NATO's Strategic Warfare Development Command

Creating the Future-Oriented Command: The Founding and Evolution of Allied Command Transformation

April 4, 2023


In celebration of NATO’s 74th anniversary, this article traces the historical evolution and emergence of Allied Command Transformation, from its Cold War roots as Allied Command Atlantic to present.

After the Second World War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed to ensure peace in Europe, promote cooperation, and protect its members against the threat posed by the Soviet Union. The Alliance’s founding document was signed on April 4th, 1949, with the 12 founding members committing themselves to collective defence and the values of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.

NATO has since become the most successful and longest-lasting alliance in history, with its membership including 30 member states and over one billion citizens on its 74th anniversary. The key to the success of the Alliance has been its ability to adapt to the threats facing its members in order to remain relevant. Notably, its core activities have changed from deterrence and defence during the Cold War to crisis management during the 1990s, and crisis management as well as terrorism after 9/11. Following Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory in 2014, and its renewed invasion of Ukraine in 2022, NATO adapted once again to deter and defend against Russia.

While the Russia’s unprovoked and unlawful invasion of Ukraine has shattered the peace and stability of the security environment facing NATO, the Alliance remains committed to meeting this challenge together. As stated in the 2022 Strategic Concept, NATO will “continue to work towards [a] just, inclusive and lasting peace and remain a bulwark of the rules-based international order. [NATO] will retain a global perspective and work closely with our partners, other countries and international organisations […] to contribute to international peace and security.”

To support the Alliance’s level of ambition in the coming years, NATO is reinforcing its political unity and solidarity, and investing in the necessary resources, infrastructure, capabilities, and forces to deliver on its core tasks. Allied Command Transformation is a critical part of this transformation effort that NATO is pursuing, and like NATO, shares its history of adapting to remain relevant. From its roots as Allied Command Atlantic to present, NATO’s Command in North America has undergone several periods of transformation to become what it is today – the Alliance’s sole warfare development command that improves today, shapes tomorrow, and bridges the two.

Inching Towards Transformation

For the duration of the Cold War, NATO’s two Strategic Commands were Allied Command Europe, established in 1951, and Allied Command Atlantic, established a year later in 1952. However, commensurate with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent changes to the Euro-Atlantic security environment, NATO decided to transform the Alliance – including its command structure – in 1990 to “create enduring peace on [the European] continent.”

Building on the 1991 Strategic Concept and a long-term study examining NATO’s Integrated Military Structure, the North Atlantic Council provided guidance to the Military Committee on the requirements of the new command structure in the 1996 Berlin Communiqué. The guidance then enabled the Military Committee to propose a new military command structure in December 1997, with implementation of this structure beginning in 1999. Altogether, these changes streamlined and reduced the Cold War command structure from 78 headquarters to 20, with the bi-strategic command structure remaining.

The Founding of Allied Command Transformation

The Alliance’s efforts to improve its command structure culminated in the early 2000s, with the 2002 Prague Summit Declaration reaffirming the need of a “leaner, more efficient, effective and deployable” command structure to meet the operational requirements of NATO missions. The new command structure was adopted the following year, with the inauguration of Allied Command Transformation occurring on June 19th, 2003.

“Allied Command Transformation is, in a very real sense, both the symbol of the new NATO, and the architect that will shape its future. It will play an invaluable role in ensuring that the Atlantic Alliance can continue to defend the security and interests of its members against threats and challenges which we cannot even imagine today.”

– Secretary General of NATO, Lord Robertson at the ceremony to the Commission of the New Allied Command Transformation

The successful rejuvenation of Alliance’s command structure was, in part, a result of the 9/11 attacks as well as a shift in thinking in NATO Headquarters. With the creation of Allied Command Transformation, and its counterpart Allied Command Operations, the logic underpinning the Alliance’s command structure shifted from one based on geography to one based in function. To this end, Allied Command Transformation would act as a forward-looking command aimed fostering change, developing the future capabilities required by the Alliance, and improving interoperability. In contrast, Allied Command Operations would become the command responsible for all Alliance operations, including the maritime operations previously undertaken by Allied Command Atlantic.

