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NATO Response Force

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The NATO Response Force is the spearhead of this Alliance: a rapid-reaction group able to defend any Ally, deploy anywhere, and deal with any threat.NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (14 Oct 2013).

Recommended Reading on NATO Response Force


The NATO Response Force initiative was announced at the Prague Summit in November 2002.

Established in 2003, the NATO Response Force (NRF) is a highly ready and technologically advanced multinational force made up of land, air, maritime and special forces components that the Alliance can deploy quickly wherever needed.

The NRF is capable of performing a wide variety of tasks including:

  • Immediate collective defence response capability, prior to arrival of other forces;
  • Crisis management & peace support operations;
  • Disaster relief and the protection of critical infrastructure.

The NRF has become more important post-2014, after the NATO-led International Assistance Force (ISAF) had completed its mission. It provided a vehicle to demonstrate operational readiness and as well as a “testbed” for Alliance Transformation:

  • NATO Allies decided to enhance the NRF in 2014 by creating a “spearhead force” within it, known as the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF).
  • This enhanced NRF is one of the measures of the Readiness Action Plan (RAP), which aims to respond to the changes in the security environment and strengthen the Alliance’s collective defence.
  • Overall command of the NRF belongs to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). NATO’s two Joint Force Commands (based in Brunssum, The Netherlands and Naples, Italy) have operational command of the NRF each year on a rotational basis. Rotating forces through the NRF requires contributing Allies and partner nations to meet strict standards and adopt procedures required for defensive and expeditionary operations.  As a result, participation in the NRF is preceded by a six-month NATO exercise programme in order to integrate and standardize the various national contingents.  Additional training serials are carried out by contributing nations during the 6-18 month period prior to assuming the role of an NRF high-readiness unit.
  • The decision to deploy the NRF is taken by the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s highest political decision-making body.

         (Source: NATO RESPONSE FORCE, 23 June 2016 and NATO Response Force / Very High Readiness Joint Task Force - SHAPE).

On 21 February 2013, Defence Ministers agreed that the NATO Response Force will be at the core of the Connected Forces Initiative (CFI) which aims at maintaining NATO’s readiness and combat-effectiveness through expanded education and training, increased exercises and a better use of technology. According to NATO's Secretary General,  Anders Fogh Rasmussen, The NATO Response Force is "an immediate resource, but also an investment in the future" (Source: NATO Defence Ministers agree to expand exercises and mulitnational cooperation).

As part of the initiative, Ministers agreed that the Alliance should hold a major live exercise in 2015 that will include the NRF and draw up a comprehensive programme of training and exercises for the period 2015-2020.

The NRF is comprised of three parts: a command and control element from the NATO Command Structure; the Immediate Response Force, a joint force of about 13,000 high-readiness troops provided by Allies; and a Response Forces Pool, which can supplement the Immediate Response Force when necessary.

In comments made by Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander for Europe and Commander of U.S. European Command, on 2 August 2013 (Source:"Meeting Future Air Threats", Supreme Allied Commander Blog, ACO Website):

"My aim is to make sure that our NRF deployable headquarters and troops are ready to deal with any situation in any environment. The NRF and associated training is essential in maintaining and enhancing the ability of forces from across the alliance to work together." That, Breedlove emphasized, "will be increasingly important as our mission in Afghanistan winds down and we prepare to meet future challenges."

Four training events scheduled through the end of 2013 "that will enhance and certify the capabilities of NATO’s Response Force" (Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove):

  • Exercise Brilliant Arrow (25 August - 5 September, in Norway)
  • Exercise Brilliant Mariner (25 September - 6 October, a maritime exercise staged in the Baltic Sea)
  • Exercise Brilliant Sword (October, in Italy)
  • Exercise Steadfast Jazz 2013 (from 2-9 November, in Latvia and Poland). "Several alliance nations, including the Baltic states and Poland, will participate in Exercise Steadfast Jazz. That exercise will bring together air, land, maritime and Special Forces components, as well as the headquarters staff from Joint Force Command Brunssum, which will lead NATO joint operations next year." (Source: "Exercises, Training to Posture NATO for Future Challenges", US Department of Defense, 5 August 2013).   
  • Exercise Arccade Fusion (16-29 November)

On 15 April 2014, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the Ukraine crisis has amplified the need to strenghten cooperation between NATO, the European Union and otehr partners: "We need to train and exercise more together -- for instance, the NATO Response Force and the EU Battle groups -- so that we stand ready for whatever the future may bring."

