NATO's Military Command Structure
ACO (Allied Comand Operations) is a three-tier command with headquarters and supporting elements at the strategic, operational and tactical level. It exercises command and control of static and deployable headquarters, as well as joint and combined forces across the full range of the Alliance's military missions. Joint forces are forces from two or more military departments working under a single command and combined forces are forces from different countries working under a single command.
SHAPE, at the strategic level, is at the head of six operational commands, two of which are supported by tactical (or component) level entities.
Allied Command Operations
There are three tiers of command: strategic, operational, and the tactical level. The command structure is based on functionality rather than geography.
Strategic Level command: SHAPE
SHAPE 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 Alliance.
ACO is headed by SACEUR, who exercises his responsibilities from SHAPE. Traditionally, he is a United States Flag or General officer. SACEUR is dual-hatted as the commander of the US European Command, which shares many of the same geographical responsibilities. SACEUR is responsible to the Military Committee, which is the senior military authority in NATO under the overall political authority of the North Atlantic Council (NAC) and the Nuclear Planning Group (NPG). The Military Committee is the primary source of military advice to the NAC and NPG.
Operational Level Commands: Brunssum and Naples
The operational level consists of two standing Joint Force Commands (JFCs): one in Brunssum, the Netherlands, and one in Naples, Italy. Both have to be prepared to plan, conduct and sustain NATO operations of different size and scope. Effectively, they need to be able to manage a major joint operation either from their static location in Brunssum or Naples, or from a deployed headquarters when operating directly in a theatre of operation. In the latter case, the deployed headquarter is referred to as a Joint Task Force HQ or JTFHQ and should be able to operate for a period of up to one year.
When deployed, a Joint Force Command is only charged to command one operation at a time. However, the elements of the Joint Force Command which have not deployed can provide support to other operations and missions. When a Joint Force Command is not deployed, it can assist ACO in dealing with other headquarters which are deployed in theatre for day-to-day matters and assist, for instance, with the training and preparation for future rotations.
The two commands at this level are also responsible for engaging with key partners and regional organisations in order to support regional NATO HQ tasks and responsibilities, as directed by SACEUR. Additionally, they support the reinforcement of cooperation with partners participating in NATO operations and help to prepare partner countries for NATO membership.
Tactical Level Commands: Izmir, Northwood and Ramstein
Land, maritime and air commands
The tactical (or component) level consists of what is called Single Service Commands (SSCs): land, maritime and air commands. These service-specific commands provide expertise and support to the Joint Force Commands at the operational level in Brunssum or Naples. They report directly to SHAPE and come under the command of SACEUR.
- Land command, Headquarters Allied Land Command (HQ LANDCOM), Izmir, Turkey: this command’s role is to provide a deployable land command and control capability in support of a Joint Force Command running an operation larger than a major joint operation. It can also provide the core land capability for a joint operation (major or not) or a deployable command and control capability for a land operation. Izmir is also the principal land advisor for the Alliance and contributes to development and transformation, engagement and outreach within its area of expertise.
- Maritime command, Headquarters Allied Maritime Command (HQ MARCOM), Northwood, the United Kingdom: this command’s role is to provide command and control for the full spectrum of joint maritime operations and tasks. From its location in Northwood, it plans, conducts and supports joint maritime operations. It is also the Alliance’s principal maritime advisor and contributes to development and transformation, engagement and outreach within its area of expertise. Northwood is ready to command a small maritime joint operation or act as the maritime component in support of an operation larger than a major joint operation.
- Air command, Headquarters Allied Air Command (HQ AIRCOM), Ramstein, Germany: this command’s role is to plan and direct the air component of Alliance operations and missions, and the execution of Alliance air and missile defence operations and missions. Ramstein is also the Alliance’s principal air advisor and contributes to development and transformation, engagement and outreach within its area of expertise. Ramstein, with adequate support from within and outside the NATO Command Structure can provide command and control for a small joint air operation from its static location, i.e., from Ramstein or can act as Air Component Command to support an operation which is as big or bigger than a major joint operation.
To reinforce its capability, Ramstein has additional air command and control elements available: two Combined Air Operations Centres and a Deployable Air Command and Control Centre. The air elements are also structured in a more flexible way to take account of the experience gained in NATO-led operations.