Small Nations in Joint Air Power

Protectorates or Valuable Partners?

By Lieutenant Colonel

By Lt Col



, CZ


Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2018-2021)

 January 2020


NATO currently consists of 29 nations, soon to be 30. Each of these states has very individual national priorities, with different threat perceptions and existing defence capabilities. This article addresses the question of how small and resource-constrained countries can effectively fulfil their NATO commitments and contracts. The scope is constrained to the assessment of national contributions to the Joint Air Power (JAP) realm.

Smart Defence

The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact after the fall of the Iron Curtain created an illusion of safety, resulting in severe defence budget cuts over the recent decades. Nations throughout the Alliance either dramatically reduced investment in their own military capabilities or – in certain cases – they failed to retain some of them at all. Only a few of the biggest nations had enough resources to maintain robust and fully comprehensive Air Forces. The economic crisis which struck in the first decade of the new millennium did nothing to improve this situation.

NATO Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen proposed a solution for how to deal with austerity in a time of economic crisis. At the Munich Security Conference in 2011 he introduced the idea of ‘Smart Defence’. This approach refers to ‘ensuring greater security, for less money, by working together with more flexibility’.1 The process, in which NATO acts as a facilitator for all allies, is based on three core components:

Prioritization: aiming at cost-effective alignment of national and NATO capabilities and priorities;

Specialization: encouraging allies to focus on what they do best and to coordinate their plans with other members;

Cooperation: by working together to allow states to develop capabilities that they would not be able to achieve on their own.2

Air Policing

One example of a Smart Defence project is the Air Policing mission. This peacetime collective defence operation includes the following elements: ‘the use of the Air Surveillance and Control System (ASACS), Air Command and Control (Air C2) and appropriate air assets, so-called Quick Reaction Air (Intercept) or QRA(I) fast jets.’3 The mission helps to cover the airspace over those NATO members who do not possess sufficient organic air surveillance and defence capabilities. Based on international arrangements, Albania and Montenegro are protected by Italy and Greece; Slovenia’s airspace is covered by Italy and Hungary; Luxembourg signed a joint air policing agreement with Belgium and the Netherlands (within the BENELUX group). In case of the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) and Iceland, the Air Policing tasks are accomplished through periodic deployments of Alliance’s Air Policing capabilities to the respective countries.

Baltic Air Policing

The NATO operation in the Baltic airspace typifies an Air Policing mission with a sound Smart Defence background. Joining the European Union (EU) and the Alliance in 2004, the former Baltic Soviet Union Republics have quickly become the symbols of all-embracing democratic transformation and successful economic as well as military integration into the Western community. From a military defence perspective, the topographical setting of the Baltic nations is highly disadvantageous. The only terrestrial access from the rest of NATO to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia is possible through the so-called Suwalki Gap – a vulnerable, barely 104 km wide land corridor between Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave and Belarus. The almost complete separation of the Baltic region from the rest of NATO, highlighted by Russia’s regional military capabilities, makes the control of the airspace over the Baltic extremely difficult, but essential from a strategic perspective. Lack of indigenous air defence assets and associated infrastructure limits the Baltic states in fulfilling the obligations required by the NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP), and creates military capability shortfalls in the region.4

Addressing this problem, the local governments and NATO planners have found a solution in a Smart Defence approach. They have entered into an agreement according to which safeguarding the integrity of the airspace over the Baltic Alliance members is the responsibility of coalition partners, while the local militaries provide Host Nation Support (HNS) capabilities. The Baltic states also have other ambitions to support NATO’s Air Power, beyond just HNS establishments. For example, their Baltic Air Surveillance Network (BALTNET) incorporated into the Alliance NATINAMDS system acts as an important C2 element during NATO air operations over the region.

Solving the capability shortfalls in the Baltic states is a long-term project. It will require considerable financial resources, and for these resources to be invested into the right projects. However, allocating money is only one of the factors determining success. The Baltic states are amongst those states which do meet the 2% Gross Domestic Product (GDP) threshold of defence spending.5 Nevertheless, covering a complex spectrum of JAP operational requirements still remains unrealizable without intensive cooperation with NATO colleagues. The way forward is to build on the existing cooperation within the group of the three Baltic states and other NATO partners.6 The role of NDPP as an intermediary and instrument for facilitation and coordination is crucial.

Icelandic Air Policing

Although not explicitly listed on the official Smart Defence list, Icelandic Air Policing (IAP) falls into the same category. What was originally a purely Air Policing mission gradually also gained a training and exercise dimension, within the frame of the Airborne Surveillance and Interception Capabilities to meet Iceland’s Peacetime Preparedness Needs (ASICIPPN). The present concept makes the mission achievable even for contingents provided by coalition partners with limited resources. For example, the Czech Republic has repeatedly been able to put together small, but very effective contingents, consisting of less than 70 people and to send five (out of their 12 in total) Gripens to Iceland, in 2014, 2015 and 2016.7 It is worth mentioning that in addition to these events the only Gripen squadron must also secure its routine tasks back home, including domestic QRA, regular training etc.

