly consistent with that. It is about being able to deliver military force quickly to wherever it is needed.[30]


30. The Reykjavik Communiqué stated that—

We will enhance our ability ... to provide support, when requested, to national authorities for the protection of civilian populations against the effect of any terrorist attack.

NATO is seeking to enhance co-operation with the EU in this area and intends to bring forward a package of proposals at the Prague Summit.[31] It was also made clear during our informal discussions with NATO officials that the Alliance is keen to develop a role in providing a military capability to support member states in consequence management, in responding to and dealing with terrorist attacks which may involve chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials and which may result in mass casualties. NATO's plans are in the early development stage but it appears that some in NATO are prepared to go further than the UK Ministry of Defence. There are suggestions that NATO's Supreme Allied Command Europe (SACEUR) will be specifically tasked with this role. The Secretary of State seemed less enthusiastic—

In terms of any kind of military capability there is always a debate as to how that is best provided, whether centrally—having in effect what amounts to a standing force to which countries subscribe financially—or whether it is better to have forces that each country generates for itself, but those forces are subject to the kind of standardisation that is the hallmark of NATO and they become interoperable as a result of satisfying common standards. There are difficult judgments to be made. If you ask me as Secretary of State for Defence of the United Kingdom where my preference would lie, by and large it would lie in each nation subscribing capabilities because I think that that is easier to explain and more readily understood by the people who put us here because ultimately it is their taxes that pay for it. They would want to see some benefit for the United Kingdom of having those forces. Equally, I recognise in an increasingly interdependent world that those forces have to be able to work alongside forces of our Allies. That is something that the United Kingdom has strongly supported over a very long time and will continue to support into the future.[32]

We discussed the response to possible CBRN attacks on the civilian population in our report on Defence and Security in the UK. We concluded that dealing with a major terrorist incident will require the direct and continuing involvement of central government, in close co-operation with local agencies.[33] It is not clear to us how NATO's role in assisting in dealing with the consequences of such attacks would work in practice: the essence of an effective response is speed and this may prove problematic for NATO. But this is clearly an area on which many of the Allies might value assistance in training and developing common practices, and we will await detailed proposals with interest.


31. One of the issues which NATO will need to address, particularly in the context of combating terrorism, is the circumstances in which the Alliance would contemplate a pre-emptive strike, if faced with a credible and probable attack on a member state, when deterrence and all other means of averting the attack had been explored. One of the first obstacles for NATO would be in establishing the legal basis for such a strike. Different countries may demand different criteria—some relying on Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations; others requiring the full backing of a UN Security Council Resolution to provide legitimacy. A second hurdle would then be whether NATO had the capability to launch such an operation, which would be very likely to take it well out of its traditional area. Consideration of any pre-emptive action is also likely to raise the question for NATO of what its area of operation should now be.


32. The likelihood is that it would be virtually impossible for NATO to agree a definition of the circumstances in which pre-emptive action would be taken which member states would incorporate into NATO doctrine. Dr Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Affairs at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), did not believe it would be possible for NATO to achieve consensus on pre-emption.[34] Any decision to pre-empt would therefore be taken on a case-by-case basis. The view was put to us, however, that if NATO failed to muster consensus on a response to the combination of a known threat, a known delivery system and the near certainty of use, it would be neutered as an Alliance and any action would rely on a coalition of the willing. Others believed that 'pre-emption' was an unfortunate term: if a European ally had credible advance warning of an 11 September-type attack on its capital, NATO allies would almost certainly support an operation to prevent it. However, there is also the consideration that any operation against a state supporter of terrorism would need the co-operation of countries in the neighbouring region, outside the NATO area, and is therefore unlikely to be a NATO-led mission, although any coalition might well involve a number of NATO members.

33. A decision by NATO members to engage in pre-emptive action would also need to carry sufficient public support. This may be difficult when it would most likely be in response to classified intelligence information that cannot be put in the public domain. We believe that the ability to take pre-emptive action may be crucial if NATO is to have a meaningful role in the campaign against terrorism. The means of resolving this issue needs to be considered at Prague and beyond, leading to clear guidance which can be discussed within member states.

NATO's ongoing tasks


34. The 1999 Strategic Concept refers to NATO's 'commitment, exemplified in the Balkans, to conflict prevention and crisis management, including through peace support operations'.[35] We have set out above the background to NATO's missions in the Balkans (see paragraphs 13 to 22). After 10 years, there is no sign that this peace-keeping role is likely to come to an end in the near future although, as we have noted, there have been substantial reductions in the number of NATO troops deployed in Bosnia and Kosovo, with further reductions planned.

35. Charles Grant believed that the peace-keeping role was a very important one, particularly given that the EU's European Security and Defence Policy is 'still rather small and weak and fragile' and NATO would therefore continue to be needed for such missions as KFOR.[36] Dr Allin agreed that—

There is a lot of demand for peacekeeping in the world right now. NATO is probably the best organisation to provide the framework for that.[37]


36. The point has been made that one of NATO's most important roles is promoting shared standards in military and command procedures, both among its 19 members and beyond this, to applicant countries involved in the Membership Action Plan process, and to Partnership for Peace countries (see paragraphs 88-89). This means that, even in operations which are not NATO-led, such as in Afghanistan, Allies can work together on the basis of common procedures. Mr Brian Hawtin, Director General, International Security Policy, at the MoD, referred to both the Afghanistan campaign and the Gulf War, where—

... the key point is that the nations participating in both of those operations are doing so working to common NATO standards and to interoperability, training, exercises and procedures developed through NATO over very, very many years of hard work and effort and one cannot replicate that easily. You cannot produce it at the snap of one's fingers and that is NATO's key strength.[38]

Other witnesses emphasised the value of this role and its effect in driving up professional standards in new member countries.[39] Professor Heisbourg believed that acting as a 'producer of interoperability' was a major role for NATO given that—

... common standards ... are absolutely necessary if ... most military operations are going to be conducted .. in the form of ad hoc coalitions ... we have to have people who have learned how to work together ...

