NATO Learns Lessons from COVID-19 Crisis

By Edward Lundquist

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The global COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on NATO, member-states and operations.

Despite international restrictions, NATO entities, exercises and deployments continued. As the world emerges from the worst effects of COVID, the alliance has connected with its stakeholders to both gather and share the “lessons learned” from the crisis.

All NATO entities — including the 27 NATO accredited centers of excellence — were encouraged to present their COVID lessons through the NATO lessons learned process, including submitting them into the NATO lessons learned portal, managed by the Joint Analysis and Lessons Learned Center (JALLC) in Lisbon, Portugal.

These inputs provided the basis of regular reporting to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe and NATO HQ, and provided valuable input — supplemented by interviews, questionnaires and national input — to two lessons learned reports on behalf of supreme allied commander transformation. Some of the findings, together with national experiences, were discussed at the annual NATO Lessons Learned conference in March, which was conducted virtually.

Speaking remotely to the conference attendees, NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană said the pandemic had a huge impact on every corner of the world and every part of society. “It has also affected NATO — our allies and partners, and our missions and operations.

But despite the enormous challenge of COVID-19, we have proven to be resilient and able to cope with whatever it has sent our way.”

Throughout the pandemic, the alliance’s No. 1 priority has been to ensure that the health crisis and economic crisis do not become a security crisis, Geoană said.

“Our forces remain vigilant and ready to defend all allies against any threat. We have done what is necessary to keep our forces safe, to maintain our operational readiness and sustain our missions and operations,” he said.

NATO already has experience dealing with crises and supporting civilian authorities during natural disasters such as floods, fires and earthquakes. Geoană pointed to NATO’s strategic airlift capability as an example. “We have delivered supplies, coordinated humanitarian relief, supported refugees, and run regular exercises to improve and test our skills. This capability allowed NATO personnel to rapidly respond to the developing pandemic and move vast quantities of medical supplies to where they were desperately needed.”

NATO’s past experience with humanitarian assistance and disaster response crises led to the creation of the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center, NATO’s principal civil emergency response mechanism, established to coordinate and deconflict requests from nations in need and offers of assistance from allies and partner countries.

While the alliance has access to military resources and expertise, NATO’s role in coordinating national and multinational responses to such events is under the leadership of civilian authorities with the military in a supporting role. Officials also admit that the lessons of floods and earthquakes are vastly different events from the current pandemic, and that the airborne virus poses very different logistical challenges.
Geoană said NATO needs to engage more with civilian authorities who are primarily the first responders to better support civil disaster response efforts.

“This crisis has underlined the importance of working closely and sharing information and expertise with other international organizations, such as the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Food Program and, of course, our strategic partner — the European Union,” he said. “Regular communication has meant we could avoid duplication and collaborate when appropriate.”

The alliance’s COVID logistics response has not been entirely successful, however. Geoană said NATO’s ‘just-in-time’ approach to supply chains, which had been adopted to increase efficiency and reduce costs, did not work under extreme pressure.

“When the whole world is simultaneously crying out for medical equipment and supplies, the market simply cannot cope,” he said. “We have to be honest here. The truth is, we were not adequately prepared for a global health crisis on this scale.”

The allies were better prepared for the virus’ second wave and agreed to establish a stockpile of medical supplies as well as a contingency fund to quickly buy urgently needed items. “This is not only vital for a future pandemic, God forbid, but for other potential crises, including Article 5 events where we can no longer rely on buying from the open market,” he said. Article 5 is an alliance mechanism for collective self-defense.

Moving beyond the scope of the pandemic, Geoană argued that NATO must prepare for crises arising from Russia’s destabilizing behavior, disinformation, the continuing threat of terrorism, sophisticated cyber attacks, emerging and disruptive technologies, the rise of China, and climate change. The very definition of security has changed, he said.

“This crisis, more like any other before, has revealed that we are witnessing threats that could blur the line between civil and military realms, between traditional and novel elements, between conventional and hybrid tactics,” he said. “This is an evolution of epic proportions. Learning the lessons of each crisis and looking ahead to imagine the next, however terrible, is an essential part of maintaining the security of NATO’s nearly one billion people.”

