Nato think tanks under the radar

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is turning 70 in April 2019, turning it into the longest lasting military and security alliance ever. Since the early 1990s, NATO has been facing the greatest challenge so far since its inception in 1949 – namely the dissolution of the historical antagonist.


The collapse of Soviet Union and the Warsaw alliance necessitated searching for new and legitimate reasons for maintaining the alliance. Helpful in this regard was the expansion of the security concept, which extended Nato’s raison d’etre beyond military defence to cover all kinds of security threats including issues of climate change and development related conflicts, for example. The re-definition effort was not a purely semantic exercise. It transformed NATO from an alliance focused on defending the home territory of members against an external aggressor into an international military alliance ready to intervene in crisis areas around the world. In preparation for such an extended task list a network of so called Centres of Excellence has been established. These military think tanks are driving the transformation of the alliance by developing new strategic concepts and doctrines, by improving interoperability between the different forces – air, land, naval – and by way of developing, teaching and training routines within the NATO structures.

In 2005 the first of these centers of excellence commenced its work in Kalkar, Germany. The Joint Air Power Competence Centre (JAPCC) is sponsored by 16 NATO nations. The JAPCC prides itself with not being “constrained by the need for consensus or political expediency”. Instead JAPCC is able “to fully contribute to transforming NATO’s A[ir] & S[pace] Power”. By now the number of NATO think tanks has increased to 25  as the diagram shows below.

A full list of network member organisation can be found on our think tank network wiki. Want to get involved and do more research on the Centre of Excellence? Get in Contact!!

To conceive of the relative importance of the different centers it is quite informative to have a look at how many NATO member states participate or contribute to certain centers of excellence. Most conspicuous in this regard is the Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCE) based in Tallinn – “a multinational and interdisciplinary cyber defence hub” . In addition to 19 NATO member states Austria, Finland, and Sweden contribute to this think tank and thus emphasize the increased importance of cyber warfare within the alliance. Besides organising conferences to facilitate the exchange among actors from the sciences, business, and politics, the CCD regularly arranges and hosts one of the biggest military exercises in cyber space worldwide called “Locked Shields”. In 2018, approximately 1000 experts from 30 nations participated in this cyber exercise. Fake news distributed online as well as civil society activist groups critical of NATO perceived as threats loom large amongst the different scenarios simulated during the event.

The NATO Stratcom Centre of Excellence based in Riga is also notable due to its focus on convincing citizens within the NATO member states of the legitimacy and the imperative of military interventions applying the tool box of public diplomacy, and public affairs (See the Stratcom-website for more). Examining these think tanks more closely may turn out to be useful to help better understanding increasing tensions with Russia and China, the accelerated military build-up within the alliance and the media undergirding these processes.


Want to learn more about NATO’s think tank infrastructure?

Check out Christopher Schwitanski’s piece “NATO-Exzellenzzentren. Motor der militärischen Transformation” in Wissenschaft und Frieden 19/1

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