The NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept, or NWCC, is an ambitious “North Star” vision detailing how NATO Allies must develop their militaries to maintain advantage for the next twenty years.

The concept outlines a threat informed vision of the challenges NATO faces today and tomorrow, the military instrument Allies need for success, and a realistic path to get there by pulling forward and continuously refining the most important warfare development work towards 5 essential Warfare Development Imperatives.

The NWCC aims to address a simple, but important concern: if NATO does not think, organise and act differently than it does today, the Military Instrument of Power will face an eroding advantage. In other words, the future success of the Alliance depends on Allied ability to continually transform to meet tomorrow’s challenges. This transformation goes beyond linear questions about the type or quantity of equipment NATO Allies should procure, or which specific capabilities must be developed. While these are important questions, the NWCC posits that in a world where military victory does not equate to strategic victory, the Alliance must be more proactive and anticipatory in the way it prepares for tomorrow in order to maintain its military advantage.

As an innovative concept to develop the Allied military instrument of power, the NWCC embodies Allied Command Transformation’s core tasks as NATO’s Warfare Development command.

In order to ensure that NATO can build and maintain its warfighting advantage over the next twenty years, it is essential to consider what the military instrument of power must look like. The NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept provides an aspirational design for the future military instrument that is functional in nature. It is adversary-centric but proactively driven by NATO’s own requirements for success.

Success demands a military instrument able to out-think by anticipating threats and understanding the strategic environment; out-excel by striving towards excellence through integrity, people and culture; out-fight by operating decisively within and across domains; out-pace by recognising risks, seizing opportunities, deciding and acting faster than any potential adversary; out-partner by building interoperability and fostering mutually supportive relationships and partnerships; and out-last, by enduring as long as it takes through competition and any conflict situation. It must be able to do all of these things across three operational contexts: shaping, contesting and fighting.

Together, these indispensable and mutually reinforcing “outs” should help identify new operational concepts and capabilities, especially those that could have ‘game changing’ potential, enabling the Alliance to get ahead of, rather than just react to the threats it faces.

Achieving the NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept's aspirational design requires us to focus on the required capabilities and capacities to develop the military instrument of power. The NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept proposes 5 Warfare Development Imperatives; these are the “musts” the Alliance needs to pursue a Military Instrument of Power fit for the next two decades.

They provide an organizing principle to focus and synchronize efforts across the Alliance and develop best military advice to address risks and take advantage of opportunities.

  1. Cognitive superiority. Truly understanding the operating environment, the adversary and the Alliance’s own goals entails cohesive and shared political-military understanding of the threats, adversaries and environment NATO operates in, from tech, doctrine, to Joint Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance, and big data.
  2. Layered resilience. The Alliance needs to be able to withstand immediate shocks to supply lines or communications, as well as attacks in the cognitive domain. It must be prepared to sustain in challenging situations over long periods of time.
  3. Influence and power projection. To shape positively the environment to its strengths, including generating options and imposing dilemmas on adversaries, the Alliance must be proactive, looking forward to take initiative through various means to reach its aims.
  4. Integrated multi-domain defence. The threats the Alliance faces are no longer in any one domain and a joint and flexible approach to a fluid environment is needed to protect the Alliance’s integrity against all threats, regardless of their origin or nature.
  5. Cross-domain command. Allied commanders must have the ability to apprehend instantly the developments in the operating environment and take effective actions in a more complex multi-domain environment.

A number of essential operational enablers, including people and technology, support the Warfare Development Imperatives.

The Alliance needs to start thinking about how to deliver the Warfare Development Imperatives now, as realistically they would only become feasible over time.

As Allies do not have the time or resources to do everything at once, the NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept proposes a realistic path to deliver the military instrument of power which supports the Alliance’s adaptation trajectory, providing the opportunity for Allied Nations and partners to synchronise their warfare development efforts towards the 5 Warfare Development Imperatives.

These “Lines of Delivery” are sequenced towards the next two decades. In the short term, “Jump Starter” initiatives, such as improving NATO’s data literacy, can be undertaken immediately by Allies at low cost and are tied to work which matters to the Alliance today. In the medium term, priorities, which are critical for success but require more time and resources to implement, such as layering Alliance resilience, are outlined for the Chiefs and Heads of Defence.

Finally, the NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept proposes a series of deeper military-strategic conversations which cut to the core of assumptions on warfighting and warfare development, such as how to reconcile national and Alliance approaches.

In light of the dynamic strategic environment, the Alliance Chiefs and Heads of Defence agreed to NATO’s Military Strategy in May 2019: a renewed approach setting out Alliance military-strategic objectives and the ways and means to implement them.

The Chiefs and Heads of Defence directed strategy implementation through two high-level concepts: one concept framing the employment of the Alliance’s military instrument of power to deter and defend against known threats and another concept setting a 20-year vision to develop the military instrument.

Together, the NATO Military Strategy and its two implementing concepts have the potential to set the direction for NATO’s ongoing adaptation. The NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept provides the long-view as part of the coherent package of NATO Military Authorities’ best military thinking. The 2019 NATO Military Strategy, the 2020 Concept for Deterrence and Defence of the Euro-Atlantic Area and the 2021 NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept together provide NATO Military Authorities with a new baseline on which to guide the development of the NATO military instrument of power and to provide military advice.

NATO’s Military Instrument of Power

The Military Instrument of Power is the primary instrument for the Alliance. It contributes to the achievement of the Alliance’s political objectives in coordination with the Alliance’s other Instruments of Power, across the entire network of partners and International Organisations, through a whole-of-government approach that recognises the relevance, and often the precedence of other Instruments of Power in advancing Alliance interests. This approach combines Diplomatic, Information, Economic, and Military instruments based on principles such as civilian-military interaction, coherence of actions, and cooperation with external actors as appropriate.

The Military Instrument of Power is only as strong and united as the collective and individual nations’ political will to develop and employ it.

Warfare Development

Warfare development is the approach by which the NATO Command Structure:

  1. Supports NATO’s ability to adapt to today’s security environment (at the speed of relevance) and improves responsive for the foreseeable future, bridging the gap between today and the future.
  2. Ensures that NATO’s military instrument remains fit for purpose via awareness, understanding, decision making and command and control at the joint Allied, operational/strategic levels, delivering Command & Control and logistics capabilities at 30 - that no single Nation can provide across the Alliance.


In NATO concept development and experimentation, a solution-oriented transformation idea that addresses a capability shortfall or a gap.