CNN exclusive: Inside NATO as it faces fire from Trump

The people in charge of NATO's future
The people in charge of NATO's future

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The people in charge of NATO's future 01:43

Story highlights

  • CNN got an exclusive peek recently into the work of NATO's futurists
  • Trump has repeatedly questioned whether it's worth the price paid by the U.S.

(CNN)Donald Trump might label NATO "obsolete," but the multinational defense organization insists it is cutting edge and changing with the times.

NATO even has an entire strategic-level headquarters devoted to "transformation" -- meaning getting it ready for the future -- and it's located not in Europe, like most of NATO's infrastructure, but just a few hours south of Washington.
    Its job is ensuring that NATO has the structure, capabilities, troops, tanks, airplanes and equipment needed to confront any threats. As it faces a new era, NATO even has a team looking at cyberwarfare and next month plans to make cyber an official operational domain of warfare, along with air, sea, land and space,
    CNN got an exclusive peek recently into the work of NATO's futurists in interviews with top officials and a tour of the NATO Allied Command Transformation, or ACT, headquarters, where dozens of varied uniforms were on display as officers from all of NATO's 28 member countries toiled on ways to enhance its military capabilities.
    What Trump says about NATO and what it actually does
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    The man tasked with overseeing the transformation and modernization, French Gen. Denis Mercier, did not directly refer to Trump but was eager to defend the organization and its forward-looking posture.
    NATO, he told CNN, is at "a turning point."
    The military alliance was founded in 1949 to provide a Western bulwark against the Soviet Union and ensure that U.S. forces could get to the European continent in the event of war with the Soviets. The centerpiece of the alliance is a mutual defense pact contained in Article 5.
    In 2016, however, the GOP's presumptive nominee has repeatedly questioned whether it's worth the price paid by the United States -- the alliance's largest funder since support is based on a share of each nation's GDP.

    Trump attacks

    In a major foreign policy address in April, Trump said the organization has an "outdated" structure. NATO, he said, needed to "confront our shared challenges, including migration and Islamic terrorism."
    On Friday, NATO's chairman of the military committee, Czech Gen. Petr Pavel, slammed Trump's stance, saying Russian "President (Vladimir) Putin and some others may be pleased by this approach." But Pavel called it "a great mistake" in an interview with Reuters.
    Mercier maintained that NATO is already adapting -- deploying forces to fight al Qaeda and ISIS, working to contain ever-evolving types of insurgent warfare and helping combat human trafficking and the migrant crises on the high seas.
    "We've all seen the changes in the security environment evolving over the last number of years," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Lofgren, deputy chief of staff for capability development at the Norfolk headquarters. "We're adapting -- again -- to this new security environment which gives us challenges in really all directions."
    In fact, the transformation command was established in 2002 shortly after 9/11 -- the only time NATO members have invoked Article 5. The command is one of only two NATO strategic-level headquarters and the only one in the United States. It is located in America because the U.S. is viewed as having the most innovative military and the alliance wants members to learn from that innovation.
    NATO led the international military intervention in Afghanistan and launched an operation in October 2001 deploying ships, submarines and aircraft to the Mediterranean to fight terror activity. And NATO continues to train certain Muslim countries to combat the scourge.
    But Magnus Nordenman, director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, gave the efforts of the transformation command only a "C," saying, "It has absolutely made useful contributions but probably has not been leveraged by the alliance as much as it could be."
    Mercier acknowledged more could be done. "There are many initiatives ongoing and we can do more," he said.
    He pointed to areas of collaboration, including an initiative led by his command to share military innovations to protect troops, civilians and critical infrastructure against suicide attacks, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), rocket attacks against aircraft and helicopters and attacks using chemical, biological or radiological material.
    In February, NATO also sent seven ships to the Aegean Sea that "are working against the trafficking of human beings in the migrant crisis," Mercier said. And he noted that Iraq may be another place where NATO can play a role strengthening local forces.
    He said that countries fighting ISIS "employ NATO concept and doctrine," even if not they're not under NATO command, thereby making them much more effective and able to work together.

    NATO puts greater emphasis on intel

    A NATO official told CNN the alliance is also considering the creation a new senior intelligence chief post that would facilitate the sharing of military intelligence among member nations, a key tool in the battle against ISIS, as critics have placed some of the blame for the attacks in Paris and Brussels on the lack of adequate intelligence sharing.
    Meanwhile, some of the original threats remain, and NATO still sees defending Western interests on continental Europe as key to its mission.
    Mercier's command, for instance, is closely tracking the capabilities of Russian advanced integrated anti-aircraft sensors and missiles.
    "We see that the relation we have with Russia and the problems we have with terrorists, these are challenges not for the short term," he said.
    His headquarters oversees NATO's military exercises, the most recent of which -- Trident Juncture 15 -- involved 36,000 allied troops from 30 countries operating primarily in the Mediterranean Sea area. According to NATO, these exercises are geared toward improving the alliance's operational effectiveness and speed, an increasing focus for NATO's militaries in the face of Russia's recent intervention in Ukraine.
    "The more ambitious we are with our exercises, the better they are," Mercier said.
    On Monday, NATO members launched a new exercise, Anaconda-16, in Poland, an effort that includes some 31,000 troops from Poland, the U.S. and 17 other NATO member nations. It's the biggest training exercise ever to take place in Poland.
    But there is one area that Mercier, Trump -- and Hillary Clinton -- agree on: American allies can pay more of their share of the burden.
    Clinton last week said, "Yes, our friends need to contribute their fair share. I made that point long before Donald Trump came onto the scene -- and a number of them have increased their defense spending. The real debate here is whether we keep these alliances strong or cut them off."

    Who's going to pay for it?

    Mercier has called on allies to pony up additional resources for defense, noting that while many allies are increasing their defense budgets, they need to do even more. "We need a huge commitment from the nations to invest in their defense" to meet the NATO target of 2% of GDP spent on defense, he said.
    While direct funding of NATO is proportionate to national income, the U.S. spends much more on its military that the other members combined, and NATO has been pushing its participating countries to boost their defense spending to enhance their capabilities, allowing them a greater punch.
    Mercier wants that additional money to be spent on 16 "priority shortfall" areas that had been identified, including more aviation assets, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, and high-end capabilities for land forces.
    He also highlighted how NATO had enabled member countries to pool their resources to jointly acquire Maritime Patrol Aircraft, a critical asset in the face of increasingly aggressive Russian submarine patrols in the Atlantic.
    "NATO actually offers a great venue where nations are willing to talk freely about where are they trying to go, what are they trying to do, and we put that in the context of what are the security challenges that we as the alliance see and may face in the future," Lofgren said.
    And Mercier is particularly concerned about cyber warfare, calling it a "main issue" and highlighting the risk of terrorist groups like ISIS developing cyberwarfare capabilities.
    Mercier has a cyber team in Norfolk examining this issue and at the upcoming summit in July, NATO is expected to make cyber an official operational domain of warfare, along with air, sea, land and space, a senior German Defense Ministry official said Wednesday.
    Mercier said that he himself is a sign of the process of change and the new mindset at NATO.
    His own country of France only rejoined NATO's military command in 2009 after a decades-long absence.
    "We are not in the business as usual NATO could have developed during its many years of its existence," he said. "We have a fresh mind and probably it is good to have that in order to lead the NATO transformation."