NATO did not participate as an organization in the US-led attack on Iraq in 2003, but NATO provided some support, including satellite and communications support, to Polish units responsible for a larger area of Iraq. After the war, NATO engaged to a limited extent in Iraq. At the request of the new Iraqi interim government, the alliance sent a small operation to the country in August 2004. The main task of the NATO training implementation mission in Iraq (NTIM-I), consisting of about 300 people, was to train Iraqi military units and security forces so that they could eventually take over responsibility for security and order in the war-torn and divided country. Note: NATO stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Abbreviationfinder.
In early 2011, unrest flared up in Libya at a level reminiscent of a civil war. The Libyan regime led by Muammar Gaddafi responded to this with military attacks on civilian targets where regime opponents were located. The UN Security Council convened, and in order to prevent the Libyan regime from carrying out air strikes against its own people, the Council adopted a resolution establishing a no-fly zone over most of Libya. The resolution allowed the Member States to protect Libya’s civilians by “all necessary means”.
Two days later, air forces from a dozen countries, mainly NATO members but also Qatar, for example, began to fight the Libyan regime’s military installations. The operations first took place under the leadership of Britain and France, with the United States in a heavy background role, but after a few days the responsibility for the military leadership passed to NATO. A total of 19 countries participated: 15 of them belonged to NATO, the others were in addition to Qatar also the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Sweden. An important NATO country, Germany, had abstained from the UN Security Council when the 1973 UN resolution was voted through, and also refused to participate in the operation in any way.
Russia also abstained from the UN Security Council in the resolution vote, as did China. However, this was interpreted as a positive signal, as Russia (and China) have a veto in the Security Council and thus could have stopped the resolution in its entirety. Russia’s actions were therefore perceived by NATO as a tacit approval of the operation.
The fighting on the ground continued for several months and came to a halt at the end of October when Gaddafi was captured and executed under legally unclear circumstances by Libyan opposition groups. Throughout the fighting, the coalition’s military operations were led by NATO commanders in Italy and Germany, with significant assistance from US staffs. Sweden participated with eight fighter aircraft, which mainly had reconnaissance tasks during the operation.
Initially, the operation in Libya was seen as a great success for NATO: it had been shown that the organization is the only one in the world (apart from the US National Defense Force) that can carry out complex, large-scale and multinational operations far from its own countries’ military bases. However, the domestic political problems in Libya were not resolved by the overthrow of Gaddafi, and the fact that the country is still severely divided and lacks a functioning national government has negatively affected the way the operation was perceived in retrospect.
Nuclear weapons and air defense
Nuclear weapons have long played a significant role within NATO and a large part of the consultations, as well as the conflicts, within the alliance have revolved around them. With the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons lost momentum and were drastically reduced within the European part of NATO.
More than 90 percent of all nuclear weapons in Europe have been abolished, and according to available data, the United States still has less than 200 such weapons in Europe, compared to the peak of the 1970’s when about 7,000 such weapons were in American units across Western Europe. However, the US nuclear guarantee, that is, the promise that US strategic nuclear missiles will be part of Western Europe’s defense, persists and constitutes an ultimate link between the United States and Western Europe.
In peacetime, the work and consultations on nuclear weapons issues take place in the Nuclear Weapons Planning Group (see Structure). If NATO were to be drawn into a war, however, it would be up to the states participating in the military cooperation and having nuclear weapons in their possession (that is, at present the United States and Britain) to decide whether these should be deployed. France also decides for itself when its nuclear weapons will be used. Some European countries have agreements with the United States in terms of being able to arm their own aircraft with US nuclear weapons based in these countries. This is part of the nuclear weapons guarantee (see above), but US weapons remain under strict US control in peacetime. Through an agreement with Russia, the NATO-Russia Founding Act, from 1997, NATO has renounced the possibility of basing nuclear weapons on any new NATO member’s territory.
To improve the ability to detect enemy airstrikes, NATO built a chain of radar stations in Europe in the 1960’s and 1970’s, from northern Norway to eastern Turkey. In the 1980’s, these were supplemented with radar stations mounted in aircraft. These so-called Awacs planes should give an early warning in the event of an attack. NATO’s Awacs force on some 20 aircraft based in Geilenkirchen, Germany, plays an important role in NATO’s peacekeeping operations and has also been used for completely new missions, such as monitoring airspace over Greece in connection with the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
Some of the old and several of the new NATO members are very small countries, which have never been able to afford their own air force. For example, Luxembourg’s airspace has long been monitored by the Belgian and Dutch air forces. Iceland, which lacks military forces, has long had a US military base, including an air force, based outside the capital Reykjavik. It was withdrawn by the United States in 2006 but has been rapidly refurbished recently. Today, an airplane takes off approximately every other day from the base in Iceland.
With the deteriorating security situation in Europe as a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and interference in the civil war in Ukraine, as well as NATO’s response to this, the Allied air operation in the Baltics also tripled. In 2018, eight fighter jets used two air bases in Lithuania and Estonia, respectively, for this operation. Both of these air bases are old Soviet bases that NATO, through its collective budget (see Budget), has renovated and modernized to an advanced standard.