(General James N. Mattis, United States Marine Corps, served as Supreme Allied Commander Transformation from 2007-09 and as Secretary of Defense in the Trump Administration. Photo courtesy of NATO ACT.) 

By Jeff Maisey

In the spring of 2015, French Air Force General Jean-Paul Palomeros was nearing the end of his three-year appointment as Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT) at NATO’s headquarters in Norfolk. 

At that time it was a tradition at NATO ACT Headquarters to honor each member country on its national day with an outdoor ceremony full of pomp and circumstance featuring NATO personnel in dress uniform, flags of each nation flying overhead, a military band, and speeches from the visiting dignitary (often an ambassador) representing the honored nation, SACT, a rep from the US Navy League, and someone from Norfolk NATO Festival. 

Prior to the formal ceremony, VIPs gathered inside for casual conversation and introductions before proceeding down the red carpet to assume assigned seating. 

As a member of the Norfolk NATO Festival’s Board of Directors, I was asked on numerous occasions to represent the Festival in this capacity.

I was well acquainted with General Palomeros and had also formally interviewed him for an article in Veer Magazine. 

As the VIPs were preparing to proceed to the ceremony, I talked briefly with Palomeros, who was in a reflective mood. Looking back on his time in Norfolk, he specifically noted a document penned by one of his predecessors, General James Mattis, predicting the use of hybrid warfare. Palomeros also stressed the importance of each NATO member nation to meet its financial commitment of spending 2% of its GDP on defense. He insisted the burden of defending Europe was unfairly and unsustainably placed on the shoulders of the United States. 

Two years ago, on my way to Paris for vacation,  I thought back on this conversation and wondered if Norfolk NATO Festival might host a symposium of former SACTs discussing the challenges and decisions made during their tenures and discussing how they matchup with current events in this ever changing world. 

While in Paris, I met with French Air Force General Denis Mercier for dinner. He had recently retired after his career concluded as NATO SACT in Norfolk. I brought up the topic as an idea that might be explored. Mercier conveyed a willingness to participate should such an event become a reality. 

After resuming the role as Chairman of Norfolk NATO Festival last year, I suggested the idea to Festival general manager Scott Jackson. He and festival manager Nikki Nieves ran a cost analysis and things looked favorable for a live, in-person event. 

COVID, of course, made such a gathering impossible. As an alternative, we pitched the concept to Larry Baucom, the representative from the World Affairs Council of Greater Hampton Roads, who sits on NATO Fest’s committee. The World Affairs Council presents numerous expert discussions each year with one devoted to NATO during the Norfolk NATO Festival week. The organization has soldiered onward during the pandemic in a webinar format.

With the help of Baucom, a retired US Navy vice admiral, and the World Affairs Council of Greater Hampton Roads, the concept of a conversation with former SACTs featuring General James Mattis (US Marine Corps), Admiral Edmund Giambastiani (US Navy), General Denis Mercier (French Air Force), and current SACT General Andre Lanata is to become a reality. The discussion, titled “Stronger Together: Perspectives on Strengthening the Alliance,” is scheduled Wednesday, March 31 at 12:30 PM EST. The webinar is free and open to the public by registering at hrwac.org (Registration is now open to all). The panel moderator is Dr. Regina Karp, director of the International Studies Program at Old Dominion University.

As a side note, Norfolk NATO Festival is now scheduled on June 5 at Norfolk Scope Plaza. (Free admission)

To whet your interest in the webinar, I reached out to General Denis Mercier (retired) for the following interview.   

VEER Magazine: As SACT, General James Mattis was credited with building better communications between ACT and Allied Command Operations (ACO) in Belgium to forge an improved understanding of the role ACT plays. Would you share your viewpoint on the importance of General Mattisleadership and insights as it relates to NATO both organizationally and in assessing potential future threats to Alliance members?

Denis Mercier: Yes, General Mattis contributed a lot to the Alliance when he was SACT. Like any new command, ACT had to find its place and its role cannot be understood without analyzing the complementarity with ACO, NATO’s other strategic command. He built a strong relationship with ACO and his leadership inspired all the supreme commanders who commanded ACT after him. I worked hard with SACEUR, General (US) Scaparrotti, to continue to keep clarifying the respective roles of ACO, the NATO war-fighting command, and ACT, the NATO warfare development command, the former being in charge of today’s operations and the latter anticipating tomorrow’s operations. 

