NATO and the Coronavirus Crisis: An Input to Crisis Management Learning


By Robbin Laird

NATO and the European Union are the two European alliances which provide multi-lateral responses to crises within Europe.

Clearly, a health care driven crisis such as the coronavirus crisis falls largely in the province of the individual European nations and the shared sovereignty which is delegated to the European Union.

NATO’s role in the crisis is more limited, and has largely focused on providing targeted military airlift to supplement civilian resources. With passenger traffic ramped down significantly, civilian airlines are providing enhanced freighter support during the current phase of the Coronavirus crisis. Military airlift can provide a compliment to civilian assets in moving patients or supplies to critical points in the response chain during the crisis.

On April 2, 2020, NATO’s Rapid Air Mobility (RAM) capability was activated by the North Atlantic Council which facilitated the ability to move military airlifters through European airspace.

According to Camille Grand, NATO assistant secretary general for defense investment, “COVID-19 is a different scenario to what we had anticipated [for RAM],” Grand says. “The airspace is not exactly crowded, but on the other hand, there are fewer air traffic controllers than in normal times. So it is not absurd to suggest that military flights should get priority.”

On April 10, 2020, the first COVID-19 flight using RAM was initiated by Turkey in support of the United Kingdom.

According to Tony Osborne of Aviation Week: Although the Turkish A400M carried much-needed medical protective gear destined for the UK’s National Health Service, RAM was originally developed so that NATO members could quickly reinforce their garrisons on the outer edges of the alliance, such as the Baltic States, with personnel and equipment at a time of growing crisis and support the alliance’s Very High-Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF).”1

In an April 16, 2020, virtual town hall meeting moderated by Atlantic Council Executive Vice President Damon Wilson, NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană provided an overview of the role of NATO in the crisis.

According to Geoană, NATO defense ministers agreed that “anybody having something in excess—because not all countries are affected the same—[should] use [NATO’s] coordination mechanism and make sure that the ones who have the most need and the places with the most urgent need receive [support.]”

He noted that the first reaction of many governments to the pandemic was naturally “to take care in the best possible way of their own citizenry,” but argued that “after the first shock, we started to realize that this is something you cannot fight alone…we need each other.”

“We have not been perfect,” he argued, “but I think after the initial instinct of [focusing] on our own [countries], we see now from the United States all the way to North Macedonia…a renewed sense of solidarity and I think we will be coming out stronger from this crisis.”

The pandemic has also demonstrated NATO’s continued value in facilitating the cooperation between allies that is so vital during crises, Geoană said. “Our DNA is crisis management, our DNA is command and control, our DNA is efficiency and logistics and putting together in critical moments the pieces that can make a nation and an alliance in distress work,” he explained.

Geoană argued. “NATO is equipped in the way we function, the way we take decisions, the agility and the vigilance that is in built into our [organization] to adjust.”

“We do not want for anyone to believe that for one second that because of this pandemic that the Alliance is less vigilant and less able to protect and defend our citizens,” Geoană maintained.

Continued readiness is important, he added, because “the threats and concerns to our common security have not gone away because of the pandemic, in a way they have been amplified.” He noted that NATO officials have observed “Russia doing some snap exercises under the pretext of the pandemic” and threats from non-state actors to try to take advantage of distracted political leaders to hit against NATO interests. NATO’s primary mission right now, he said, is “preventing…a global health crisis from becoming a security crisis.”  At such an important time, he explained, “we just cannot lower our vigilance because there is a moment of great difficulty.”

He highlighted the challenge of information war as well. “The pretext of the pandemic is being used and abused by state and nonstate actors in a massive infodemic,” he said, as they are promoting “disinformation [and] conspiracy theories, [and] putting seeds of discontent and mistrust” online.

Geoană said that NATO officials continue to work with the EU and other national governments to push back on these false narratives, arguing that leaders “have to mythbusters ourselves” as “this is something we can only fight with the truth.”

