BRUSSELS — NATO has agreed in principle to use its fleet of E-3A AWACS to backfill national requirements, in order to free up nations to use their own capacity in the fight against the Islamic State group, commonly known as ISIS or ISIL.
The alliance will also immediately task its Standing Maritime Group 2 to the Aegean sea to monitor the flow of migrants fleeing Syria, as part of a plan put forth by Greece, Turkey and Germany.
The news was announced by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following a NATO ministerial, during which US Secretary of Defense pushed for a greater role for NATO in operations over Iraq and Syria.
"We are looking at how we can step up our support," Stoltenberg said. "We will provide AWACS which will increase capabilities for [the] coalition to fight ISIL, and we will of course asses constantly if we should do more."
NATO has 16 E-3A aircraft, with 12 currently operating. According to an alliance factsheet, they are based primarily out of NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen, but can also operate out of Component Forward Operating Bases in Aktion, Greece; Trapani, Italy; Konya, Turkey; and Oerland, Norway.
Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) Gen. Philip Breedlove said the AWACS plan has been agreed to in principle, with military leaders looking at implementation plans.
The maritime mission is aimed at relieving pressure on Europe from the ongoing crisis of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria by targeting human trafficking of migrants. Stoltenberg said the mission would be primarily one of "surveillance, reconnaissance, and monitoring," but Breedlove indicated the mission parameters are still undergoing a "refinement."
"This mission has literally come together in the last 20 hours," Breedlove said. "I have been tasked now to go back, define the mission, define the rules of engagement, define all of our special operations instructions, all of the things that will lay out what we're going to do."
Breedlove also praised the speed of NATO leadership's agreement to dispatch the maritime mission as proof that reforms made in recent years are allowing the alliance to react quickly to rapidly evolving situations, a major theme among the NATO ministerial.
Stoltenberg also announced that the more capability would be needed for Standing Maritime Group 2 in order to carry out the operations. Breedlove confirmed that "several" nations have agreed to add ships, but would not identify which ones.
"Several of our very high-end, very capable nations who made themselves available, and this will be required to sustain this mission and to get the right kind of capabilities into the area," Breedlove said. "Picking up small, sometimes non metallic boats in an ocean is hard work."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.