General Mattis was an inspiring forward thinker and the best example was when he described beforehand what a hybrid conflict could be in a remarkable document that should have been better taken into account by NATO.

VEER: When Gen. Mattis departed ACT in 2010 it was to make way for Gen. Stephane Abrial to lead ACT as France, after a 32-year absence, returned to NATOs integrated military structure. From a French perspective, how important was this moment of renewed engagement with NATO by France? 

Mercier: In fact, France was still a member of NATO but had left the integrated command structure. This no longer made sense in 2009 (I think General Abrial took office in 2009) because France had long been one of the biggest contributors to NATO operations but without access to the positions of responsibility that corresponded to its commitment. The reasons that had justified General De Gaulle’s departure from the integrated military structure were no longer valid. I am pleased with this return, which I find very relevant, and given the weight of the French armed forces in Europe, both in terms of quantity and quality, it was relevant that France should be given the responsibility to lead one of the two strategic commands.

(On May 7, 2018, French Air Force Chief of Staff General Andre Lanata — now current SACT — visited the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Allied Command Transformation Headquarters. General Andre Lanata was greeted by General Denis Mercier, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation from 2015-18, who was his predecessor at the head of the French Air Force. Courtesy Photo/Released by NATO ACT)


VEER: The role of ACT is sometimes misunderstood. Essentially, ACT looks 5 years, 10 years or longer into the future to make an assessment of potential threats and opportunities, and to then develop potential solutions, capabilities and training to prepare. What would you add to this so that citizens can better understand the important work at ACT?

Mercier: The world is changing very fast and the 21st century is characterized by the unpredictability of crises and disruptions that can occur in many fields: human, political, environmental, technological or economic. Understanding these issues, analyzing them, imagining strategic or technological disruptions and addressing them for the 30 NATO Allies are necessary actions to be sure that, whatever the crisis, the Allies do not reproduce the last conflict but have the necessary capabilities to deal with the unexpected. This is the role of ACT: a warfare development command that prepares for the operations that lie ahead. In the 21st century, those who don’t plan ahead take major risks. It’s not a question of planning for the future, but of defining what should be adapted today to meet future challenges. ACT for this mission has developed an extensive network of partners and an innovation hub to better understand the trends that will impact the conduct of operations in the future.

VEER: Over the past four years, much pressure was put on European members of NATO to commit to a minimum of 2% of their GDP on defense spending for the Alliances common defense.  How do you view this shared financial burden?

Mercier: This number doesn’t come out of nowhere. ACT is very much involved in the NATO Defense Planning Process, which is a capability development cycle that aims to determine, based on the political guidance issued from the Allies every four years, what military capabilities are needed and then, based on existing capabilities, what priority capabilities the Allies need to acquire. When we look at this difference between what is needed and what exists, we realize that without a 2% overall effort, it will be impossible to meet the political goals. It is therefore the direct translation of the political directive that the 30 NATO countries are addressing. 

VEER: From your days as a young French Air Force pilot to your tenure as SACT in Norfolk, what have been the most transformational actions taken by NATO ACT, in your view?

Mercier: When I was a young pilot, ACT didn’t exist. At that time, we were in the middle of the Cold War and Norfolk’s command was focused on protecting the sea lines of communication across the Atlantic. ACT was created after the fall of the Berlin Wall, where that mission was less relevant (it has since become relevant again, but without justifying a strategic command). What I see is what ACT brings to the Alliance, but also to the 30 Allies in terms of preparing for tomorrow’s operations or reacting quickly to surprises. A good example is the responsiveness with which ACT developed the concept of countering Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) after many soldiers suffered IED attacks in Afghanistan. All Allies have Joint Warfare Centers. ACT responds to this logic: a warfare development command. I see that under the impetus of its American and French commanders, ACT has made great progress and its added value is much better understood.

VEER: NATO was originally formed to primarily defend Western Europe against the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact alliance member nations. Today, Russia mainly stands alone since the breakup of the Soviet empire. In your opinion, does Russia still pose the same threat as it has in the past? I assume its nuclear arsenal is NATOs primary concern as opposed to conventional forces, correct?