Although it does not have a standing military, Iceland is also actively involved in the ASICIPPN mission. In addition to providing HNS and Search and Rescue (SAR) services to the Allies, its Coast Guard units operate an Iceland Air Defence System, and provide reliable information about the air situation over the island. Air Traffic Control (ATC) operators have an opportunity to work with different coalition teams deployed there.8

NATO’s presence on Iceland secures and guarantees the fundamental sovereignty of the island state, and prevents the violation of the integrity of NATO airspace. The added value of the ASICIPPN mission is, that Allied troops who are sent to Iceland gain an invaluable opportunity to train in an unfamiliar and very challenging environment.

Pooling and Sharing

NATO and EU have a lot in common. They are not only close geographically (22 out of 29 NATO nations are also members of the EU), but also politically – they share the same values, have similar strategic interests, and have to deal with similar security problems. Therefore, both organizations should cooperate in many areas – and the domain of Air Power is no exception.

The EU’s main enabler of defence capability development and military cooperation is the European Defence Agency (EDA). As an institutional and legal structure of the EU, the EDA is very often involved in joint defence initiatives with NATO. This kind of collaboration remains a highly sensitive issue, especially for non-European Alliance members, who can often perceive common projects as a challenge to NATO’s current functions. However, this perspective fails to take into account the context. NATO and the EU are not competitors, and their joint ventures must not be seen as a replacement of existing NATO security structures but rather as an important complement to them – this principle is anchored in the fundamental documents setting out NATO-EU cooperation, including the 2016 Joint Declaration on EU-NATO Cooperation, which explicitly states: ‘The capabilities developed through the defence initiatives of the EU and NATO should remain coherent, complementary and interoperable.’

As mentioned above, the problems resulting from military budget cuts in NATO member countries were bridged using the Smart Defence projects. The EU has presented a similar scheme: Pooling & Sharing, which essentially has the same purpose – to save money and to make military collaboration more effective. The principal goals of the initiative (‘to preserve and enhance national operational capabilities – with improved effect, sustainability, interoperability and cost efficiency as a result’) were published in 2010.9

Air-to-Air Refuelling

Almost all European NATO countries suffer from chronic shortfalls in the area of Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR), primarily caused by a lack of refuelling aircraft. It appears very challenging to reduce continuing overdependence on United States (US) assets. Possible expansion of the existing fleets always come with enormous costs. This often means an unsolvable restriction – especially for small NATO members – if not tackled collectively. To solve the issue, the EDA was assigned to facilitate the project with three main goals: to optimize existing assets; to introduce the Airbus A400M AAR capability; and to increase the Strategic Tanker Capability – the Multinational Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) Fleet (MMF).10 The involvement of small nations through the concept of Pooling & Sharing is best illustrated by the third pillar of the venture. The project was launched in 2016 with the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Netherlands and Luxembourg. These states agreed to jointly purchase a fleet of Airbus A330 MRTT. In 2017, Germany and Norway joined the project, followed by Belgium in 2018 and the Czech Republic in 2019. The total number of aircraft in the shared fleet thus reached eight (with the possibility of further expansion to eleven). Taking into account a total number of roughly 60 tankers in Europe (excluding the United States, Canada and Turkey),11 the programme implemented by the EDA represents a fairly significant contribution to Allied JAP.

The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Norway, Czech Republic and Germany have addressed the AAR problem actively and responsibly. Through the Pooling & Sharing concept, they have obtained a relatively fast and cost-effective answer for how to satisfy all their training needs, how to maintain the currency of trained pilots, and how to support the operational deployment of their fighters. Moreover, the excess capacity of tankers can be offered to other Alliance members, which will help to diminish overall European AAR capability shortfall. However, the most important point is that these states were able to do this on their own, without creating any additional burden on larger coalition or Alliance partners.

Framework Nations Concept

At the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales, the Defence Ministers approved another initiative – Framework Nations Concept (FNC). This model provides a cooperation alternative to existing Smart Defence and Pooling & Sharing programmes. Similarly to the previously named constructs, the fundamental idea of the FNC is to bring the resources of individual participant parties together under a common organizational umbrella of some form. Involved countries are organized in multinational military groups – so-called clusters. Each of them is assembled around essential military elements established by a leading Framework Nation. Clusters consist of individual combat modules provided by together small and large states which coordinate their long-term contributions to the respective formations.12 Several FNC groups, led by UK, Italy and Germany, have been formed in NATO so far.

