At the 2002 Prague Summit, it was decided that NATO should change its military structures and concepts and acquire new types of equipment to face the operational challenges of the new millennium. Thus, the military command structure was reorganized with focus on becoming a leaner and more efficient organization. In consequence, however, certain warfare or competence areas were no longer properly reflected. In order to bridge those gaps, NATO encouraged the Nations to establish Centres of Excellence (COEs) for maintaining and expanding this expertise. In 2003, the ‘Military Committee Concept for Centres of Excellence’ was been approved and states that NATO Command arrangements should be supported by a network of COEs.
In the meantime, more than 20 COEs have been established and serve to complement NATO resources outside the NATO Command Structure. Legally, a COE is an international military organisation operated by participating nations and is affiliated to NATO through a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).
By its nature, a COE does not provide forces, but instead, specific subject matter expertise supplied by experienced and skilled personnel. Thus, the focus of a COE lies on the academic, analytical, and conceptual performance. As a COE pools unique international knowledge under one roof, no other military entity would be better suited to deal with any specific aspect of warfare within its area of competence. The continuous support of the Transformation process of the Alliance and the Nations is the primary purpose of a NATO COE.
A Framework Nation that intends to set up a COE on a specific area of competence initiates the accreditation process by negotiations with the Headquarters Allied Command Transformation (ACT) resulting in the draft of a Functional MoU. Next, other Nations are invited to join as Sponsoring Nations through a draft Operational MoU, or as a Contributing Partner through a Technical Agreement. After the approval by the North Atlantic Council, the accreditation process is finalised when both MoUs have been signed by all entities.
To become (and remain) accredited by NATO, a Centre of Excellence (COE) has to comply with following principles:
Of course, a Nation may also join a COE after its formation and accreditation. In that case, the Framework Nation informs ACT and seeks for endorsement by all other Sponsoring Nations (as this status grants a vote in the Steering Committee).
NATO Coordination and Authority
The work between NATO and the COEs is coordinated by the ACT in Norfolk, VA (USA). Although the Alliance is to be regarded as the primary customer, the participating Nations of a NATO COE (providing the funding), decide on all issues such as the annual Programme of Work. Hence, NATO and other clients – even a participating Nation – cannot task or order the support of a COE. Any customer has to forward a Request for Support to be assessed by the COE and approved by the Steering Committee.
NATO COE Work Fields
Following the very ‘raison d’être’– the assistance in the transformational process of the Alliance and the Nations – a NATO COE is expected to support in least three of the following four work fields (the so called COE Pillars):