He emphasised that NATO was the only organisation capable of this role at the moment and it was therefore valuable to the EU, in pursuit of its European Security and Defence Policy.[40]

Does NATO have a future role?

37. William Hopkinson commented in a RUSI article in April that 'NATO is dying and decisions on enlargement will not change that'.[41] We challenged him on this view in oral evidence. He reiterated his opinion that NATO was dying, 'but I do not think it is dead yet', and suggested that enlargement might give it 'a new lease of life'. He believed that the fact that the invocation of Article 5 had not been followed by the engagement of the Alliance demonstrated that, because there was no longer the external threat from the Soviet bloc—

... the glue which held the Alliance together, the common concern against the Soviet Union, the planning for Article 5 and that being the bedrock of the Alliance is no longer there. There is no outside threat of that sort and Article 5 is no longer the glue of the Alliance.

The security problems which the Alliance now faces lie beyond Europe and 'NATO is not yet geared, and may never be, to being an extra-European agent.'[42] His view was that—

... ultimately it is governments which animate NATO and whether they are prepared to animate in the way that NATO was animated for the first 50 years or the first 40 years at any rate I think is a doubtful question.[43]

38. Dr Allin believed that the most important mission for NATO is to provide security in Europe.[44] The MoD views NATO's role as being 'the Euro-Atlantic area's key defence and security organisation for the next generation'.[45] The Secretary of State believed that the fact that so many countries were queuing to join NATO demonstrated its continuing vitality and its continuing role. His view was that NATO does have an important function but that this necessitated change—

... the world has changed and absolutely for the better, but there are still significant threats out there that we have to deal with. The world may well be a safer place as a result of the end of the Cold War, but it is certainly a less certain place. Some of the stability that the Cold War brought has ended and we have to deal with that ... That is why NATO continues to have a function and that is why ... I laid emphasis in particular on NATO's military capabilities because if NATO simply becomes another international forum, however fascinating it may be, for exchanging international views of a political kind, then we will have wasted a unique opportunity of ensuring that NATO itself remains a unique militarily-capable alliance.[46]

39. We do not agree that NATO is dying. We believe that NATO makes a vital contribution to Euro-Atlantic security and that this is no less necessary in the post Cold War world, despite the change in the nature of the threat. Its missions in peace-keeping and promoting interoperabilty remain important. We do, however, recognise the danger of the Alliance becoming less relevant if it fails to face up to the need to adapt to the post-11 September context. Prague provides the opportunity for change and a failure to address the issues there could have serious and detrimental consequences for the future of NATO.

40. We now look at the specific issues which the Alliance needs to address at Prague.

12   Second Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2001-02, The Threat from Terrorism, HC 348-I Back

13   Ev 32, paragraph 5 Back

14   Q 132 Back

15   NATO Strategic Concept 1999, paragraph 24. See NATO press release NAC-S(99)65, 24 April 1999, available at­065e.htm Back

16   Q 36 Back

17   NATO Press Release (2001) 124, 12 September 2001 Back

18   NATO Update, 9 October 2001 and 16 May 2002; see also HC Deb, 8 October 2001, c 812 Back

19   Ev 32-33, paragraph 6. See also NATO website at Back

20   Q 196. See also Statement by the NATO Secretary General, 30 April 2002 Back

21   Financial Times, 1 February 2002 Back

22   Final Communiqué of the Ministerial Meeting of the NAC, Reykjavik, 14 May 2002, NATO press release M-NAC-1 (2002) 59 Back

23   Final Communiqué of the Meeting of the NAC in Defence Ministers Session, Brussels, 6 June 2002: see NATO press release (2002) 072 and Statement on Capabilities, press release (2002) 074, 6 June 2002 Back

24   Ev 33, paragraph 9 Back

25   Reykjavik Communiqué, op cit, paragraphs 3 and 5 Back

26   Q 154 Back

27   Q 155 Back

28   Q 36 Back

29   Q 101 Back

30   QQ 208-209 Back

31   Reykjavik Communiqué, op cit, paragraph 4 Back

32   Q 198 Back

33   Fifth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2001-02, Defence and Security in the United Kingdom, HC 518-I, paragraph 279 Back

34   QQ 87-88 Back

35   1999 Strategic Concept, op cit, paragraph 12 Back

36   Q 83 Back

37   Q 83 Back

38   Q 155 Back

39   Q 83 Back

40   Q 24 Back

41   NATO and the 2002 Summit, RUSI Journal, April 2002. William Hopkinson's views on NATO are set out in more detail in Enlargement: a new NATO, Institute for Security Studies, Chaillot Paper 49 Back

42   Q 15 Back

43   Q 17 Back

44   Q 83 Back

45   Ev 39, paragraph 58 Back

46   Q 151 Back

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