Mercier: Russia is not an enemy and this has been pointed out many times. On the other hand, the crisis in Ukraine has clearly shown that Russia violates international regulations and remains a threat that must be addressed. NATO is doing it intelligently, through dialogue and military preparation. The dialogue remains open, but to be credible, it is supported by a credible deterrent posture that NATO is constantly reinforcing. I will quote Al Capone, who said that one always negotiates better by being polite and armed than by simply being polite! For the second part of the question, NATO will keep nuclear forces as long as such armies exist in the world and this is not limited to Russia. I would like to say that the main concern today is also the form of hybrid conflict in which Russia excels, thanks in particular to its cyber and disinformation capabilities.


VEER: The use of hybrid warfare can take many shapes. From your observations, what hybrid actions taken by our adversaries are the most troubling?

Mercier: First of all, as I said earlier, General Mattis had anticipated the forms of hybrid conflict we see today. But yes, hybrid warfare can take many forms, and Allies must be prepared for them. It requires broader approaches than just the military approach. Threats are particularly sensitive in the cyber domain, which NATO recognized as a “war-fighting domain” at the Warsaw Summit in 2016, and in the information domain, which implies the use of social networks for disinformation, is a domain that I am sure will soon be recognized as a “war-fighting domain” as well. The ability to handle large capacities of heterogeneous data in information spaces is certainly the biggest effort that needs to be made to combat hybrid warfare, with a key element: the identification and characterization of threat attribution.

VEER: When soldiers wearing unmarked uniforms advanced from Russian territory to Ukraine in a move to annex Crimea, did you view this action as a form of hybrid warfare?

Mercier: This is an excellent example of a hybrid form of conflict. That’s why I talk about attribution. A researcher, using web-based facial recognition tools, had proved that the non-uniformed warriors fighting in the Ukraine, who were not recognized by Russia as Russian soldiers, had posed in uniform in their regiment a year earlier.

VEER: Though Ukraine was not a NATO member, what intelligence did we gain in observing this action that could be useful in deterring Russia from invading a country such as Estonia, Latvia or Poland? 

Mercier: It is the understanding of the courses of action of this crisis that led NATO to take strong measures such as the deployment of an Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic countries (which have embedded Russian minorities like Ukraine) and in Poland. This force is made up of permanent ready to fight battalions that send a clear message : an attack against one of these countries would be an attack against all the Allies and would have very strong consequences for Russia. This deployment underpins the deterrence that NATO is implementing in support of the dialogue it wants to maintain with Russia.  

VEER: Recently, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated, The rise of China is a defining issue for the transatlantic community, with potential consequences for our security, our prosperity and our way of life.” When you served as SACT did you foresee the potential threat posed by China? 

Mercier: Yes, of course. The complexity of the world and the multiplicity of challenges the Allies must face no longer make a vision of threats limited to the geographical borders of the Euro-Atlantic area relevant. This is, for example, the case of cyber and outer space domains that know no borders. These challenges and the development of China’s military power made it natural for ACT to extent its area of interest to potential threats coming from other continents.

VEER: How significant, in your opinion, is this threat from China moving forward and in what ways is China most likely to threaten Europe, Canada, and America?


Mercier: China is not a direct threat to the Allies and the Euro-Atlantic area. However, it is a superpower that is developing with ambitions built on values very different from ours and it is also a rival in many areas. It is in this respect that China constitutes a potential threat that must be taken into account. I would say that China offers to the Allies opportunities as well as challenges. It’s natural for the Allies to be concerned about the challenges China poses. To develop the necessary dialogue on global security issues with China, NATO provides an extraordinary forum to build coherent positions among Allies coming from both sides of the Atlantic.

VEER: Are the development and deployment of hypersonic missiles a challenging development in the near future?

Mercier: Yes, these armaments constitute a real challenge that must be taken into account. In particular, they are a strong threat to large vessels and they also allow for a considerable increase in the distances of intervention. One of ACT’s roles is to study these threats coming from the analysis of technological breakthroughs that may change the nature of warfare. 

VEER: Artificial Intelligence (AI): What aspects of AI must NATO prepare to defend against?

Mercier: I would like to say that the subject of AI is very broad. Artificial intelligence is not a threat in itself. It is the use of it that is. For NATO, I see an obligation: to understand what these technologies enable in order to better defend against systems that use them massively, but also to ensure the interoperability of systems developed by the Allies. With a new challenge: interoperability is characterized by its technical and human aspects (interoperability of military capabilities and human capital) but for AI, it is also characterized by its political aspects to speak a common language, and to define an ethical line that satisfies all allies.

