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CHIPS Articles: Gen. Denis Mercier, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation

Gen. Denis Mercier, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation
Preparing for the future: NATO ACT Seeking Innovation, Improvement
By CHIPS Magazine - January-March 2018
Gen. Denis Mercier, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT), was confirmed by the North Atlantic Council on Mar. 23, 2015. After completing a Master of Science degree at the French Air Force Academy in 1981, Mercier qualified as a fighter pilot for the French Air Force in 1983. During his service, he acquired extensive experience both as an operational commander and fighter pilot, flying a total of more than 3,000 flying hours primarily on Mirage F1C and Mirage 2000C aircraft, including 182 hours in combat missions.

Mercier’s history with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization spans decades. NATO has been “a constant throughout his career, at the tactical, operational and strategic level.” As such, Mercier has served in numerous capacities. He commanded a founding unit of the NATO Tiger association — the 1/12 "Cambrésis" Fighter Squadron; participated in NATO exercises and operations, including Operation Deny Flight over Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1994; served in the NATO department of the French Joint Operational Planning Headquarters, working as a project officer for Exercise "Strong Resolve ’98" during which he embarked aboard USS Mount Whitney as director of Joint Fires; and he integrated the operational planning of French participation in NATO Operation Allied Force in Kosovo in 1999.

Previously, Mercier also held the position of senior military advisor for the minister of defense, where he participated in all NATO ministerial meetings between 2010 and 2013 and the summits of Lisbon, Portugal, and Chicago, Illinois. On Sept. 17, 2012, he became the French Air Force Chief of Staff, which formalized his contact with Air Chiefs throughout the Alliance. Mercier has been awarded the rank of Commander of the French Legion of Honor and is also an officer of the National Order of Merit.

As SACT, Mercier’s intent is to enhance and sustain a modern and agile combat system for NATO by supporting and improving today's operational capability, understanding and shaping the future, and bridging the two by concentrating on six “essential and interrelated” focus areas: Command and Control (C2), Logistics and Sustainability; Collective Training and Exercises; Partnerships; Capabilities; and Human Capital.

Mercier spoke with CHIPS Dec. 14 during the Chiefs of Transformation Conference held in Norfolk, Virginia, Dec. 12-14. The purpose of the Chiefs of Transformation Conference is to leverage work across the Alliance by sharing best practices and expanding collaboration among the nations. The theme of the conference — "Prepare for Tomorrow, Share the Future” — is in keeping with Mercier’s vision for ACT, which calls for the command to “strengthen the credibility of the Alliance's deterrence and defence posture today through innovation at all levels.”

Q: A focus of this year’s conference is leadership and professional development. How is the Alliance developing its leaders and workforce to meet the continual crises that the world is facing today?

A: First, leadership development is essentially a national responsibility. Once I’ve said that, the question is: Are we developing the right skills for the people to join the Alliance, the 29 nations and partners, to be able to operate together? So, what we need to do — and this is what we do [already] — is promote disciplines in many different arenas. To promote the importance of these disciplines, we conduct a lot of operations to be sure that the people who join NATO — whether it is within the structure of the operation — they will have the right skills to operate as a coalition, because that requires specific skills development, such as standardization. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is what I’ve just talked about: what we do. What we need to do in the future to be sure that those people understand the complexity of the 21st century, and how we need to have more flexibility to adapt to this complexity. This is exactly what we have discussed during this conference.

Q: What future capabilities are you most excited about, and which capability do you think should be implemented first?

A: There are many capabilities. I think we need to ask before capabilities, is what we want to achieve. What I’m really excited about is how the digital era is changing our concept of the future and how we need to understand that, and how we organize our future capabilities through digital architectures. This is true for the civilian sector; it is very true for the military sector as well. Data and human capital are for me the two main strategic resources that are in the heart of the future capabilities. We need to understand what it means, and the issue regarding it is: it’s not really the capabilities, it’s are we stating the problem correctly before what could have appeared as the obvious solution, and have we built the appropriate architecture to solve the problem. Then the capabilities stand out after that. When we are talking about the data and everything else, this is not the technology itself; it is how this digitally changes our organizations, including our operational concepts.

Q: Agility is a key part of transformation. What actions will the Alliance take to become even more agile in the future?