Geoană also warned that NATO’s authoritarian rivals could use the economic damage dealt by the pandemic as an opportunity to “try to abuse our relative weakness and purchase strategic industries and infrastructure.”

He said NATO would be paying specific attention to protecting vital infrastructure and industries which could be sold off to competitors as an easy way to raise funds in what could be a difficult road to recovery for many allies. Geoană also cautioned against suggestions that the economic crisis should trigger cuts to defense spending as “our security is as much needed and investment in our security is as much needed as before—perhaps even more.”

NATO leaders are also already planning for a world after COVID-19, according to Geoană. Alliance officials had previously created resilience standards for member states for crises—such as continuity of business for governments, protection of infrastructure, and access to vital resources—which have now experienced the ultimate stress test. The deputy secretary general said NATO defense ministers were already beginning to “update” these standards and have begun to “integrate the lessons” of the crisis into future plans.

“Our main business is to keep 1 billion people safe,” from security threats but also in every way NATO can from other emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic, Geoană stressed. As allies continue to reach out with assistance and coordination through this crisis, he said, it is no wonder why “solidarity is a key word in our alliance.”2

There has also been European cooperation among NATO states via military airlift as well. In a story by Pierre Tran published on March 29, 2020, he highlighted Franco-German cooperation during the crisis.

“The French army has flown coronavirus patients to Germany in an NH90 Caïman helicopter, while a German A400M military transport plane flew patients out of France, signaling close bilateral ties, the armed forces ministry said March 29.

“The French and German armed forces are working together to fight against Covid-19,” the ministry said in a statement. “This cooperation shows the solidarity of the Franco-German friendship.”

“Armed forces minister Florence Parly spoke March 27 to her German counterpart, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, on the virus crisis and the two ministers agreed on measures to help hospitals in northeastern France, the ministry said.

“The French army flew March 28 an NH90 military transport helicopter carrying two patients out of Metz, northeastern France, to a hospital in Essen, western Germany, the ministry said. French civil emergency services helped that flight.

“That flight was part of Operation Resilience, a broad military mission seeking to lighten the load on civil authorities across France, heavily hit by the pandemic…..

“The German air force sent an A400M airlifter to Strasbourg, northeast France, to fly French patients to a German hospital, Parly said over social media. “Just one word: thanks,” she said.

“That was the first German military flight of French patients, regional paper L’Alsace reported. The operation took just under two hours to embark the patients before flying to Stuttgart. The patients were then taken to the military hospital in Ulm, southwest Germany, AFP news agency reported, the paper said. The German A400M flying hospital also took virus patients from Bergamo, northern Italy, to help medical staff in the Lombardy region, suffering heavily from the virus. The patients were flown to Cologne, western Germany.

“Germany made its A400M airlifter available through European Air Transport Command, which comprises seven member nations: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain and the Netherlands.”3

The crisis is precisely that and highlights the importance of working crisis management skills which have largely atrophied in the period of the land wars.

As Derek Chollet has argued: “This crisis must also jumpstart NATO discussions around crisis decision making.  NATO’s ability to make decisions quickly has been an enduring challenge. Yet the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 crisis is forcing the alliance to adapt on the fly and work from home. The ability to deliberate remotely by secure videoconference, which NATO foreign ministers first did last week, demonstrates it’s possible. Improving the speed and accessibility of secure decision-making will bolster deterrence and enhance NATO’s ability to respond to the next crisis.”4

And what follows is the Press conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following the virtual meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Defence Ministers’ session (15 Apr. 2020).  

NATO Defence Ministers have just addressed in an extraordinary meeting about the COVID-19 crisis NATO’s response. We have done so by secure video conference.

This was a timely and substantive discussion.

We reviewed our response to the pandemic. And we agreed on the next steps we need to take.

To continue to support each other, and support our partners.

COVID-19 represents an unprecedented challenge to our nations.

It has a profound impact on our people and our economies.

