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The NATO Structure

Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe is marking its 70th anniversary this year and we are celebrating with an in-depth look into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).  We will journey back in time to the very beginning of the Alliance and week-by-week give you a new window into this Transatlantic-multinational organisation.

NATO's Structure

The resulting image of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is quite complex and not easy to explain.

Before delving into its structure it is important to note that NATO is: a political and military organisation with both domains having an important role to play.

The North Atlantic Council (NAC) is NATO’s highest decision-making body and consists of Permanent Representatives – usually Ambassadors - from its 30 member countries. The NAC meets several times per week at the level of permanent representatives. It also meets at the level of Foreign Ministers, Defence Ministers and Heads of State and Government. All decisions in the NAC are taken by consensus. The work of the Council is prepared by dozens of subordinate committees that are responsible for specific areas of policy.

The current Secretary General of NATO is the former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg who took office on October 1, 2014.

The Secretary General is NATO’s top International civil servant and has three main roles: Chairman of the NATO Atlantic Council and other key bodies, the principal spokesperson and leader of the International Staff.

The first Secretary General, Lord Ismay, took up office on April 4, 1952 as both Secretary General of the Organisation and as Vice-Chairman of the North Atlantic Council. Since that time, twelve different diplomats have served officially as secretary general. 

Each NATO member state has a delegation at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium where they contribute to the consultation process. The delegation is headed by an ambassador, who is appointed by his/her government for a period ranging between one to eight years.

The military structure is rigid and involves all forces. The key elements of the NATO military organisation are the Military Committee composed by the Chiefs of Defence of NATO member countries, its executive body, the International Military Staff and the Military Command Structure.

The NATO Command Structure is divided into two principal strategic commands: Allied Command Operations (ACO) and Allied Command Transformation (ACT).

ACO is responsible for the planning and execution of all Alliance operations. The command is headed by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) in Mons, Belgium and headquartered at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). The current SACEUR is General Tod D. Wolters who took command in May 2019. SACEUR leads all NATO military operations and is dual-hatted as the commander, US European Command.

Allied Command Transformation (ACT) has a two-fold role as a warfare development command, first, to enable ACO to efficiently conduct operations and second, to prepare NATO’s future operations. The command is headed by Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT), which is headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia. The current SACT is French Air Force General André Lanata who took command in June 2018.

There are three tiers of command: strategic, operational, and tactical. The command structure is based on functionality rather than geography.

SHAPE, home to ACO, is a strategic headquarters. Its role is to prepare, plan, conduct and execute NATO military operations, missions and tasks in order to achieve the strategic objectives of the Alliance. As such it contributes to the deterrence of aggression and the preservation of peace, security and the territorial integrity of the Alliance.

Under ACO there are three operational level commands: Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum (JFCBS) in the Netherlands, Allied Joint Force Command Naples (JFCNP) in Italy and Joint Force Command Norfolk (JFC-NF) in the United States. There are also three tactical level commands: Allied Air Command (AIRCOM) in Germany; Allied Land Command (LANDCOM) in Turkey and Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM) in the United Kingdom. Other commands include Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO (STRIKFORNATO) in Portugal; NATO Communication and Information System Group (NCISG) in Belgium and the Joint Support and Enabling Command (JSEC) in Germany.

ACT is also a strategic headquarters and organised around four principal functions: strategic thinking, development of capabilities, education, training and exercises and also cooperation and engagement. All of these functions are reflected in the composition of ACT, principally at its Norfolk Headquarters and then three subordinate entities: Joint Warfare Centre in Norway; Joint Force Training Centre in Poland and Joint Analysis & Lessons Learned Centre in Portugal.

Additionally, NATO’s other education and training facilities, which are not part of the NATO Command Structure, also coordinate with ACT. This includes the NATO Defence College in Italy; the NATO School in Germany; the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Centre in Greece and nationally run Centres of Excellence. NATO Agencies also interact with ACT on matters of common concern.

This is NATO episode two of the SHAPE Public Affairs series, Knowing NATO, introducing the NATO command structure. The following highlights will include how does NATO function, and much more…

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