Germany FNC

A structured top-down approach and linkage to the NDPP will ensure coordinated capacity development for FNC group around Germany with better results than the previously discussed Smart Defence or Pooling & Sharing constructs.13 The initiative brings together 21 nations and is open to both NATO and non-NATO countries. The German model basically rests on two pillars. First, the ‘Capability Clusters’ element, in general follows the problems close to NATO Defence Planning Priorities, and synchronizes partners’ capability development efforts. Second, the ‘Larger Formations’ cooperation element, seeks to strengthen NATO’s pool of available follow-up forces.14

Under the first pillar, the joining states are jointly addressing existing capability gaps in four wider cluster groups – Command and Control/Support, Effects, Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (J-ISR), and Protection. These broad categories are further divided into 24 specific capability development clusters, such as Multinational Air Transport, Helicopter units, and Air C2 clusters.15 Working in FNC clusters noticeably augments the NDPP’s harmonization function, as the strengthening of defence capabilities of individual partner countries takes place in the context of the entire Alliance. The FNC structure ensures the coherence and complementarity of the goals pursued by the co-workers within the cluster, whilst the link to the NDPP guarantees the simultaneous fulfilment of NATO Capability Targets apportioned to individual nations.16

The second pillar, concentrates on standing up new larger combat formations. Within this part, a Multinational Air Group (MAG) was introduced as one of the proposals. The FNC will provide a tangible result for the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) in the form of a combat-ready group within Force Planning.17 It is planned to attach some MAG functions to FNC smaller partners, as well as to engage them through exercise and training. This is already happening now, namely in the form of regular MAGDAYs Joint Air exercises. Only during this year, two events have already taken place, with the participation of Czech, French, German, Hungarian and Polish Air Forces.18

The coordination between FNC and NDPP activities ensures alignment with NATO requirements. Working in an international environment significantly increases the interoperability of cooperating troops. The combat value of the entire MAG assembly is expected to be much higher than of their individual elements alone. Strengthening of combat capabilities particularly applies to small participating states. By joining the FNC project, the units from participating nations can complement missing capabilities and fully exploit their potential. Given to its association with the NDPP, the FNC profiles as one of the most effective forms of international military collaboration available.


Even small NATO members can accomplish their mission in an effective manner. They need consistently to synchronize their national defence planning with NDPP, and to focus their attention on Defence Planning Priorities. In order to maximize their contribution to Joint Air Power competence, the coalition members must pursue better efficiency of existing forces through the development of their availability, versatility and interoperability. Smart Defence, Pooling & Sharing and the Framework Nation Concept have proven to have a convincing synergistic effect on the capability development of their individual participants and also NATO as a whole. Therefore, the described models of collaboration should be considered as valid elements of effective NATO military transformation which enable even small nations to contribute effectively to NATO’s three core tasks.

Rasmussen, A. F., ‘Building security in an age of austerity’, 2011. Online at: [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019.]
NATO Public Diplomacy Division, ‘NATO Encyclopedia’, 2018. Online at: [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019.]
NATO Allied Air Command, ‘NATO Air Policing’, 2019. Online at: [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019.]
Harper, Sir Christopher, Lawrence T. and Sakkov S., ‘Air Defence of the Baltic States’, Tallinn, Estonia: International Centre for Defence and Security, 2018.
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, ‘Military expenditure by country as percentage of gross domestic product, 1988–2018’, 2019. Online at: [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019.]
Ibid. 4., ‘Historie misí’, 2019. Online at: [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019.]
Ibid. 3.
Germany/Sweden, Pooling and sharing, German-Swedish initiative Food for Thought, 2010. Online at: [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019.]
European Defence Agency, ‘Air-to-Air Refuelling’, 2018. Online at: [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019.]
Joint Air Power Competence Centre, ‘Air-to-Air Refuelling Consolidation – An Update’, 2014. Online at: [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019.]
Major, C. and Mölling, C., ‘The Framework Nations Concept: Germany’s Contribution to a Capable European Defence’, 2014. Online at: [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019.]
Ruiz Palmer, A., ‘The Framework Nations’ Concept and NATO: Game Changer for a new Strategic Era or Missed Opportunity?’, 2016. Research Paper, No. 132.
Hagström Frisell, E. and Sjökvist, E., ‘Military Cooperation Around Framework Nations: A European Solution to the Problem of Limited Defence Capabilities’, 2019. Online at:–4672–SE [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019].
Ibid. 14.
Ibid. 13.
NATO Allied Air Command, ‘MAGDAYs: German Air Force hosts second live-fly exercise over Northern Sea with NATO Allies in 2019’, 2019. Online at: [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019.]
Ibid. 17.
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Lieutenant Colonel
Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2018-2021)

Lieutenant Colonel Petr Michenka joined the Czechoslovak Air Force in 1990. He earned his pilot wings in 1996 and graduated from the Czech University of Defence in Brno with an Aviation and Rocketry Degree in 2001. He served as a fighter pilot with more than 1,500 flying hours (L-159 ALCA, J-39 Gripen). His operational experience includes several staff officer positions within the Czech Air Force HQ. From 2015 till 2018 he was the commander of 212th Tactical Squadron in Čáslav Air Base. In 2016 he was the Commander of 1st Czech Air Advisory Team in AFB Balad (Iraq).

In 2018 he joined the Assessment, Coordination & Engagement branch at the JAPCC in Kalkar.

Information provided is current as of January 2020

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