And it is imposing historic shocks on the international system, which could have long-term consequences.  

The crisis has shown that our nations are resilient, and united.

Our militaries are already playing a key role in support of national civilian efforts.

And using NATO mechanisms, Allies have been helping each other to save lives.

NATOs top operational commander, General Wolters, was tasked by foreign ministers two weeks ago to coordinate military support.

And today he updated us on his efforts to ensure NATO uses its military resources most effectively.

  • Military forces from across the Alliance have flown more than 100 missions to transport medical personnel, supplies, and treatment capabilities.
  • Facilitated the construction of 25 field hospitals.
  • Added more than 25,000 treatment beds.
  • And over 4,000 military medical personnel have been deployed in support of civilian efforts.

Today, I encouraged all Allies to make their capabilities available so General Wolters can coordinate further support.

And I welcome the additional offers made by ministers today.

All NATO Allies are affected by the pandemic.

But not in the same way at the same time.

So when we effectively coordinate our resources, we make a real difference.

Defence ministers also addressed NATO’s continued deterrence and defence.

The bottom line is that security challenges have not diminished because of COVID-19.

On the contrary.

Potential adversaries will look to exploit the situation to further their own interests.

Terrorist groups could be emboldened.

The security situation in Afghanistan and Iraq remains fragile.

And we see a continued pace of Russian military activity.

So we must maintain our deterrence and defence.

Because our core mission remains the same: to ensure peace and stability. 

While we continue to take all the necessary measures to protect our armed forces, our operational readiness remains undiminished.

And our forces remain ready, vigilant and prepared to respond to any threat.


We also discussed the importance of countering disinformation: Both from state and non-state actors.

Trying to sow division in the Alliance and in Europe.

And to undermine our democracies. 

We are countering these false narratives with facts, and with concrete actions.

We are also working even closer with Allies, and the European Union, to identify, monitor, and expose disinformation.

And to respond robustly.  


Finally, we considered the long-term implications of this health crisis.

For our societies, and for the world around us.

The geo-political effects of the pandemic could be significant.

Some may seek to use the economic downturn as an opening to invest in our critical industries and infrastructure.

Which in turn may affect our long-term security.

And our ability to deal with the next crisis, when it comes.

So ministers had an in-depth discussion on how we prepare for the long-term effects of COVID-19.

It is too soon to draw the final conclusions.

  • But it is clear that we must further bolster the resilience of our societies.
  • Better plan for pandemics in the future.
  • Protect our critical industries.
  • And improve our business continuity planning.

Ministers agreed a set of recommendations to strengthen our resilience.

  • By updating our existing baseline requirements for civil preparedness, based on the lessons from the crisis.
  • And by working even closer with our international partners.
  • So it is significant that today, we were also joined by the European Union, by the EU High Representative, and our close partners Finland and Sweden.

Because COVID-19 is a threat to all of us.

And together, we can emerge stronger from this unprecedented crisis.

The featured Photo: MADRID, SPAIN- In the photos, members of the Spanish Air Force unload aid supplies from the Czech Republic, in Madrid, Spain on March 29, 2020. A C-130 cargo plane from the Spanish Air Force that transports 10,000 protective medical suits donated by the Czech Republic land at Torrejon Air Base, Spain as part of allied efforts to combat the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. (via REUTERS)



  1. Tony Osborne, “Airlift Initiative Propels NATO COVID-19 Efforts,” Aviation Week Network (April 15, 2020) lorem ipsum dolar…
  2. The comments by the Deputy Secretary of NATO have been taken by the article by David A. Wemer, “NATO Allies Have Stepped up to help each other during Coronavirus emergency,” The New Atlanticist (April 16, 2020),
  3. Pierre Tran, “France and Germany Cooperate in Coronavirus Crisis,” (March 29, 2019),
  4. Derek Challet, “Where is NATO? Where is Trump?,” Defense One (April 13, 2020),