To discuss the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, North Atlantic Treaty Organization defence ministers met digitally for an extraordinary meeting on April 15th. The meeting followed the Alliance’s virtual meeting of foreign ministers held on April 2nd and was intended to establish a comprehensive, joined-up response to the pandemic, which has hit several NATO member states and partners severely. The European Union, by the EU High Representative, and NATO partners Finland and Sweden were also represented at the meeting.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg held a press conference after the meeting, stating that the alliance had agreed on the next steps in response to the pandemic.
Two weeks prior, General Tod Wolters, NATO’s top operational commander, had been tasked by foreign ministers to coordinate military support. Mr Stolenberg updated the media on the results of General Wolters’ work, explaining that military forces from across NATO have:
- flown over 100 missions transporting medical personnel, supplies, and treatment capabilities.
- Facilitated the construction of 25 field hospitals.
- Provided over 25,000 treatment beds.
- Over 4,000 military medical personnel have been deployed in support of civilian efforts.
Across NATO member states, some high-ranking officials and soldiers have contracted COVID-19 and have been in quarantine. Responding to a question on how pandemics can hamper the operational readiness of the armed forces of the member states, Mr Stoltenberg stated that the alliance had started looking into the medium and long-term consequences of the pandemic. He explained that NATO had implemented the same measures as other areas of society in order to slow the spread of the virus: social distancing, washing hands, adapting and even cancelling some exercises.
The Secretary General emphasised NATO’s readiness to deploy troops, forces when needed, maintaining missions and operations, including retaining battlegroups in the eastern part of the Alliance, air policing, naval deployments and missions in vulnerable states like Afghanistan and Kosovo.
Responding to a question about whether NATO should broaden its definition of ‘security threat’ to include health crises, Mr Stoltenberg stated that NATO would remain primarily a military alliance concerned with conventional threats as well as international terrorism and cyber threats. But he also added “NATO has to adapt. NATO has to change. But I don’t think that NATO should go into and be…the first responder, or the main responder to a health crisis. What NATO should do and what NATO is doing is that we should support the civilian efforts to fight this health crisis.
“There are good reasons for looking into how we can further strengthen the cooperation between the civilian society combating a health crisis and military capabilities, providing support to those civilian efforts. Because the fact that we have a health crisis doesn’t mean that more traditional security threats disappear”.
The Secretary General emphasised the continued presence of more conventional security threats, citing terrorism, instability in Afghanistan and Iraq and increasing Russian military strength.
On Thursday 16th April at 12:00 GMT, NATO Deputy Secretary General, Ambassador Mircea Geoană, will participate in an online discussion on the Allied response to Covid-19. More details can be found here.