Hagel is participating in his last defense ministerial meeting at NATO headquarters. The alliance is addressing the Russian threat in the east and the threat of terrorism on NATO’s southern flank as well as out-of-area threats, but it must continue its efforts to strengthen, he said.
Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its continued efforts to destabilize Ukraine have been met with resolve, the secretary said. NATO forces have confronted Russian military aircraft over the Baltic republics and Poland, he noted, and have conducted exercises in all countries of the east to demonstrate the resolve of collective security.
“We have established a new high-readiness task force that will be poised for deployment within days — not just to its eastern frontier, but wherever it is needed,” Hagel said during a news conference at NATO headquarters.
The alliance is facing threats from terrorist groups, especially from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. NATO is strengthening alliance member Turkey, and allies have been flying missions against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
“Allies are on the front lines combating violent extremism — extremism that has brought tragic violence to Paris and Ottawa,” Hagel said. “NATO allies and partners also make up the backbone of the coalition against ISIL. They have provided critical support for operations in North Africa, and NATO continues to help build peace and security in the Balkans.”
In Afghanistan, NATO has shifted from a combat role to a train-and-assist mission for Afghan security forces, the secretary said. “We transitioned security responsibility to a unity government emerging from the first peaceful, democratic transition in Afghan history,” he added. “Our coalition has trained more than 370,000 members of the Afghan national security forces, helping the Afghan economy to expand more than six-fold since the fall of the Taliban, helping create unprecedented opportunity — and hope — for the people of Afghanistan.”
It is a complicated security environment, and the alliance must face all these security challenges, Hagel said. “This means being prepared for the full spectrum of missions, and building NATO’s military capability and readiness, which has been the focus of our discussions today,” he said.
The alliance has transformed in the past, and Hagel traced the evolution of NATO in his lifetime. Through the end of the Cold War, he said, NATO focused on the imperative of territorial defense and deterring Soviet aggression.
The fall of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact led to a second stage, he continued, with the alliance responding to conflict in the Balkans and conducting major out-of-area military operations in Afghanistan and Libya.
“Now, in its third phase, the alliance and its members must be prepared to address all of these challenges at once — territorial defense and hybrid warfare on its eastern frontier, stability operations on its southern periphery, and out-of-area operations such as our training mission in Afghanistan and coalition counter-ISIL operations in Iraq,” he said.
Hagel said he is concerned with suggestions that NATO can handle only one threat, and that he is worried about a division between northern and southern allies. “This is a time for unity, shared purpose, and wise, long-term investments across the spectrum of military capability,” he said. “We must address all the challenges to this alliance, all together and all at once.”
This will be tough, the secretary said, but it can be done. The alliance can “meet the challenges of the day and defend our deeply held and shared values,” he added.
NATO remains the only global anchor of collective security in the world today, Hagel said.
“It must continually adapt to the challenges of our time, and be strengthened with leadership, commitment and resources,” he said. “This is a legacy that all our nations must honor — and uphold — for many generations to come.”
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)