NATO Commander


on Future Challenges


for the Alliance



General Stéphane Abrial

General Stéphane Abrial oversees the transformation of NATO forces. He sat down with Richard Longworth to discuss the alliance’s future, while doing so in an era of growing budget constraints. 

04.12.12

Overview

General Stéphane Abrial is the Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT) at NATO, which makes him one of NATO’s two top commanders and the first European to be a permanent head of a NATO strategic command. Among other things, General Abrial’s appointment symbolized France’s full return to the NATO military structure in 2009 after forty-two years. Abrial’s career reflects the realities of today’s multi-national defense. He attended the U.S. Air Force Academy, served with the German Luftwaffe and with the Greek Air Force, took part in Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait and graduated both from the United States Air War College and the French Institute for Advanced Studies in National Defense. Before taking up his NATO command, General Abrial was head of French air defense and air operations and then served as Air Force Chief of Staff.

As SACT, General Abrial oversees the transformation of NATO forces to meet the alliance’s future challenges, while doing so in an era of growing budget constraints. He spoke on these issues to a Chicago Council dinner as part of the Council’s three-day conference on “Smart Defense and the Future of NATO,” and chatted with me before the dinner about transformation and what it means.
 

Q:

Richard Longworth

Transformation as it applies to NATO is a new phrase to me, and I think it’s new to Americans. Is this the same as Smart Defense, or, if not, can you explain what transformation is?

A:

Transformation is not the same as Smart Defense. Transformation is a long-term process. It is a mindset, and a path which helps us to continuously adapt to the changing environment and prepare for future events taking into account a strategic vision. 


Smart Defense is something different. It is a vision, and a new strategy for NATO Nations to develop, acquire and maintain the capabilities needed to fulfill the missions which have been decided by the heads of state and government in the Strategic Concept (the Alliance’s ten-year plan, drafted in 2010). So, Smart Defense is guiding Transformation, it is part of how this transformation should be done.

Q:

Richard Longworth

Why is transformation needed? Where has NATO fallen short in this area of being able to respond as you would wish?

A:

We must ensure that the Alliance, collectively, does have the capabilities needed to meet its level of ambition and to fulfill its missions, and this, despite an era of austerity. We know we have budgetary constraints in all our Nations. We know that many of them are cutting their defense budgets. So, we need to make sure that we do the best we can with the budgets we have: we know we will not get more, but we hope to get at least the same amount.

If we want to spend better, we need to do more things together. And this is really the essence of Smart Defense: how can nations adopt a more multi-national approach? Smart Defense has been looking at the experience from the past, the lessons learned. We have not invented the wheel—Nations have been doing things together in the past on many occasions. Some experiences were successful, some were not. Now, we are trying to identify the criteria that enable successful cooperation and to apply them.

First, we are looking at a way for nations to work in smaller groupings. They must choose themselves with whom they are most comfortable working along lines which I call “strategic proximity”. It may be geography, immediate neighbors; it may be culture, language, a history of successful cooperation, or a common strategic vision; there are many possible criteria.

We also ask the nations, what would you want to do? What is in your own interest? Then, we at NATO, we compare their answers to the collective needs of the Alliance and bring coordination and coherence. If a project proposed by a nation does not fit the needs of the Alliance, either we discard the project or we help the nation change the scope. Our objective is to ensure this match between the Alliance’s vision and the individual nation’s interest, which is a powerful driver for the implementation phase.
 

Q:

Richard Longworth

So this does not depend necessarily on increased defense spending? As you know, the United States, especially Secretary Gates, has been critical of European nations for spending less on defense. But what you’re talking about seems to accept this imbalance in spending and making the best of it. Is that correct?

A:

I’m a military commander. I do not have any decision power on budgets. And you know, in our military we try to get the best we can, the most capabilities we can, out of the budget which our governments and our citizens decide to devote to defense. We have a commonly accepted figure in mind, which is that everybody should spend about 2 percent of GDP on defense. If you look across NATO, across the whole Euro-Atlantic area, there are not that many nations that match this figure.

 Many of them are still in the process of diminishing their global spending, and therefore, partially also their defense budgets. So we have no choice but to acknowledge this era of austerity. We think that the crisis is being dealt with, but these low budget levels will be with us for quite a few years. So how do we manage best? And how do we gain, keep the capability we need?

 

Q:

Richard Longworth

I wonder if this coordination is really necessary. I’m thinking back to when France was outside the NATO military structure for forty years, yet the informal relationships between NATO and France were so strong that France fought along the United States and other allies in the first Gulf War and Kosovo almost as though it had been there all the time. Can these sorts of informal relationships now be just as good or was that a unique situation?

