A former fighter pilot and French Air Force Chief of Staff took the reins of leadership of Allied Command Transformation Sept. 30 at the Half Moone Terminal in Norfolk, Virginia. French Air Force General Denis Mercier was appointed Supreme Allied Commander Transformation during a change of command ceremony officiated by the NATO Secretary General, Mr. Jens Stoltenberg. Distinguished guests included NATO Ambassadors, the Military Committee, and several senior NATO and partner nation officials.
The ceremony signified the official transfer of command from French Air Force General Jean-Paul Paloméros to General Mercier.
Allied Command Transformation traces its origins to 1952; it is at the heart of NATO’s efforts to lead continuous NATO military transformation to enhance effectiveness in current and future operations through the innovative development and delivery of training, education, capabilities, doctrine and concepts for NATO forces.
ACT's near-term focus is supporting Exercise Trident Juncture 2015, scheduled to be the largest NATO exercise in more than a decade. Exercise Trident Juncture 2015 will serve to improve the speed in which NATO forces respond to a crisis and demonstrate that the Alliance is prepared to address a variety of threats. Approximately 36,000 military personnel, from over 30 nations will participate in the exercise which will take place throughout Italy, Portugal and Spain in October and November 2015.
NATO Strengths and Challenges
NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg met with reporters before the ceremony and emphasized the importance of exercises to ensure that NATO forces are prepared and ready for the unexpected.
Referring to the startling acts of Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria, Mr. Stoltenberg said, “We will never be able to predict the future so that is why we have Allied Command Transformation… NATO relies on ACT for the work done in Norfolk because it is critical. NATO is constantly transforming and reshaping... It is the strongest military Alliance in the world.”
In regard to how NATO responds to Russia’s stealth invasion of Ukraine and subsequent denial and manipulation of the media by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Stoltenberg said, “NATO will never counter propaganda with propaganda; we will only respond with the truth. NATO will continue to provide facts.”
In response to a question about the Russian air strikes in Syria the morning of Sept. 30, Mr. Stoltenberg said, “I’m concerned about the reports saying that the Russian air strikes were not targeted against ISIL. I’m especially concerned because there has been no real effort by the Russian side to deconflict the Russian air strikes in Syria with the ongoing US-led coalition fighting ISIL. I urge Russia to play a constructive and cooperative role in the fight against ISIL and strive for a negotiated political solution to the conflict; to support Assad will not be a constructive contribution to a political solution.”
NATO and Ukraine will continue to promote the development of greater interoperability between Ukrainian and NATO forces, including through regular Ukrainian participation in NATO exercises, according to Mr. Stoltenberg.
“What NATO does is to respond to Russian aggression [such as] illegally taking apart another country by force… This is the second time that this has occurred since World War II… We will not allow Ukraine to become a bargaining chip. We expect Russia to abide by all agreements… NATO will never accept the annexation of Crimea,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.
Mr. Stoltenberg said that he was encouraged that the ceasefire has mainly been respected and about the recent agreement to withdraw small-caliber weapons from front-line positions. The agreement reached late Tuesday, Sept. 29, in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, with President Putin Ukrainian negotiators and Russia-backed rebels in the country’s east is another step toward implementing a peace pact signed in the same city in February, which began with a cease fire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons.
NATO will remain agile and steadfast in the protection of Allies and partners, Mr. Stoltenberg emphasized. NATO has doubled the size of its deployable forces and increased readiness for a wide range of missions, he said.
Asked if he was surprised that the Afghan Army had stumbled in holding Kunduz, Mr. Stoltenberg said that the Afghan Army is facing a difficult and challenging enemy. They have fought bravely and with courage and NATO continues to support them.
“They are capable. We knew this was going to be a long-term commitment. Combat operations have stopped, but the coalition continues to train, advise and assist the Afghan Army,” he said. “It is better for Afghanistan if they take care of their own security.”
The increase in turmoil and violence in the Middle East and North Africa is challenging, Mr. Stoltenberg said. He said the coalition is working with Jordan, Tunisia, and others in region. All NATO and partner nations are contributing either to the air strikes against ISIL, by training Afghan National Forces, or in some other joint way to support Afghanistan. “We are more secure if we make them more stable,” he said.
Mr. Stoltenberg said that Turkey is the NATO ally most affected by the violence and instability in Syria and Iraq and is harboring more than 1 million refugees. He said that he is troubled by the migrant crisis and that more needs to be done to curb the violence across the Middle East.
Another area of concern for Mr. Stoltenberg is that nations in the Alliance invest in their defense as agreed in the Wales Summit Declaration with a NATO guideline to spend a minimum of 2 percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defense.
“We want to make sure we are delivering the fair burden. The U.S. pays 70 percent in the defense of NATO Allied countries. We have developed metrics to measure outputs to see what is gained by investment. Defense planning is key to spending money on important shortfalls… We can always improve and allocate money more efficiently,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.
Allied Command Transformation Short and Long-Term Objectives
One of two NATO Alliance Strategic Commands and the only permanent NATO headquarters in North America, Allied Command Transformation plays an essential role in maintaining and strengthening the vital transatlantic link between Europe and North America, General Mercier explained to reporters after the ceremony.
As a young pilot, General Mercier participated in many NATO exercises and recognized their importance. “I have always kept interoperability in mind… We have to continuously transform ourselves. Transformation is near term and in the long term — we can foresee security challenges and be able to face any crises,” he said.
“For 66 years NATO has contributed to the peace and security of the world,” the general said.
General Mercier said his very short-term focus was getting to know his staff, and participating in the NATO Ministers Meeting [NATO Defense Ministerial Conference in Brussels, Belgium scheduled for Oct. 8] and Exercise Trident Juncture 2015.
Exercise Trident Juncture 2015 will conduct a Major Joint Crisis Response Operation primarily involving high intensity modern warfare and the use of military capabilities in contemporary situations. Part 2 will focus on tactical level training of forces allocated to the Live Exercise (LIVEX).
The exercise will include opportunities to improve cybersecurity and strategic communications, and to counter hybrid warfare, the general explained.
Asked about Russian aggression in Ukraine, General Mercier said, “We have to be sure we can face all the crises, not only one. We have to work on presence, the Readiness Action Plan (RAP). We have to try to imagine future security challenges and continue implementation of a plan in the short term. Now what is important for me is we have the confidence of all our partners, and that we have everything to face up to those challenges in the future.”
One of General Mercier’s primary tasks is to strengthen the bonds between NATO and the European Union, which he said can be improved.
Cybersecurity is another primary interest for the general.
“Cyber influences all the other domains. More and more our combat capabilities will rely on cyber capabilities,” General Mercier said. “Connecting capabilities — we are working a lot on this issue and we have exercises, have cyber events which have been injected into exercises. Cyber could lead all the domains of warfare. We'll never be able to predict a cyber-attack so we must be resilient.”
Asked about the effectiveness of NATO communications to counter the seeming success of ISIL messaging on social media, General Mercier said, “We must develop our strategic communications, not just to counter ISIL, but for all we do.”
General Mercier outlined five key points that ACT will focus on: improving command and control (C2) capabilities; logistics; training; getting the right people with the right skills into the right job; and coordinating C2 with C4I (command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence) — which he considers vital to connecting forces — and a main strength of the NATO Alliance.
For more information about Allied Command Transformation, please visit http://www.act.nato.int/.
Sharon Anderson is the CHIPS senior editor, she can be reached at
Heather Rutherford contributed to this report.