On 5 February 2015 (just before NATO Defense Ministers meeting), Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was about to suggest to the Defense Ministers: "We will strengthen our existing NATO Response Force.[...]. The current size is around 13,000. I expect that they will decide on a force which will be around 30,000 and part of that enhanced NATO Response Force, I expect will be the establishment of this Spearhead Force, which I expect will be of a size of around 5,000. And this Spearhead Force will have some lead elements which will be able to deploy within a very very short notice. We  speak about a few days. [...] But this is going to be decided later on today and its too early to tell the final conclusions." (NATO Source)

The Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) concept - this Spearhead Force - will be tested and refined during 2015. "A series of exercises, trials, and evaluations will be conducted throughout 2015 in order to develop, refine and implement this concept [...] With the introduction of the VJTF concept, the NRF will have a new structure". (Source: NATO ACO: NRF/VJTF Fact Sheet, 9 March 2015) 

In order to train and test the NATO Response Force, Exercise Trident Juncture 2015 (TRJE15) will take place from 28 September to 06 November 2015 in multiple locations across the Alliance including Italy, Portugal and Spain.  Over 25,000 troops are expected to participate in the exercise. (Source: NATO Allied joint Force Command Brunssum - Trident Juncture 2015)

"The ongoing recasting of NATO’s Rapid Response Force and the creation of a brigade-size force able to deploy in 48 hours (the “spearhead” or “very high readiness joint task force” – VJTF) raises a question of primary importance, namely that of what authority should decide deployment.": this point was discussed by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly on 18 May 2015 at Budapest (Online source available to NATO staff only; 'NATO/ASSEMBLY: Members of Parliament tackle question of authority relevant for authorising deployment of “Spearhead” NRF' in "Europe Diplomacy & Defence", no. 796 dated 18 May 2015)

In May 2015, NATO Chiefs of Defense discussed the way ahead with the Readiness Action Plan and stated that the VJTF would become fully operational in 2016”.

On 17 June 2015, Allied troops in action tested the capabilities of NATO’s new very high readiness Spearhead Force during "Noble Jump," its first deployment exercise. 

During the 24-25 June 2015 at NATO HQ, halfway between the NATO Summits in Wales in 2014 and Warsaw in 2016, the Allied Defence Ministers met to review the implementation of key decisions taken in Wales and noted the significant progress they have achieved, in particular in implementing the Readiness Action Plan. They also decided to bolster the NATO Response Force and reinforce collective defence.

On 3 September 2015, as part of the NATO Readiness Action Plan, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg inaugurated a NATO Force Integration Unit (NFIU) in Vilnius, Lithuania, calling the opening “a big step forward towards greater solidarity, greater strength, and greater readiness.” The Lithuanian NFIU is one of six small new headquarters activated this month in Lithuania, as well as in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Poland and Romania. (NATO Source)

During the Foreign Ministers meeting at NATO HQ on 8 October 2015, the "Ministers reviewed the implementation of the Alliance’s Readiness Action Plan" and "[...] gave their green light to the completed military concept for the Enhanced NATO Response Force, including its command and control arrangements. “We now have everything in place to make the Response Force stronger, faster and more capable,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. The Ministers also agreed to set up two more NATO Force Integration Units (NFIUs) or small headquarters in Hungary and Slovakia. Six other NFIUs were activated in September in  Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania. The Secretary General also welcomed the announcement by Germany to lead the Alliance’s very high readiness Spearhead Force in 2019 and plans by the United Kingdom to rotate more troops into the Baltics and Poland for training and exercises." (NATO News, 8 Oct 2015)