A:

You’re right: France has contributed to every single NATO operation from the beginning. But France has been out of the integrated command structure for 40 years. The problems we had on the military side were, first, we were not part of the decision-shaping, the initial phase where you put ideas on paper. And second, every time we were engaged, we had to relearn how to be interoperable because procedures, languages, everything really, is evolving so fast that if you are not continuously in contact you have to relearn every time you reengage. Now France is totally a part of it and I think we can start seeing the benefit of it.

To answer your question more precisely, look at what happened in Libya. The Libya crisis started as a coalition. And this was, in my mind, necessary because only a coalition can react that fast. But then it was obvious that if we wanted to last for the whole duration of the operation and bring this total commitment, it was good to switch to the Alliance. And the Alliance made a very, very fast decision. It took not even six days, if you compare this to the decision cycles for Kosovo, even worse for Bosnia. It was extraordinary. All twenty-eight nations decided there would be an operation following the U.N. mandate. Then on the basis of the Alliance, we expanded with partners. And we had a larger coalition through partners from Europe and also from the Middle East and North Africa, which is extraordinary regional support. 
 

Q:

Richard Longworth

Now a couple of the NATO members, specifically Germany and Poland, decided not to take part in the activities in Libya. They helped with AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) and some of the other facilities there, but they deliberately stayed out. Does that undermine this process of transformation or cooperation?

A:

Absolutely not. As I just mentioned, all twenty-eight nations decided that there would be an operation, which means every single nation was in favor of it. Then it’s up to each of them to take on the sovereign decision of how to contribute. And I would argue that they all contributed, be it directly with kinetic engagement, through common spending, or through the command structure. It is normal that the contribution of each nation varies from one operation to another: the Americans are by far the most engaged in the Afghan theater, while in Kosovo, the Germans provide the largest number of troops. So globally, seen from the Alliance, it’s a fantastic proof of solidarity and cohesion. So no, this is not an example of a lack of cohesion. To the contrary, I would say. 

Q:

Richard Longworth

You have talked about an underlying political will necessary to make this Smart Defense work. Each nation—the United States, France, the United Kingdom, even Latvia and Bulgaria—has its own political imperatives and pressures. How can we be sure that when the crunch comes, when the fighting starts, that this political will remains?

A:

We have a treaty which dates back from 1949. The first twelve nations to join NATO have signed it, as well as every nation which has joined since. The treaty is very clear:  if one member is attacked, this attack will be considered as an attack against all of them. So the solidarity clause is there: it is what we call the Article V.

Now if there is an operation like Libya, for example, as we mentioned before, for NATO to operate requires a decision of twenty-eight. There is no partial decision in NATO. It’s always consensus.
 

Q:

Richard Longworth

One last question. It was very interesting in Libya to see NATO working some with some of the Arab League countries. NATO is striking partnerships outside the membership. How much can you treat these partners as full members? And how much must they remain outside your thinking and planning?

A:

In my capacity as Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, I bring our full contribution to the global NATO activities and partnerships. We work to help partners on interoperability in making sure that when we are operating side by side somewhere, we will not have problems of understanding each other’s procedures, education, equipment, or whatever. We are working also on doctrines, concept, and strategic documents to make sure that we have the same vision.

As far as the Smart Defense initiative is concerned, this is something slightly different. Smart Defense is an initiative for NATO members, and rightly so, because at the core of all what we do is “collective defense”, which cannot be outsourced. It has to be taken into account by NATO Nations. However, these same capabilities could also be used for other types of operation, for what we call Article IV and there, we need partners. We know that our current partners, with whom we are in operations, in Afghanistan or who were in Libya with us for example, face the same austere situation as we are. So it’s good for us to be able to share things with them and to work together with them.

Additionally, there are many nations inside NATO who already have some initiatives with other countries, some of which are not NATO members. So once any project is launched and a lead nation is designated, there is the possibility for this nation to reach out to partners and to see how to cooperate with non-NATO member, and then of course to report to all of our members.

Q:

Richard Longworth

So this extends to joint training, joint procurement, that sort of thing?

A:

Yes. It extends to the whole spectrum of activities which helps a military institution to deliver an effect once in operation. When I say capabilities, I don’t mean only a piece of equipment. I mean everything from doctrine, concept to organization, personnel, training, facilities, interoperability, everything. And we address all these aspects. And you will see it in Chicago, because Smart Defence will be a key element at the summit.

We will be bringing to the table the concept and the vision, but also a series of initial projects which are the first step to validate the concept, to increase the level of  mutual trust, which will help us in the future to engage into more complex, more long-term, maybe more sensitive projects. These initial projects will be grouped into “clusters” along the lines of training, education, logistics, sustainment, protection, things like that. Training was a good example of yours, because it’s at the heart of what we do and an essential part of transformation and interoperability.