A: The first thing is, exactly what our nations — NATO — have decided at the Warsaw Summit. What NATO wants is a command structure — a decision-making process that will go from the political level down to the military tactical level, and the key issue is: Is the structure agile enough to face the challenges of the 21st century? The answer is no. So we are working on making it more agile, but if we want to make it more agile, we need to have the capacities built in the NATO command structure. We need to have a much better link with external partners, and first in our nations, which is the NATO forces structure, the national capabilities, and a wide range of partners. That’s the best way to build agility into our structure — flexible by design architecture.

Q: How is NATO working to achieve innovation and interoperability within the Alliance and with its partner nations?

A: The first thing is, regarding innovation: what does that mean, innovation? We need to share the future, because I see that in many of our nations, including partner nations, have innovation initiatives at a small scale and at a large scale, and there is one thing that we need to take into consideration from the onset: interoperability. The best way to do that is really to share the new ideas and see if these new ideas can be interesting for others, and see how we can integrate these new ideas in our future plans. Then we can see, based on that, how we can maybe encourage nations to create multinational initiatives to meet the objectives but be sure that they need to take into account, that whatever they do, they will have to interact with other nations. That’s what we do inside NATO, but we want to really enlarge and expand that to our partners, and this is why in this conference we have 52 nations. There are 29 NATO nations, but we have a wide range of partners that are working with us. The best way to start doing that [achieving interoperability] is to understand the future problems — innovation problems, challenges, opportunities. This is the purpose of the Chiefs of Transformation Conference.

Q: What are your concerns about cybersecurity, and what is the Alliance doing to strengthen cybersecurity?

A: That’s a very good question. In fact, I said that future capabilities will more and more rely on digital architectures, and I mentioned that we need to take interoperability into account from the onset, but there is a second point: cyber protection. [In regard to] cyber protection, NATO, at Warsaw’s last summit, decided that cyber should be considered as a fifth domain, as is land, sea, air and space. Now we are operationalizing this, which means how we integrate cyber into our concept. The concept we are developing is the concept of federated cyber. Because we see that most of our nations — NATO nations — but also partner nations, and even big companies, they have huge cyber capacities. Instead of building a cyber command in NATO, what we want is to have a cyber center that is able to federate all these competencies that exist in our nations. Because if we can do that, we will be much better in the detection of the cyber-attacks — the early signs of attack — it’s much better if we can react together. We have started [working] with a couple of nations already — Portugal and Germany [for example] — to do an experimentation exercise in June to demonstrate that cyber is something that this federation of cyber is something that we can build.

We are stronger when we are combining our capabilities.

Q: What are the expected outcomes of this year’s Chiefs of Transformation Conference?

A: For this conference, I didn’t want to redo what we have done before, where we have had many plenaries. In this conference, I wanted people to share their vision of the future. So the expected outcome is people interacting. We have seen true syndicate stations,* mainly. We have seen that it worked, sharing on the five topics we have selected, sharing the changes for the future, and raising correctly the problems. (*Facilitated roundtable meetings were called syndicate stations in the Chiefs of Transformation Conference.)

What are the problems we need to solve? Are we in the same understanding of the challenges? The answer is yes, in these five areas that we have picked up: Command and Control, Joint Intelligence and Reconnaissance, Logistics and Sustainability, Capabilities and integration of capabilities, and the last one, Human Capital Development. And if we as Allied nations, partner nations, with industry present, can share the challenges, then we will build on that, and probably in the future be more specific on the challenges we want to address and continue to work together. I want those people to [believe] that we need to work together. This is exactly what I expect.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to discuss?

A: What I can talk about is the complexity of the 21st century. The fact that no nation, no one organization, has alone all the solutions to a problem. This is the value of our organization. We have 29 Allies but a wide range of partners. What we see here in COTC, if we bring correctly this ecosystem of nations working together, then we will continue to be one of the most powerful organizations in the world, and it is good for peace and security. We see the wide range of nations we have working together today and we can be optimistic for the future of the Alliance.

*Editor’s Note: As a new initiative in 2017, COTC17 included five syndicate topics, each led by a nation supported by ACT, where the attending senior COTC Principals (national COTs and NATO Senior leaders), in a facilitated round-table format, exchanged information, views and opinions with the aim to identify follow-on activities in specific areas of interest. The five syndicate topics discussed (with National leads) are:

  1. Future Capability Development (FRA).
  2. Leadership, Professional Development and Talent Management (USA).
  3. More Effective Decision Making (GBR).
  4. More improved and agile Joint Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (JISR) for future operations (ESP).
  5. Future Sustainment (DEU).

For more information about COTC17, visit:

General Denis Mercier, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation
General Denis Mercier, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation
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