Supreme allied commander transformation benefited from lessons learned by all NATO organizations and nations. The 27 accredited centers of excellence (COEs), representing the full spectrum of domains and warfighting disciplines, were particularly well positioned to help.

Rasa Pazarauskiene, a staff officer responsible for the accreditation of centers of excellence, said they are unique organizations that deliver outstanding products in their areas of subject matter expertise. All were impacted by COVID, and all had to adjust how they delivered their products. They were useful in gathering lessons learned that could be submitted to the lessons learned center because of the diversity of the personnel they work with on a regular basis.

Some centers were particularly engaged with COVID-related issues. The Strategic Communication center in Latvia was focused on disinformation and how it impacted nations and their abilities to combat the virus. The Military Medicine COE in Hungary; the Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense center in the Czech Republic; and the Crisis Management and Disaster Response center in Bulgaria were “frontliners,” said Pazarauskiene.

According to Italian Army Col. Francesco Pacillo, branch head of the centers of excellence program development branch at supreme allied commander transformation in Norfolk, Virginia, the pandemic provided an opportunity to evaluate how strong the network is between his organization and the centers of excellence, and to further improve its relationship with them and take advantage of their experiences.

While not a security issue per se, perhaps one of the most obvious impacts of COVID was the need to postpone events. Some of those in-person-contact restrictions were overcome by conducting meetings and conferences virtually. In some cases, confronting the realities of the pandemic opened the door to opportunities.

For example, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Intelligence Maj. General Jürgen Brötz hosted the second annual meeting between intelligence and security-related centers and NATO’s intelligence and security community, which was conducted June 24 online due to COVID restrictions. The attendees, representing 13 of the 27 centers, discussed strengthening cooperation, with a focus on education and training opportunities.

The Naval Mine Warfare Center of Excellence in Ostend, Belgium, is another example, holding its annual conference in June, but doing it virtually using a service called “Hop-in.”

That enabled some people to participate who might not have been able to do so otherwise.

“Our two previous conferences were canceled, due to various reasons,” said Cmdr. Herman Lammers of the Royal Netherlands Navy, the director of the center. However, virtual technology “made it possible to change the setup of this conference, and involve industries, civil companies and academia from outside the [mine warfare] domain.”

According to Geoană, the pandemic underscored the importance of not only strong military capabilities, but also sturdy, resilient societies. To “future-proof” the alliance, he said NATO has established high standards of resilience, from secure transport systems and telecoms, including 5G, to energy, food and water supplies.

“But we need to go further,” he said. “We must strengthen these requirements and hold each other more accountable for enforcing them. We need to enhance our collective — as well as our national — resilience. And we notice that more than before a new approach is required, one that mobilizes the whole of the government, at times the whole of the society, and, to some extent — the whole of the democratic world.”

“As we learned in responding to this global crisis, the alliance, national entities and international organizations have room for improvement in dealing with international crises,” said Romanian Army Brig. Gen. Bogdan Cernat, the JALLC commander. “This is where lessons learned and information sharing prove to be the most critical. By managing the NATO lessons learned process, the JALLC ensures that the alliance has the ability to learn from the past to prepare and respond to the next international crisis.”

According to Cernat, the quality of the lessons learned output depends greatly on the input from everyone in NATO.

“Individuals and entities across the alliance and partner nations must submit their observations and lessons and best practices based on their respective experiences if the alliance is to remain a learning organization and ensure that valuable experience and expertise is captured for future use. As an organization, NATO continues to transform with the help of documenting its observations for improvement and implementing better practices,” Cernat said.

While unprecedented events pose challenges, Geoană said, they also offer opportunities to strengthen the alliance.

“A stronger alliance, a broader approach to our security and continued commitment to the rules-based world order are all essential,” Geoană said. “We can emerge, we should emerge, and we will emerge from this crisis better prepared, with greater resilience, with faster decision making and more strategic insight, so that when the next crisis hits — and it sure will from some place — we will be ready.”

Topics: Global Defense Market, International

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