NATO C2COE History and Background

The initiation of NATO affiliated Centres of Excellence

At the Prague Summit in 2002, Alliance Nations agreed to reorganise the NATO Command Structure. This resulted in the establishment of a network of Centres of Excellence. In 2003, Alliance Nations discussed how the initiative could be best developed. During this conference various member nations offered to sponsor a specific COE, spanning a diverse range of military capabilities.
The concept of COEs, as established by NATO, prescribes in general terms where those centres should add value. Allied Command Transformation’s (ACT) objective is to make NATO a more agile organisation. ACT’s Centres of Excellence deliver specific knowledge to NATO in different functional areas, but above all, they act as ‘agents for change’.

The CoEs are to add value through supporting exercises and assessments; assisting in policy and doctrine development; supporting NATO standardisation, interoperability and the definition of future C2 requirements; and providing training and education.
One key to their role is that they should not duplicate assets and resources or compete with capabilities already available in the NATO Command Structure. As the COEs were seen as tools that support NATO’s transformation, NATO is the preferred customer, with Headquarters, SACT acting as the coordinating agency. At present, there are 17 COEs, hosted by 14 different countries.

Setting up the C2COE

The Netherlands Armed Forces has a history of fielding modern C2 systems in a timely manner to their war fighters. Within the Netherlands Armed Forces, three major C2 Expert Centres already existed, one each for the air, land, and sea services. Historically, these three centres were focused solely on their respective services, but today they work closely together in order to deliver Joint C2 Support.

With the existing focus on Command and Control issues within the Dutch defence community, it was a natural progression for the Netherlands to become a founding partner of an international C2 Centre of Excellence.
In May 2003, The Netherlands officially offered to host a NATO C2 Centre of Excellence, and the offer was enthusiastically received by the NATO community. The NATO C2COE would be focused on improving joint and combined interoperability and would follow appropriate NATO regulations and standards as well as HQ SACT guidance and directives implemented in support of the overall NATO COE Network.

The Dutch Chief of Defence then confirmed this offer by providing a Concept of Operations to the Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SAC-T). The staff design consisted of a Dutch Director and an international Deputy Director leading a staff of 25 people. At end state, the centre would be a multinational, joint, military institution, operating with civilian support. Personnel count would remain at a maximum of 25 for purposes of span of control and efficiency. In the initial phase, The Netherlands, as Framework Nation (FN), provided the manning, funding and support. To facilitate multinational participation, The Netherlands activated the the NATO C2COE as an official International Military Organisation. The organisation would be subdivided into four branches: Operational Assessment, Analysis and Concepts, Expertise Management and Support.

First ideas

In NATO there was no agreed, unambiguous definition of C2. The NATO C2COE established a working definition acceptable to all Sponsoring Nations. The Centre did not claim to have all knowledge in-house, so from the beginning, social networking was of great importance. It was necessary to liaise, cooperate and coordinate with NATO agencies, Expert centres, other Centres of Excellence, academia, research and development centres. They also became an affiliated member of the Net Centric Operations Industry Consortium, the NCOIC.

The NATO C2COE wanted to focus on a bottom up approach, to link up with the operational end user and focus on operational assessments in the tactical, mobile domain. The centre would be linked with the C2 process on the battlefield and in training and exercises. The idea was that when the centre played this role it would be complementary to many more technology driven establishments inside and outside NATO. The COE was to be the ‘eyes and ears on the ground’ for NATO and get realistic insights in the future C2 needs.

Another desired characteristic would be the ability of the NATO C2COE to rapidly get relevant findings back to the commanders on the ground. The centre did not want a bureaucratic feedback-cycle where lessons learned take years to get to the war-fighter.
The ultimate focus of the NATO C2COE was to be its ability to act as a catalyst for NATO transformation by transforming the nation’s capabilities in the field of C2. This required a focus on bringing the operator, with operational experience, into the centre.

Focus areas for the starting COE

The NATO C2COE wanted to focus on a “bottom up” approach by bridging the gap between the operational commanders and higher levels of doctrine-, policy- and system development. Therefore it would have a strong and unique orientation on the “end user” in the C2-process and the manning of the C2COE would as a result consist out of a balanced mix of all disciplines involved in the C2-process. Secondly, the centre wanted to address all aspects of the C2-process (doctrine, organisation, training and education, leadership, systems, personnel and facilities) in the context of the NATO NEC concept, with a strong orientation on lessons learned, interoperability issues, operational architecture and joint experimentations.

More concretely, under coordination with HQ SACT, NATO C2COE was to specifically focus on:

  • Support to NATO exercises and assessment processes (e.g. NATO Response Force assessment);
  • Establishing and maintaining C2-focused relationships with NATO bodies, NATO- and Partner Nations as well as relevant parties outside NATO to network knowledge for the delivery of joint and combined subject matter expertise;
  • Assisting HQ SACT in policy, doctrine, strategy and concept development;
  • Contributing to testing and validating C2-related NATO concepts through experimentation and simulation;
  • Supporting standardisation, interoperability and the definition of operational requirements for future capabilities by contributing C2 subject matter expertise;
  • Providing C2- and NNEC related training and education (e.g. NATO Bi-Strategic Command C2 course).


Under the leadership of Col Ben Vaesen the Centre was trying to establish itself while also performing operational duties. They were contributed to HQ SACT’s C2 assessments of NATO Response Force Four and Five and also helped organise several workshops. Nationally, the blueprint of the CoE was approved early 2006 and HQ SACT had agreed to the CONOPS. By August 2006, the Dutch national nucleus of 11 staff was approved and functioning. All services of the Dutch Armed Forces were represented, along with two international contributions from Norway and the USA. The Norwegian Major Leif Kjellgren was the first multinational contribution to NATO C2COE, but soon followed by an American colleague, Lt Col Terrance Pearson. This first group wrote all relevant documents and formulated a vision and mission for the Centre.

Colleagues’ recollections of this period of time mainly consisted of ‘white board brainstorming sessions’. Unfortunately, the Centre had to say goodbye to their founding director, Col Ben Vaessen, who retired from active duty. His replacement, Col Geerlof Kanis, has been in command of the Centre until June 2011. He then was followed up by Col Toine Visser who got replaced end of 2013. Early October 2006 the crew organised a planning conference where 18 NATO nations were present. This meeting was used to explain the CONOPS and discuss the MOUs. Consequently 7 nations committed to become Sponsoring Nations of the Centre and on June 14th the Memorandum Of Understanding was signed. The initial Sponsoring Nations were Belgium, Germany, Norway, Slovakia, and Spain. The NATO C2COE was internationally established in June 2007. Due to the focused efforts of the entire staff, the C2COE quickly met all stated requirements, and received NATO accreditation on April 4th, 2008. Turkey and the United States joined the NATO C2COE at a later date. On February 7th, Estonia joined the NATO C2COE.

Currently CAPT(NLD N) IJC (Renée) van Pamelen-Hollenberg is directing the centre. The NATO C2COE is manned by 18 people from 8 different nations. In its short existence, the Centre has worked to fulfil its goal of “Catalysing of the Art of C2” by delivering high quality products and information, based on solidly conducted assessments, research and expert intuition. They have been involved in numerous undertakings to improve C2 in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have carried out projects in the NATO Response Forces to assess NATO Network Enabled Capabilities maturity levels. They have organised workshops, seminars and conferences to discuss emerging concepts and lessons learned, and provided their international partners with the opportunity to share their experiences.

The NATO Command and Control Centre of Excellence intends to continue this work for many years to come.