(Immediately following the Change of Command ceremony at Norfolk’s Half Moon Terminal, in September 2015, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, French Gen. Denis Mercier and Gen. Jean-Paul Palomeros pause for a photograph. Photo by Jeff Maisey)


By Jeff Maisey

With an invitation-only celebration on August 30, the City of Norfolk will bid adieu — farewell — to French Air Force General Denis Mercier. 

General Mercier is nearing the end of his 3-year post as Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT) at NATO’s only North American headquarters — in Norfolk, Virginia. The official Change of Command ceremony scheduled on September 13 aboard the USS George H. W. Bush aircraft carrier at Naval Station Norfolk will be presided over by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Mercier’s successor will be fellow French Air Force General Andre Lanata. 

For Gen. Mercier, the occasion will also mark the end of his nearly 40-year career in the military. 

Denis Mercier was born on the 4th of October 1959. His hometown is Aix-en-Provence.

As a young man, Mercier joined the French Air Force Academy in 1979, earned a masters degree in Science in two years, and qualified as a fighter pilot of Mirage F1C and Mirage 2000C aircraft in 1983. 

His long list of military awards include the SACT Badge, Grand Officer of the Legion d’honneur, Officer of the Ordre national du Merite, Medaille de l’Aeronautique and Croix du Combattant. Numerous international (non-French) awards include Commander of the Order of the Crown (Belgium), Military Merit Order Grand Cross (United Arab Emirates), Order of Abdulaziz al Saud (Saudia Arabia), Bundeswehr Cross of Honor in Gold (Germany) and Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Singapore).  

In addition to Mercier’s appointment as SACT, in 2015, among his commands held: Chief of Staff of the French Air Force, Major General of the French Air Force, and Divisional General of the French Air Force. 

Throughout his career, Denis Mercier has worked directly with NATO having commanded the founding unit of NATO’s Tiger Association — the 1/12 Cambresis Fighter Squadron — participated in NATO exercises such as Operation Deny Flight )Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1994),  Operation Strong Resolve ’98, and integrated the operational planning of France’s participation, in 1999, in NATO Operation Allied Force Kosovo. 

During the first decade of the 2000s, Mercier actively served in a variety of strategic roles, ranging from integrating Mirage F1CR squadrons into ISAF in Afghanistan during his stint as commander of the Reims Air Force base, commanding the French Air Force Academy in Salon-de-Provence, and participating as senior military advisor to France’s Minister of Defense in all NATO ministerial meetings between 2010-12 and summits.  

Readers may recall France’s lead and successful role in NATO’s Operation United Protector over Libya in 2011. NATO’s intervention in support of the United Nations Security Council resolution was instrumental in in protecting Libyan civilians from their condemned leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi.  Mercier served as special advisor to the French defense minister for the planning and execution of the operation.  

As Supreme Allied Commander Transformation in Norfolk, General Denis Mercier — viewed by many as a forward-thinking, transformative leader —  was in many respects the right person at the right place at the right time in history. 

Two substantive NATO Summits took place in Wales (2014) and Warsaw (2016) in the aftermath of Russia’s hybrid warfare take-over of Crimea in Ukraine. 

Under President Vladimir Putin, the Russia Federation began to reveal a more adversarial posture after a period of mutual cooperation under the Partnership for Peace program signed in 1994.   

“It was in Wales that we started to recognize again we have adversaries at our borders; it could be Russia; it could be terrorist groups,” said Gen. Mercier by phone, while he was vacationing in the Alps. “We face many threats. We recognized we needed to enhance our responsiveness.”

The Wales Summit agenda focused on the renewed threat from Russia, cyber warfare, hybrid warfare, terrorism, and resulted in NATO member nations pledging to contribute 2% of their gross domestic products to defense, with 20% of that going to modernized military equipment. 

The Warsaw Summit key outcome, as laid out in NATO’s substance communique, focused on positioning Allied battalions in the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia as well as Poland as a deterrent to potential Russian destabilization and invasion plans.  

Additional outcomes from Warsaw included a n operational NATO Ballistic Missile Defense (citing threats from Iran and North Korea), the bolstering of cyber defenses, combating human trafficking in the Mediterranean Sea, and supporting commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan.   

 Over the past year, under Mercier’s command, NATO ACT was tasked with creating the framework of a significant restructuring to better deal with the initiatives put forth in Wales and Warsaw.

“One of the main reorganizations was when the two strategic commanders — my US counterpart General Scaparrotti, who is Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and me — were tasked to assess whether our NATO command structure was sufficient regarding all the many threats that we have at our borders,” said Gen. Mercier. 

“Our assessment at this time was it was only partially sufficient and in less than one year we have proposed a new structure and a detailed implementation plan. We have started the implementation, which is something even I think my country in one year would not be able to do with this level of speed.” 

Mercier continued: “Regarding this NATO restructure adaptation, what we need to take into account is there is a NATO Command Structure, which is owned by NATO with the two strategic commanders, but in addition to that there are close ties between the NATO Command Structure and the NATO Force Structure.  

“We saw that there was a need to protect the sea lines of communication across the Atlantic, if necessary, which means if we have a crisis with Russia the US would be the framework nation. It will be a NATO Force Structure that led to the recreation of the 2nd Fleet that will be official on the 24th of August. This will be a US headquarters with some element of the multinational NATO Command Structure.” 

At the recent Brussels Summit (July 2018), NATO ministers agreed to set up a new Cyberspace Operations Center in Belgium.

“This is another demonstration of how we are more resilient, more flexible when we integrate the NATO Force Structure and the NATO Command Structure,” Mercier said. 

The cyber defense strategy will incorporate all 29 NATO member nations, partner nations, and private technology companies. The strengthened cyber capacity will be primarily used for military operations. 

The role of NATO’s ACT headquarters, in Norfolk, is to look to the future. This includes the impact of climate change and its potential consequences.

“At ACT, we make an assessment of the threat that could lead to crisis in the future and see what are the consequences on NATO, NATO’s posture,” said Gen. Mercier. 

General Mercier credits those at NATO ACT headquarters — past and present — for his success and has fond memories on both the professional as well as personal time in Norfolk.

“Thanks to the NATO Command Structure adaptations that we’ve conducted and based on the work that was done by my predecessors we have much more clarified the role of Allied Command Transformation (ACT).”

Innovations in Artificial Intelligence and other cutting-edge technological areas have provided an ambitious roadmap for the future.   

Reflecting on his military career, he had this to share:

“When I was commander of the French Air Force Academy, I said this to my young officers: ‘Be sure that when you go to another post you are happy with that and that is what you want to do.’

I did that myself. In these 39 years of service I would do it exactly the same because I loved every moment. I have always had huge flexibility given to me by my chiefs to transform the organizations, which is always something I like to do. Even when I’ve proposed very different ideas, including in NATO, nobody said, ‘No, never do that.’ I really enjoyed that from starting my career as a fighter pilot, with all the different assignments I’ve had in headquarters, and then NATO.” 

Upon retirement, citizen Denis Mercier will begin working for a Paris-headquartered French company doing business in 30 different nations. His role with the private sector company? Transformation and innovation.