Few outside of the NATO community realize that one of the alliance's two strategic commands is located not in Europe, but in Norfolk, Virginia. Stood up as NATO began to reorient itself in response to the threats and challenges of the 21st century, Allied Command Transformation, or ACT, is now nearing its 15th anniversary in Norfolk. Today, ACT is charged to look to the future and help the alliance develop new capabilities, forces and doctrine for emerging challenges. But now is the time to consider ACT's future in light of new political realities in America and the worsening security situation in Europe.
For starters, ACT should move to Washington to be closer to American decision-makers and to be able to more effectively draw on the discussions and the decisions being made at the Pentagon. In addition, it is more crucial than ever that American leaders are reminded of NATO's importance on a near-daily basis. What better way than to have a strategic NATO command right next door to the White House, Congress, the State Department and the Pentagon?
One of the key reasons for having ACT in Norfolk was to enable it to piggyback on the U.S. military transformation efforts at U.S. Joint Forces Command. Indeed, originally the USJFCOM commander was dual hatted as the supreme allied commander transformation, a position once held by now U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Today, the command is still headed by a four-star flag officer, now provided by France. USJFCOM was disestablished in 2011 and its components folded into the Joint Chiefs of Staff. ACT still has a close relationship with the Joint Chiefs of Staff — but that could be strengthened with a move to Washington.
All of this matters because of the role of ACT inside NATO. The two major commands in NATO's relatively light organization deal with two different sides of NATO — current operations and preparing for the future. Located in Mons, Belgium, NATO Allied Command Operations handles the coordination of the numerous ongoing international operations under a NATO flag. NATO countries also provide forces for other operations such as Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria. ACT, on the other hand, is tasked with the business development side of the alliance. ACT is a somewhat overlooked node in a powerful network for the United States and the alliance — and, because of the way the alliance works, also for U.S. national interests.
The organization behind NATO is relatively small — only a few thousand people. NATO as an organization does not have significant military assets. The member states have control with their own armed forces — and can choose to use them under a NATO hat or in an ad hoc coalition of the willing.
Instead, what NATO the organization does is to coordinate efforts and relay information between the armed forces of the member states, including the United States. The practical strategic importance of the alliance and its organization cannot be overstated. NATO in many ways works as a relay station for American best practices in the world of defense matters. This makes NATO a force multiplier for the United States.
Through NATO, allied nations learn how to modernize their armed forces and invest for future capabilities — and through training and regular standardization they develop common ways for operating together. The resulting interoperability means that NATO militaries are prepared to deploy and contribute to military operations also outside of NATO, such as in Operation Inherent Resolve. ACT plays a crucial role in this effort.
A move to Washington should not mean that NATO departs the Norfolk area. Instead, NATO should leave behind a planning cell that could provide the beginnings of a structure that could support U.S. reinforcements across the Atlantic in times of crisis. A linkage could be made with U.S. Fleet Forces Command, which is responsible for providing U.S. naval forces to the various geographical combatant commands.
It's time to bring NATO to Washington, both as a constant reminder of the alliance's importance to U.S. decision-makers and to energize ACT's purpose for being: transforming NATO toward tackling the many security challenges of the 21st century. And President Donald J. Trump should welcome having a strategic NATO command as a next-door neighbor.
Magnus Nordenman is the director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. Henrik Breitenbauch is the director of the University of Copenhagen's Centre for Military Studies and is a nonresident senior fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.