Developing Future Force Protection Capability

Part 1: Where Might We Be Going and Where Should We Be Going?

By Wing Commander (ret.)

By Wg Cdr



, UK


Joint Air Power Competence Centre

 November 2013
Warfare Domains: Land Operations
Subject Areas: Force Protection


This 2-part article focussed on Force Protection (FP) will discuss some of the issues surrounding where NATO FP might be going and explore where perhaps it should be going? In this first instalment, the author will try to outline the realities of FP today, discuss NATO’s doctrinal approach, introduce current challenges and suggest why lessons identified need to be captured. The second piece, which will be published in the JAPCC’s Spring 2014 edition, will analyse the work done by students attending the NATO School Oberammergau (NSO) Force Protection Course with a view to identifying what they have concluded will be NATO’s likely future FP challenges, based on potential NATO Reaction Force (NRF) mission scenarios.


The purpose of this work is to try and combine NATO’s current doctrinal approach to FP and lessons learned from recent operations with the views of students on the FP Course. The hope is that this will lead to the identification of a Minimum Military Requirement (MMR) for FP based on some likely future scenarios. By utilising work from the FP Course, it should be possible to derive a truly multinational view that is representative of all components, provided by a spread of ranks and experience and from a broad spectrum of career fields. If a MMR for FP can be defined, this could subsequently be used in an attempt to persuade the nations to commit FP resources ahead of any deployment so that we can be confident from the outset that at least the basic, mission-enabling, FP requirements, are in place. Readers are encouraged to contribute to the discussion with their own views and experiences.

Understanding NATO Force Protection

It is perhaps necessary to explain what the author believes constitutes FP in its NATO context. In the Cold War era, in simple terms, the Maritime Component fought at sea and the Land Component deployed into the field. Both used their ability to manoeuvre and the tactics integral to delivering their specific missions to provide protection for their own force elements. The Air Component by contrast did not have this option and had to fight from immovable, well known and highly visible pieces of real estate. Therefore, in order to deliver its mission, the Air Component had to be able to defend the airfields from which it would fight and when necessary, continue to fight from these airfields despite any adversaries best efforts to stop them. It is this basic concept of the consideration of FP as a separate, discreet function that NATO has taken forward as the core of its FP doctrine for the defence of fixed installations irrespective of whether the installation is a headquarters, port, logistics facility or airfield.

It is fully accepted that NATO FP doctrine should be more than the defence of fixed installations however; in reality beyond the FP of fixed installation other doctrines will likely take precedence. Alternatively, the activity being conducted will be on a scale where national not NATO doctrine can be more easily applied. Recent operations have demonstrated that the nations have a desire to gain the benefits from the economies of scale provided by operating many assets from a single location. These locations quickly become self-perpetuating and with most if not all partners operating from them quickly become tempting targets for an enemy; they are of strategic importance to both any would-be attacker and the defender.

International Security Assistance Force – Expansion to Redeployment

As the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) expanded from 2005 onwards, a number of large, NATO common funded installations were created and various nations carried out either FP Estimates or Vulnerability Assessments in order to understand what resources would be required to protect these facilities. Unfortunately, these initial assessments have never been fully resourced through the NATO Force Generation process. What is more, as the facilities have continued to expand (self-perpetuate), revisions of the initial estimates have been ignored meaning that installations that are now many times larger than they were in 2005 are still being protected by force levels that were inadequate at the outset.

Looking at the current situation in Afghanistan, it needs to be emphasised that to date, we have been extremely lucky that the Insurgency has either not been able to identify weaknesses in NATO’s FP posture or, for whatever reason, have been either unwilling or unable to successfully exploit those weaknesses. As the Provisional Irish Republican Army put it after their minimal success with the Brighton Bomb of 12 October 1984:

“Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.” This quote has been changed, modified and re-stated numerous times over subsequent years and is regularly used in post-9 / 11 discussions. Regardless of its origins, it is a quote that still contains a certain level of truth today.

