The NATO Chiefs of Defence gathered for their annual conference, in Tallinn, Estonia on 16-18 September. For the first time, Finland and Sweden attended the Military Committee Conference as NATO invitees. The agenda reflected the changed security environment as well as the implementation of the decisions taken at the NATO Summit in Madrid in June 2022.
The Military Committee is the senior military authority in NATO and its oldest permanent body after the North Atlantic Council (NAC), both having been established only months after the alliance was formed. It is the primary source of military advice to the NAC and the Nuclear Planning Group, and gives direction to the two strategic commanders: Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT). The Military Committee meets twice a year in the format of the session of the commanders of the defence forces at NATO headquarters in Brussels and once a year at a conference hosted by one of the member states. The Chair of the NATO Military Committee Admiral Rob Bauer praised this year’s host country, Estonia, for its resilience and digital innovation. Estonia hosts the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence and the CR14 foundation, which organises the NATO Cyber Range – a platform for cyber exercises and training. Estonia is also increasing its defence budget, buying air defences and ammunition and planning new training areas and infrastructure, as part of its approach to deterring Russia.
The NATO Military Committee was welcomed to Tallinn during an official opening ceremony by the Estonian President, Alar Karis on 16 September. President Karis said in his welcome address that the deliberations in Tallinn would “shape NATO and our collective defence for years, if not decades, to come”. “Estonia is a nation that has always believed in the importance of autonomy and self-sufficiency. Therefore, when faced with a severe security threat, we focus on raising our ability to help ourselves. So while NATO and the transatlantic bond remain the bedrock of Estonian security, Estonia fully intends to be prepared to defend itself," the president said.
In his opening remarks on 17 September, Admiral Bauer underscored that they were meeting “at a time where global security is under immense pressure… Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine has ushered us into a new era for global security”. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said in her opening remarks that the Kremlin's tactics were focused on forcing the West to negotiate. "The Kremlin uses energy to blackmail us. They have admitted that they want to make Europe 'freeze.' They have threatened with global famine. They have threatened with nuclear disasters," Kallas said. "This is why we cannot give in one inch, and we must be prepared to be in it for the long haul," she added. The Estonian head of government also outlined how the country is accommodating NATO’s forward defence posture.. "Since January, we have made significant investments to increase our ammunition stocks, improve existing capabilities and develop new ones, upgrade infrastructure to host allies and also expand training areas. In addition, we are establishing a new divisional structure, which will create better conditions for a possible NATO response in our region. To achieve that, we have raised Estonia's defence spending up to 2.5% for the next year. And actually only yesterday we made decisions to increase it even further, up to 3% of our GDP," Kallas said.
The meeting held five sessions on the 17 September. The first session discussed the implementation the far-reaching decisions on NATO’s deterrence and defence posture taken, at the Madrid Summit as well as the operationalisation of NATO’s ‘deter and defend strategy’ agreed in 2020. “This strategy makes sure that national plans are more closely interlinked with Alliance plans; military leaders have a common frame of reference for both Alliance wide threats and regional threats; and that we enhance the speed and effectiveness of our rapid deployable forces”, underlined Admiral Bauer. He also described this as NATO’s “biggest overhaul of our military structures since 1949”.
At the Madrid Summit member states agreed to take steps to expand the number of military units positioned along its Eastern flank, and to increase the size of NATO’s quick-reaction force from 40,000 to 300,000. For its part, the United States said it would enhance rotational deployments to the Baltic region with a mix of armoured, aviation, air defence and special operations forces. The Defence Chiefs looked at the types of military units needed to reinforce countries on Russia’s periphery, and concluded that mobile units able to manoeuvre quickly around NATO’s Eastern flank would be preferable to permanent bases. “I don’t think we need (a) brigade-size unit permanently here in Estonia,” Lt. Gen. Martin Herem, commander of Estonia’s defence forces, said. “I don’t think it’s efficient”.
Admiral Bauer said that the best option is one that gives commanders more flexibility. In practical terms this involves preparing Poland and Baltic member states to receive large numbers of troops from allied nations during a major crisis with Russia. “Sometimes, the host nations need to do certain things to make sure that they can actually receive the troops, receive extra ammunition, receive extra vehicles, and make sure that they can kind of allow and have the facilities for those additional forces to train,” Admiral Bauer said. He added that the defence chiefs agreed to several exercises in the coming year to work out those concepts so that “we can actually show the countries—but also our publics—that that process is actually working”.
The next session was led by the SACEUR, General Christopher Cavoli, who provided his strategic considerations on NATO’s current and future posture on the Eastern flank and across the whole spectrum of the Alliance’s “360-degree approach to security”. Discussion also focused on how to sustain and increase allied support to Ukraine. Admiral Bauer said that “With its successes on the ground and online, Ukraine has fundamentally changed modern warfare”, adding that “NATO will support Ukraine for as long as it takes”. According to Ukrainian media reporting, Admiral Bauer affirmed NATO’s commitment to continue to provide all possible assistance to Ukraine, including supplying more Western weapons systems.
Another session discussed NATO’s ongoing operations, missions and activities, including the NATO Mission Iraq (NMI) and Kosovo Force (KFOR). In a session dedicated to the future of armed forces, the SACT, General Philippe Lavigne provided his insights in promoting cooperation across domains and service branches and enabling digital transformation. Finally, in a session dedicated to promoting diversity in the armed forces, the Chiefs of Defence exchanged ideas on how to create a more diverse talent pool in their workforce. Admiral Bauer underlined: “This is important in order to increase our effectiveness on the battlefield. And because creating a culture of inclusion is fundamental for the trust between men and women in uniform. Without trust, we cannot function”.
According to a press statement by Admiral Bauer at the end of the conference "Without a doubt, a new era for global security has begun. It is crystal clear that this conflict is bigger than Ukraine. The entire international rules-based order is under attack. And it is up to the free democratic nations of the world to protect it".