NATO has a long history of developing defense standards. The alliance began working on standardization in 1951 when it established the Military Standardization Agency (MAS) and since then has developed and promulgated defense standards covered by Standardization Agreements (STANAGs). The STANAGs are covering NATO standards related to technologies, components, tactics, techniques, procedures and doctrines. More than 1,200 STANAGs have been promulgated throughout and by NATO.

The STANAGs provide for operational and technical standards for some or all Alliance members with the objective being to enhance NATO interoperability. Therefore, while NATO Allies own and utilize different weapons systems the NATO Standards are designed to provide for a minimum level of interoperability between systems and the interchangeability of replacement components.

Overall, NATO develops defense standards in the following main ways:

  • NATO Standardization Agreements (STANAGs): as mentioned, STANAGs are documents whereby allied members agree to fully or partially implement a standard for the purposes of interoperability in any given operational, capability and/or industrial domain;
  • NATO Standardization Recommendations (STANRECs): STANRECs are documents which specify standards from NATO and/or non-NATO sources that could be used for a specific system or component by NATO Allies; and European armaments standardization
  • Allied Publications (APs): APs are standardization documents covered by STANAGs or STANRECs and which authorize the use of a standard based on the consent of several or all NATO Allies. Occasionally, APs serve as the basis for Multinational Publications (MPs) so that non-NATO nations can make use of NATO standards too without a breach of confidential information.

Without having led to the complete standardization of systems, the STANAGs are non-binding and flexible enough to allow for three levels of standardization including, compatibility, interchangeability and commonality. Each of these levels of standardization applies to operational and administrative procedures and armaments. Additionally, each of these objectives represents a different degree of standardization with compatibility representing the lowest level and commonality the highest level.

NATO’s organizational procedures for producing, maintaining and managing standards involve multiple stakeholders (e.g. governments, militaries, industry) in a process that begins with the identification of a standardization requirement at the higher level of political authority. The process then continues with the technical work on the standardization through specialized NATO bodies. The NATO Directive AAP-03 defines the procedures for the production, maintenance and management of NATO Standardization Documents.

NATO recognizes the ISO definition of a standard, which is ‘a document, established by consensus and approved by a recognized body, which provides for common and repeated use, rules, guidelines or characteristics for activities or their results aimed at the achievement of the optimum degree of order in a given context’.

Such a definition has guided NATO efforts to enhance Allied interoperability. In this regard, NATO standardizes in three main areas or ways: management, operations and materiel. ‘Management standardization’ centres on the development of rules, policies and regulations through the adoption of common terminology.

‘Operational standardization’ focuses on doctrine, training and logistics. ‘Material standardization’ involves the development of standards for research, materiel testing, development, production and procurement and life cycle management.

It is important to note that according to NATO Policy for Standardization, the Alliance has no sanctioning mechanism for allies who choose not to adopt and use the STANAGs. The Alliance’s work in encouraging the proliferation and use of NATO standards is focused on networking, the sharing of best practices from operations and armaments production and consistent awareness raising at the highest political level.

The Alliance has a proven set of institutions and bodies that deal with the question of defense standardization. Located at the higher political echelons of NATO, the Committee for Standardization (CS) plays a lead role in developing and adopting NATO standards and for working with civil standards. In essence, the Committee guides all of the alliance’s work on standardization and it provides guidance to all relevant NATO bodies and agencies. Created in 2001, the CS is composed of 29 senior representatives (and more than 30 partner countries through NATO’s ‘Interoperability Platform’) from all NATO Allied member countries and it answers directly to the North Atlantic Council (NAC). The Committee meets at least twice a year and it produces annual reports for the NAC. The CS is chaired by two permanent co-chairs deal with the day-to-day administration of the Committee: the co-chairs are the Deputy Chairman of NATO’s Military Committee (MC) and the Assistant Secretary General for Defence Investment.

In addition, to these bodies the alliance draws on the expertise of the NATO Standardization Office, which, since 2014, has pursued day-to-day work and progress on standards within the alliance. Formerly known as the NATO Standardization Agency, and operating under the direct authority of the CS and the supervision of the MC, the NSO presides over the alliance’s standardization databases (known as the NATO Standardization Documents Database (NSDD) and the Terminology Database (NATOTerm) and it serves as a networking mechanism between stakeholders from allied governments, militaries and industry on all aspects of defense-relevant standards. A core task of the NSO is to provide the MC with support in developing operational standards, and the Office also serves as a liaison for the MC’s Standardization Boards (MCSBs), as well as playing a consultative role during the NATO Defense Planning Process (NDPP). The NSO is directly supported in its work by the NATO Standardization Staff Group (NSSG), which is comprised of staff-level Policy Department, Directorate-General for External Policies experts and administrators that are tasked with facilitating and promoting standardization activities and processes across the NATO institutional framework. The NSO is also responsible for communicating and partnering with civil standardization bodies.

With specific regard to standardization of weapons systems, the Conference of National Armaments Directors (CNAD) plays a vital role in NATO because it is the body tasked with enhancing military interoperability between allies. It does this by identifying areas of potential collaboration in the areas of research, development, production and procurement of weapons systems and military equipment.

Created in 1966 and directly reporting to the NAC, the Conference meets biannually under the chairmanship of the Assistant Secretary General for Defense Investment. The work of the CNAD is supported by a number of Main Armaments Groups (MAGs) focusing respectively on land, air and naval armaments issues.

Additionally, the CNAD is supported on industrial issues by the NATO Industrial Advisory Group (NIAG). Composed of senior industrialists and established in 1968, the NIAG is responsible for providing the CNAD and NAC with technical advice on a range of industrial issues and it proposes potential areas of armaments collaboration between allies by bringing together industrial, governmental and military stakeholders.

Additionally, the CNAD is supported by NATO’s Defense Investment Division (DID) within the International Staff. The DID works on developing alliance capabilities and interoperability and the Armaments Directorate (AD) supports the DID and the CNAD with expertise and administration.

The DID is supported on armaments standardization by NATO Headquarters, Consultation, Command and Control Staff (NHQC3S) too, which also has a responsibility for developing and influencing standards within the alliance. The NHQC3S is a joint body shared by the DID and the International Military Staff (IMS) and it supports the development of standards in relation to C2 and cyber matters.

In this regard, the NHQC3S advises the NAC, the MC and the Consultation, Command and Control Board (C3B). The C3B meets biannually and it reports to the NAC, and, as well as advising the CNAD, it helps to recommend standards in relation to communication and informatics, navigation, cyber and dual-use capabilities. It oversees the work on NATO’s Interoperability Standards and Profiles (NISP) catalogue of command, control and communication (C3) standards too.

For more information on the NATO Standardization Structure, Policy, Process, Activities and Products please visit the NSO Website following the link https://nso.nato.int/nso/

Source note:

The information provided in this section is part of the Study on “European Armaments Standardization' - EP/EXPO/B/SEDE/FWC/2017-01/01 EN October 2018 - PE 603.872 – European Parliament - Directorate General for External Policies of the Union - Policy Department for External Relations. The “European Armaments Standardization” Study can be found here