With the move from ISAF to Operation RESOLUTE SUPPORT, the bases which will be the focus of this transition must remain secure. The large NATO bases will be at the centre of redeployment and retrograde activity, not to mention Demilitarisation, Dismantling and Disposal (D3). As this work gathers pace, our installations must remain protected if we are to transition from one operation to the other and concurrently withdraw the bulk of our forces and their equipment in good order. The challenge is that nations seem more unwilling than ever to provide or continue to provide resources for FP in order to deliver this protection through transition and beyond.

The Theory

The NATO doctrinal approach to FP relies on an accurate and detailed assessment of the threat, what elements of the force are critical to mission success and where our vulnerabilities lie. This process must be continuous as threats change, often rapidly, over time and as such, FP must have dedicated intelligence support. This intelligence support must have a detailed understanding of the local environment as well as a broader understanding of the threat theatre-wide. Only once the threat, mission critical capabilities and our own vulnerabilities are understood can we then define the FP capabilities required to counter the threat and protect the force.

Of course, there has to be a reality-check in the system. Not all those capabilities required will either be available or available in sufficient quantities so, commanders will need to undertake an element of Risk Management. The key point here and where we are extremely weak, is having identified the risks1, we then fail to identify the risk owner. It is suggested that it is all too easy in any Alliance to say that “the nations own the risk” because it is they who are failing to provide the resource. However, are we doing enough to articulate the risks and the consequences of the enemy ‘being lucky’?

So what of the capabilities required? These will be situation dependent but, the start point needs to assume a harsh operating environment, little HN support, austere or bare basing options and a complex threat ranging from something akin to force-on-force (an air threat?) through to asymmetric. Doctrine recognise this and presents the commander and planner with what amounts to a ‘shopping list’ of capabilities where, based on an assessment of the operating environment, those capabilities deemed as necessary are requested through the Force Generation process.

In a complex environment with a considerable range of capabilities to be coordinated, synchronised and in some cases actively de-conflicted, there is without doubt a need for a cadre of specialists. These specialists will need to have some level of training in a number of different FP functions and be a specialist in at least one. Also, they must have gained experience throughout their careers in the delivery, at various levels, of the different FP capabilities as described in doctrine. These specialists will be needed to plan, command, deliver and train the FP capability of the future.

Image and Understanding

NATO has three primary challenges with regard to the provision of FP on operations. Firstly, because of a lack of understanding of how FP is provided, it is all too often seen in capitals and headquarters as little more than a static guarding task and as such is not perceived as contributing to the actual delivery of the mission. Secondly, there is a general lack of understanding of just how complex and resource intensive the securing of the large installations can be particularly in environments with high, multi-dimensional threats. Finally, it seems evident that whilst nations may appreciate the need for effective FP, few are willing to provide the necessary assets from their often politically-capped resource contributions.

Even if some threats are not present at the outset, there is a likelihood that they could materialise over time as an adversary evolves or the presence of NATO forces attracts threats from outside the theatre of operations in the shape of ‘foreign fighters’. Both these scenarios will change the nature of the threat and necessitate the development of the FP posture. In this type of scenario, the initial FP posture has to be sufficiently robust to manage the emerging threat(s) and the nations have to be willing to either see resources already deployed redirected from the primary mission to FP tasks or, provide additional resources to reinforce and / or enhance FP. The FP posture has to be dynamic and ideally, based on sound intelligence, develop ahead of any threat.

The Reality

FP capabilities required will vary considerably but from work to date, looking at future requirements, there is already a noticeable trend towards assuming that “the Host Nation (HN) will provide …” either the complete FP requirement or considerable element of it, particularly the ‘outside the wire’ portion. This is a very dangerous assumption to make and the simple retort is that if we adopt a frame of mind where the solution is that FP is effectively someone else’s problem, we run the risk of being found lacking at some point in the future when that ‘someone else’ cannot be identified.