VEER: Do you foresee the use of militarized robotics controlled by AI on future battlefields, seas and airways? How would NATO defend against such weaponry?

Mercier: Of course! And I would say it has already started. Let’s keep one thing in mind: when we talk about robots we immediately think of killer robots. But AI has many other applications in fields as varied as logistics, medical, force readiness, etc. The question of robots that can deliver force will take more time. Generally speaking, this issue needs to be addressed by use cases. “Generic” discussions often turn out to be short and I believe in the realization of scenarios and vignettes that allow for debate based on concrete cases. And again, this is a subject that needs to be dealt with at different levels, also involving the political level.

VEER: AI can also be used to make many advanced calculations for strategic purposes. How might NATO ACT HQ best develop such technology for both defensive and offensive needs?

Mercier: When I commanded ACT, we launched a roadmap that integrated these aspects and I am pleased to see that our successors have continued this path with many initiatives. For example, ACT is developing the Strategic Foresight Analysis, a document that aims to look at the major trends that can lead to crises. To do this, ACT staff had to read numerous publications but by nature limited by human capacity. Using AI to correlate large amounts of data, over a region of interest, allows information to be multiplied and much deeper analysis. Likewise, the analysis of data from nations for the NATO Defense Planning Process will benefit from using AI to better take into account available data and integrate them to build a coherent force that takes into account Allied capabilities and priorities. I could multiply the examples and AI can also be used in supporting decision-making. In this area that is close to my heart, it’s not just AI but really data architecture that can enable a true digital revolution and make our forces more agile by de-centralizing operational control of forces. This will only be possible by adapting our operational concepts and will take time. ACT is the right command to propose such evolutions and to test them in exercises.


VEER: Climate change and global instability must also factor into planning at ACT. How serious were these two issues addressed when you were SACT? 

Mercier: We have integrated environmental issues into our analyses of trends that could lead to crises. The lack of water due to climate change, the opening of new sea lines of communication in the Arctic, the profound changes on the economies of some nations brought by the energy transition that will make mobility less and less dependent on oil are all factors of instability studied by ACT.

VEER: Reflecting on your time in Norfolk as SACT, what were the most important achievements of ACT that you found most satisfying? 

I think we have built on the legacy of my American and French predecessors, but one of the proudest things is that we have transformed the structure of the two strategic commands ACO and ACT in full cooperation with SACEUR. We have proposed a command structure that is transformed and capable of meeting the challenges of the present and those of the future in a more coherent organization, and we have had it approved by all Allies along with the implementation plan, in less than 3 years. We were told it would be impossible, but it was because it was impossible that we did it! I pay tribute to General Scaparrotti, my American counterpart, because without our connivance this would not have happened. We are still in touch. And I am also proud to have been able to demonstrate the added value to the nations of an ambitious roadmap on innovation. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion, but we were able to do it thanks to exercises that demonstrated the concepts that continue to develop today. I only had one guideline for ACT’s military and civilian staff every time we developed a new idea: be ambitious! I believe we were successfully ambitious. But, you know, it was easy because I’ve had under my command very high-quality men and women from more than 30 nationalities, coming from Allied and partner countries that joined us at Norfolk. Seeing all these different cultures working together and combining their skills was a great joy and a real accomplishment of my military career.

VEER: Regarding the webinar presented by World Affairs Council, what do you hope both civilians and military personnel learn from the discussion?

Mercier: I hope they will understand how much we need international organizations and NATO. We are in a complex and unpredictable world. In this world, no one, not even the world’s greatest power, has the sole key to success in building a more stable environment and working for peace while preparing for the worst. Peace is never granted forever and must be built through the cooperation between Allies. It is this lack of international structures that has led to repeated wars in the past. We are fortunate to have a strong Alliance that is certainly not perfect, but it is indispensable to our collective security because it allows us to work and move forward together, Americans and Europeans, and with many other countries around the world that have joined the partnership initiatives developed by NATO. It is up to them to make this treasure built up over time bear fruit!

(A MOMENT IN HISTORY: Ceremony to the Commission of the new Allied Command Transformation in 2003. From left to right: NATO Secretary General, Lord Robertson of the United Kingdom; Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, Admiral Edmund Giambastiani (US NAVY); Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General James L. Jones (US Marines). Photo courtesy of NATO.)