Allied Joint Forces Command Norfolk: The Uber Command


By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

As NATO continues to work its capabilities as an alliance going forward, the common operating procedure protocols, and communication systems provide a 21st Century information based framework for each individual nation to work more effectively together. This also will allow as well for non-NATO European states to become effective coalition partners.

For example, Norway, Finland and Sweden do joint airpower training based on NATO procedures. They do their common airpower training based on leveraging the common NATO language and operating con-ops. For example, in 2018, Laird visited Bodø  airbase where he discussed with Norwegian officers how they trained collectively with their two non-NATO air partners, Finland and Sweden.

Since 2015 the three air forces have shaped a regular flexible training approach which is driven at the wing and squadron pilot level.

According to Major Trond Ertsgaard, Senior Operational Planner and fighter pilot from the 132 Air Wing, “We meet each November, and set the schedule for the next year, but in execution it is very, very flexible. “It is about a bottom-up approach and initiative to generate the training regime.” Squadron pilots regardless of nationality are, if allowed creative tactical freedom, are a unstoppable force for innovation.

The impact on Sweden and Finland has been significant in terms of learning NATO standards and having an enhanced capability to cooperate with the air forces of NATO nations.

The Allied JFC Norfolk is working coalition integration and is very close to accomplish this approach. MoUs have been agreed upon with relevant nations, allowing nations to work more effectively during Joint Operations in concert with operating allied forces; this has been pursued through a collaborative integration approach rather than a top down hierarchical command centered approach.

Ed Timperlake interviewed RADM Stefan D. Pauly, JFCNF, Chief of Staff on March 5, 2021 during our visit to Norfolk. RADM Pauly is an experienced submariner with the German Navy with a strong intelligence background as well. He explained that they are a small command, with less than one hundred officers with a target goal of around 150.

As such, they will not have a top-heavy staff directing in a hierarchical manner. But because they report to the nations, distributed C2 becomes a natural focus of attention–national engagements with national C2 systems plugging-in into JFC Norfolk. The challenge is all nation’s combat assets need to be leveraged and coordinated synergistically with all partners in day-to-day operations.

How best to organize that to create convergent capability?

That is a key focus of how the command works. Similar to other aspects of innovation seen throughout the command cluster, VADM Lewis has focused on having his teams work through new ways to operate to deliver the appropriate combat effect. With regard to NATO, this has meant working new ways to shape coalition integratability, and by shaping agreements with key nations which facilitate such an approach.

They are far from being just a classic “maritime” command because they are focused on the 360-degree Joint Security and Combat Operational High North and North Atlantic Theater, from seabed to space. Critical infrastructure defense is a key point of attention for the command as well, which means that they are focused on the spectrum from peacetime vigilance to war.

RADM Pauly, based on his long service with well-earned submarine and Intel experience, argued that the command is focused on building a command network such that nations can more effectively contribute to a successful coalition combat campaign outcome.

The Admiral unmistakably pointed out that mission coordination across all warfighting domains will ensure that the North Atlantic community can increasingly continue to effectively defend its interests in the Joint Theater of Operations against Russia and other adversaries.

The Russians may have clients they sell weapons platforms and munitions to but do not have allies as do the Europeans or the Americans. Further than that, the Headquarters is already positioned to cope with future challenges within the HQ’s designated Vigilance Area.

The command is finalizing a Joint Operation Guidance.

This is not intended to be an order, but rather a guidance approach to providing coalition leadership. The focus is upon how best to leverage the “coalitionability” of the core MOU nations in the command.[1]

He noted: “The C2 and operational coordination is done in the nations. But how to take that effort cross-nationally and shape a more Joint effective coalition capability?” And that is a key focus of Allied JFC Norfolk.

This approach is clearly innovative and fully in line with how European nations who are serious about defense are addressing ways to enhance their capabilities to defend themselves.

He cited an American officer who suggested an Uber analogy. “UBER meets a need to deliver transport capability to a region. They don’t own the vehicles, but they coordinate those vehicles to deliver the capability.” Substitute “transport capabilities / vehicles” for “operational effects”, and you understood JFC Norfolk’s ambition.

So perhaps one might call this unique NATO Headquarters the Uber command.

[1] For the concept of “coalitionability,” see the presentation by Major General Rex at a Danish-Australian conference in 2015 in Robbin Laird, Joint by Design (2021), pp. 67-69.