From 2002 to 2009, the Supreme Allied Commander Transformation was a United States Flag or General Officer, and dual-hatted as Commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, the post responsible for maximising future and present military capabilities of the United States. Since 2009 – the year France returned to NATO Command structures following its withdrawal from the integrated military structure in 1966 – a French General Officer has held the position of Supreme Allied Commander Transformation.

The Evolution of Allied Command Transformation

Since 2003, NATO’s Command Structure has undergone two further review s. In June 2011, the Command Structure was revised as part of a broader reform process to become more affordable and flexible while still meeting the political guidance of the 2010 Strategic Concept. Although these changes led to the reduction of headquarters staff from over 13,000 personnel to approximately 8,800, the bi-Strategic Command Structure (Allied Command Operations and Allied Command Transformation) remained. Subsequently, in June 2018, NATO Defence Ministers agreed to move forward with an adapted NATO Command Structure and associated Detailed Implementation Plans. Both Strategic Commanders immediately initiated the new structures and capabilities, with ACT developing stronger links with NATO Centres of Excellence and the NATO Force Structure as a result.

Despite the changes to the command structure, the purpose of Allied Command Transformation has remained constant – to lead the transformation of NATO’s military structures, forces, capabilities, and doctrines in order to improve the military effectiveness of the Alliance. The NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept is the core document that currently guides Allied Command Transformation’s military transformation efforts, and is often referred to as the Alliance’s ‘North Star.’ Completed in 2021, the NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept outlines five essential Warfare Development Imperatives:

  1. Cognitive Superiority: Understanding the operating environment and potential adversaries relative to Alliance’s own capabilities, capacities and objectives.
  2. Layered Resilience: Improving the Alliance’s ability to absorb shocks and fight-on, both in the civilian and military contexts.
  3. Influence and Power Projection: Shaping the environment to the Alliance’s advantage, including generating options and imposing dilemmas on adversaries.
  4. Cross-Domain Command: Revitalizing and enabling commanders’ ability to understand the multi-domain operating environment in order to act rapidly and effectively.
  5. Integrated Multi-Domain Defence: Protecting the Alliance’s ability to decide and act against threats in any domain, regardless of their origin or nature.

By improving in these areas, NATO seeks to improve its military instrument of power to be able to outlast competitors and adversaries by out-thinking, out-exceling, out-fighting, out-pacing, out-partnering, and out-lasting. It also seeks to be able to do all these functions across three operational contexts: shaping, contesting, and fighting.

Supreme Allied Commander Transformation is responsible for implementing the NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept by identifying and prioritising the type and scale of future capability and interoperability requirements, in cooperation with Allied Command Operations. The plans for Supreme Allied Commander Transformation’s transformation efforts are laid out in the Warfare Development Agenda, which implements all Alliance warfare development activity related to the Warfare Development Imperatives noted in the North Star. Currently, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation’s strategic priorities are to: (1) make NATO a multi-domain operations-enabled Alliance, (2) develop NATO’s long-term deterrence and defence posture, and (3) better understand the Alliance’s strategic challenges.

To successfully address these priorities Supreme Allied Commander Transformation has identified digital transformation, capabilities delivery, innovation, collaboration, and human capital development as being essential. Digital transformation has received particular emphasis from the current Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, General Philippe Lavigne, who identified the development of a ‘digital backbone’ as a core political and operational asset as well as a critical enabler for multi-domain operations. The emphasis on developing software and data-enabled capabilities can be seen in recent innovations by Allied Command Transformation, with former digital transformation champion Brigadier General Poul Primdahl noting in a NATO Innovation Podcast that “90% of new capabilities rely on software, if it’s not more [sic].”