NATO: Towards a New Resilience Alliance

Main Image Credit US soldiers complete a seven-foot sandbagged levee to protect an electrical generator from rising flood waters in Hills, Iowa. Courtesy of US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Oscar M. Sanchez-Alvarez

NATO held a Resilience conference in Norfolk, Virginia at the beginning of May. Discussions explored the future of civil–military cooperation on resilience and illustrated that NATO might still have a long way to go.

Bridges between the civil and military sectors, which have been slowly eroding since the end of the Cold War, may need urgent rebuilding to guard against the ‘hybrid’ threats (conventional aggression combined with cyber attack and/or subversion) NATO is putting at the top of its agenda.

The NATO ACT (Allied Command Transformation) conference in Norforlk, Virginia read-ahead material described resilience as ‘The forgotten art of the Cold War’, but this is not entirely accurate, as shown by the extensive Norfolk’s Resilience Strategy – rightly presented as an exemplar of city resilience thinking.

The many private sector companies at the conference that are already providing resilience capability to the military have not forgotten it either, nor has RUSI, which has run a Resilience research programme for more than a decade.

However, NATO’s approach might need, as one speaker described, to move on from the ‘old order of the last 70 years’ to dealing with today’s more complex security environment and to embrace the Systems of Systems approach of CS Holling’s Resilience Alliance, a key text of civil resilience planning that has informed models, methods and approaches for more than a decade.

Freed from the nuclear bunkers of post-Second World War military-led civil defence, resilience has thrived in the civil and private sectors; NATO just needs to work out how to add the third side to a ‘golden triangle’ of resilience for which two are already in place.

It also needs to take advantage of initiatives such as the Rockefeller 100RC programme, the UNISDR Resilient Cities network and the BSI Standard for City Resilience currently being developed in partnership with the UK Cabinet Office.

The question for NATO is not how to convince the civilian and private sectors to ‘do’ resilience – they already do – but how to ensure that resilience covers the threats the Alliance faces.

NATO’s incentive is clear: an increasing danger from hybrid threats and Russian aggression brings with it an urgency that its current structure, adapted over 30 years of relative peace, may no longer support. An estimated 90% of NATO logistics, from troop movements to equipment delivery, are now contracted out to commercial operators.

In peacetime, this ‘efficiency’ works. Under pressure, when aggression looms and action needs to be taken quickly, will these commercial operators remain resilient? This worries NATO.

Also, early hybrid attacks are likely to be directed towards civil and private sector assets, whose owners and operators will be the first line of defence in their nation’s security. They need to be vigilant and primed to respond with the appropriate assets.

Are they capable of assisting and supporting NATO in an Article 5 response while also supporting a national response? This worries NATO.

At anything below the most strategic level, civilian resilience planning falls short of catastrophic hybrid attacks. The further west one goes, the less credible such a scenario seems. However, the consequences of such an attack – power outages, transport disruption, communications blackouts – are well practised, but from the perspective of a response to flooding, earthquake and severe storms, hackers and criminals or non-state terrorism.

When and if a state actor is identified, and its troops hit the ground, the problem is NATO’s. However, before that, if it cripples a nation’s energy grid, financial services, transport networks and communications, NATO would like the civil and private stakeholders to be able to identify the threat actor and build a common operating picture it can act on. Joining up these stages of response is where a new dialogue is most needed.

However, the civil partners NATO wants to court have different priorities competing for increasingly constricted public sector budgets. The concerns of the people of Norfolk mirror those of the UK following the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, with a strong emphasis on physical infrastructure and economic concerns.

This is to deal not only the severity of challenges but the frequency: Norfolk suffered five major floods in the twentieth century, but since the beginning of the twenty-first, there have already been six.

This requires more than cooperation with the US Corps of Engineers to ensure flood levees are adequately maintained. It requires a rethinking of city land use, architecture and urban planning, as has been explored in the UK in the Institute of Civil Engineers report ‘Standing Up to Rising Sea Levels’. It requires citizens to take out insurance and adapt their properties to cope.

Such issues have not traditionally been the focus of military planning, nor have others Norfolk sees as fundamental to a resilient future, such as ensuring economic prosperity and social cohesion though alleviating poverty.

No matter what challenges citizens and communities face, the more capacity they have to help themselves, the better able to do so they will be. Such an approach may not be the first that comes to NATO’s mind, but remove the drivers of internal instability and societal unrest and they will have less chance of taking hold.

The NATO conference concluded that while resilience is everyone’s responsibility, it is dependent on credibility (that the threat can be resisted), capability (that an appropriate response can be made) and communication (of these two facts to the enemy) if resilience is going to be part of the deterrent.

To be capable of countering those threats the civil and private sector actor sees as credible as well as those that NATO does, the Alliance needs to work with the civilian sector to help it be resilient to the threats at the top of military agendas, as well as the ones at the top of their risk registers.

This can be achieved if resilience efforts focus less on the threat actor and more on the consequences: cyber attack and severe weather will both disrupt supply chains, displace large numbers of citizens, break communications and foster disillusionment.

The military has the time, budget and capability to help to model and predict the outcome of these second- and third-order effects – to help understand points of vulnerability and decide, collectively, which of the partners is best placed to strengthen it.

This will reveal whether the assets needed to achieve the desired effect are still available, and if they are not, NATO and its new partners can plan together how to address this.

RUSI will be exploring how this dialogue might be enacted on 4 July, starting with a red teaming of the output from the NATO conference, followed by an introduction of the NATO approach to the UK civil resilience sector and academia at this year’s resilience conference in September, held jointly with Loughborough University. The art of resilience has not been forgotten, but it has evolved and changed. NATO just needs to re-engage.


Jennifer Cole

Associate Fellow

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