On 19 October 2015, NATO Allies and partner nations kicked off the Alliance’s Trident Juncture live military exercise during an opening ceremony at the Trapani air force base in Italy, launching three weeks of intensive training involving 36,000 troops from more than 30 nations across Italy, Spain and Portugal. The exercise will continue until November 6 and will also certify next year’s NATO Response Force headquarters and the functions of the new very-high readiness Spearhead Force. (NATO News, 19 Oct 2015)

In the 2015 NATO Secretary General Annual Report, published in February 2016, Mr. Jens Stoltenberg gives an overview of the 2015 implementation of the Readiness Action Plan and of the enhanced NATO Response Force (p. 14-15).

In May 2016, with only a few months until the next NATO Summit in Warsaw (Poland), an academic article published in Strategic Studies Quarterly offers an interesting evaluation of the RAP and the steps taken to implement it so far. (Article accessible for NATO staff only).

In the analysis "NATO's Land Forces: Strength and Speed Matter", Gen. John Nicholson, the Commander of Resolute Support and United States Forces-Afghanistan, declares that as a result of Russia’s actions in 2014, "the “adaptation” of NATO’s land forces over the last year has resulted in strong, fast land forces that can generate options short of war. Should deterrence fail, these same measures will enable NATO to prevail decisively." (PRISM, 18 July 2016).

The first ‘wave’ of six NATO Force Integration Units (NFIUs) have been active as of September 1, 2015 and became fully operational ahead of the 2016 Warsaw Summit. The latest NFIUs, in Hungary and Slovakia, have been activated on September 1, 2016 and are expected to be fully operational in 2017. (NATO Force Integration Unit (NFIU) Fact Sheet, by the NATO Allied Joint Force Command in Brunssum)

Joint Force Command Naples is the lead headquarters for the NRF in 2017. Currently, 26 Allies are contributing military forces to NRF 2017.

Work on developing and testing the VJTF concept has finished.

The United Kingdom is the framework nation for the VJTF 2017 with the 20th U.K. Brigade in the lead and completed by 14 other nations. Maritime and air elements will be provided by the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and Belgium amongst others.  A series of exercises, trials, and evaluations will be conducted throughout 2017 in order to develop, refine and implement this concept. ('NATO Response Force', NATO Allied Joint Force Command in Naples)

The NATO Response Force (NRF) is a highly ready and technologically advanced, multinational force made up of land, air, maritime and Special Operations Forces (SOF) components that the Alliance can deploy quickly, wherever needed. The maritime commander for the NRF rotates among different groups annually. For 2017, the NRF Maritime Component Commander (MCC) is NATO Striking & Support Forces (STRIKFORNATO).('NATO Response Force 2017 Maritime Component Prepares for Certification', NATO Allied Maritime Command).

Designed to test the core elements of NATO’s Readiness Action Plan (RAP), Exercise Noble Jump 2017 is putting the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) through its paces by rapidly deploying it to an assigned area of operations. Exercise Noble Jump 2017 officially kicked off May 29, 2017.Approximately 2,000 troops and more than 500 vehicles are headed to the Cincu training area in central Romania, coming from bases in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Poland, Norway and Albania. They will join around 2,000 Romanian troops and over 1,000 enablers. (Exercise Noble Jump 2017 gets underway: NATO Allied Rapid Reaction Corps).
On 2 June, the Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) navy exercise began in the waters off Bornholm and the western Baltic Sea. The German navy is playing its part in the US-led manoeuvre (BALTOPS 2017: German Navy on manoeuvres with 13 nations).
Between September 29 and October 13, took place the exercise BRILLIANT MARINER 2017, a Non-Article 5 Crisis Response Operation Exercise designed to support the certification of the naval component of the NATO Response Force (NRF) for 2018 (BRILLIANT MARINER: Showcasing NATO Maritime Strength, NATO Allied Maritime Command, 2 October 2017).
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Trident Juncture 2018