It is an often voiced view that the NATO approach to FP is too ‘air-centric’ but it is within the Air Component where the predominance of FP expertise still sits as a result of some nations having invested over many years in developing FP expertise in order to enable the Air Mission. However, this core of expertise is at risk as nations look to reduce defence expenditure and focus on what they perceive to be core capabilities (the author would of course argue that FP is a core capability).

“If FP does not contribute to the mission, its absence or failure will most certainly contribute to its failure.”

What is clear is that nations are looking individually at their own needs and based on the current ISAF experience, some already view FP as non-core activity and more worryingly, someone else’s responsibility to provide. It is suggested that we are not that far away from being unable to generate FP expertise to plan and coordinate FP efforts together with the nations being unwilling to provide the necessary resources simply because they view FP as not contributing to the mission. If FP does not contribute to the mission, its absence or failure will most certainly contribute to its failure. The lack of FP could severely hamper Operations and Logistics activities. Force Protection is a prerequisite for the conduct of Operations and Logistics therefore, FP is in all respects, a Force Enabler.

A long standing ‘bone of contention’ is the domination of the area around any installation. This Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR) (in Air known as a Ground Defence Area), is a vital part of establishing effective defence of any installation. The TAOR should extend well beyond the perimeter of the facility, in order to prevent direct and indirect attacks being targeted against the facility, its personnel and any asset operating from that facility (be that aircraft, shipping or ground forces). Furthermore, the immediate linkage between countering / mitigating adversary action in the TAOR and the delivery of operations from any facility requires that the TAOR and base FP forces operating in the TAOR are under the Command and Control (C2) of the individual responsible for delivering operations from the base.

It would be fair to say, that at least some of the current debate surrounding the provision of FP is being compounded by inter-component friction. The last sentence of the paragraph above, particularly in cases where the facility is ‘owned and operated’ by a component other than Land usually forms the crux of any debate over the provision of FP for NATO fixed installations. Unfortunately, recent Joint operations have been Land-centric and Land has grown used to being the supported contingent. The fact is that as resources grow ever scarcer, we all need to be better at thinking and working Joint and be able to switch seamlessly from being supported to supporting.

Perhaps a sensitive issue but one which necessarily must be mentioned is that delivering FP, particularly outside the wire, is dangerous. The dichotomy particularly when applied to Air (and perhaps in the future, Maritime?) is that whilst nations might be willing to provide an air contribution, they will only do so if that contribution can operate from a safe and secure base location. However, taking the risks necessary to deliver that safe and secure base is not something they are politically or militarily prepared to do; again, it is ‘someone else’s’ problem.

So What?

Today’s reality is that we are not correctly resourcing FP at a critical time; this article has offered a brief explanation as to why this might be. However, the truth is that we have so far been lucky. We need to acknowledge that in many cases FP will be a separate, discreet function that must be intelligence-led and is planned, controlled and delivered by personnel who understand its intricacies. The capabilities required to deliver FP effect will come from across the components and will be specific to the task in hand. Critically though, resources vital to the FP effort should not be able tow be re-prioritised to other tasks by anyone other than Joint Commander as it is only at this level where there will be the necessary understanding of the potential strategic impact of any failure in FP. Our adversary only has to be lucky once.

The next part of this article will attempt to identify a MMR for FP against a set of NRF mission scenarios. If an MMR can be identified then perhaps nations can be persuaded to commit these capabilities ahead of time so that when the need to deploy the NRF arises, we can rest assured that at least it will have the minimum necessary level of FP.

Either internally or via external assistance visits.
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Wing Commander (ret.)
Joint Air Power Competence Centre

Wing Commander (ret.) Jez Parkinson is a RAF Regiment Officer with 33-years’ regular Service; over half in the Multinational environment and in excess of 7-years on operations. He continues to work as a Reservist in the Force Protection Environment and as a civilian on Asset Protection collaborating with the military, industry and academia. He is the author of NATO FP Policy, FP Doctrine for Air Operations and the current Custodian for Joint FP Doctrine. He is responsible for the development and delivery of NATO FP Courses as well as writing several publications and articles on FP.

Information provided is current as of February 2022

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