Although NATO today faces threats from more unconventional enemies, its need to forge a strong trans-Atlantic Alliance remains as essential to its success as ever, says Thomas Enders. Throughout the Cold War, the Berlin Wall signified the tension and distrust between the capitalist, democratic West and the communist, authoritarian East.

No other symbol of the era conveys the sense of divide – the Iron Curtain – so vividly as the concrete and barbed wire that cleaved Berlin. Today, in marking the 20th anniversary of the Wall’s fall and the restoration of freedom throughout all of Germany, it is important that we also consider the current state of the trans-Atlantic security relationship and the future of the NATO Alliance as it drafts a new Strategic Concept.

Some 30 years ago, NATO centered its military planning on the specter of a Soviet armored thrust through the Fulda Gap and into the heart of Western Europe. Faced with this threat, the Alliance focused solely on the defense of Europe against a modern, conventionally armed and highly mobile enemy. With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, today’s Fulda Gap is not found in central Germany, but in the mountains of Afghanistan, at the Horn of Africa, and in cyberspace, to name just a few frontiers of current or potential combat.

NATO must confront these challenges as it did during the Cold War – with a joint, cohesive posture that focuses the collective strength of the Alliance and protects the mutual interests of its trans-Atlantic members. The centerpiece of this policy should revolve around an Alliance-wide commitment to adequate resources and a continued modernization drive to meet current and future needs.

Resources, or the lack thereof, have long been an issue of contention among Alliance members. During the Cold War, the sheer bulk of Soviet military-might threatened to overrun Europe before reinforcements could be rushed across the Atlantic. Under those conditions, the combination of tailored, heavy European forces supplemented by forward deployed U.S. forces and nuclear weapons served as an effective deterrent against Soviet aggression. Based on this construct, countries coordinated force planning efforts and worked to build specialized capabilities among members, thus reducing redundant independent national force structures and stretching available defense funding. Though there were disagreements at times, this trans-Atlantic approach, built on the inherent cooperation that forms the foundation of the Alliance, proved its value.

Today, the tests facing the Atlantic Alliance, including the modern phenomenon of “hybrid warfare,” are different, but the resource issue is similar. The progressive recognition by NATO of the need to confront security risks quite unlike the Soviet threat has continued, even exacerbated, the demands on force structure and resources – as exemplified by deployments in the Balkans and now Afghanistan. Given the current political environment, however, where many member countries are unwilling to increase their respective defense budgets, NATO is faced with the need to get more from less.

It is exceedingly clear that there are no simple answers to this resource question. Yet, in a very significant way, an examination of the past provides much of the answer – trans-Atlantic cooperation. The same principles that formed NATO’s response to the Warsaw Pact threat – military specialization and mutual dependency among countries – can again be harnessed today to contend with current challenges. Efficiencies and greater effectiveness can be found in a truly shared approach to force structure across the Atlantic.

One approach to addressing this problem is to take advantage of the recent appointment of French General Stéphane Abrial as head of NATO’s Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia. General Abrial can build on his predecessor’s excellent work and inject energy and focus into what had become a moribund effort to transform NATO’s doctrine, tactics and force structure. A critical element of this transformation effort must be the full acceptance of the economic principle of specialization. Because few countries can afford to field a military capable of meeting the full spectrum of 21st-century threats – whether they be conventional, hybrid, or even based on nation-building scenarios – mutual reliance among members for specialized military skills is imperative. General Abrial’s position and stature as a European general officer afford him the ability to tackle this issue head-on and coordinate specialization among NATO militaries. It is his mandate.

As part of this drive toward specialization, the Alliance should also look toward maximizing scarce budgetary resources through coordinated development efforts. From an industrial perspective, collaboration in the development and production of advanced capabilities can offer substantial material benefits. Clearly, NATO cannot afford to make multiple, redundant financial expenditures to field just one required military capability. The returns provided by a coordinated development process in terms of efficient resource allocation, interoperability, reduced logistic burden, and political alignment are too obvious to be ignored. Yet, given the political volatility of mutual dependency among countries, technology transfer issues, and industrial base evolution, it is necessary to pick a few high-leverage opportunities – the low-hanging fruit – and capitalize on those programs first.

Fortunately, there are several key trans-Atlantic programs where such successes can be achieved. One effort is the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), the sole effort for modernizing air defenses throughout the Alliance. Notably, the U.S., which is heavily invested in this program, intends to rely on the system to protect its deployed forces around the world. Though it is not without its challenges, MEADS is a case where real industrial cooperation can advance a critical capability across the Alliance.

Similar focus is required in other areas, foremost of which is the area of advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. The recently launched Alliance Ground Surveillance program, which brings advanced unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) abilities to the battlefield, is one such crucial collaborative modernization program. Its lengthy gestation period should not unduly cloud the positive benefits this opportunity offers. On a bilateral basis, the Eurohawk program also promises to significantly enhance the German military’s effectiveness through the integration of German-developed electronic intelligence payloads and ground stations with the U.S. Global Hawk platform. Next-generation European UAVs now under development might equally offer possibilities for military and industrial cooperation in the years to come.

Like UAVs, Alliance strategic mobility shortfalls can also be tackled through a trans-Atlantic partnership. The Airbus A400M military airlifter, which will very soon take to the skies, will provide strategic and tactical lift for nine countries. As the U.S. looks to address a future airlift modernization requirement, it makes sense to leverage the investment partner countries have already made in the aircraft, thus freeing up resources that can be applied to other defense priorities.

Finally, it is important to consider trans-Atlantic cooperation as NATO and other allied countries replace and modernize their respective aerial refueling tanker fleets. Largely unrecognized in the widely debated U.S. Air Force tanker competition are the potential benefits Northrop Grumman and EADS/Airbus bring with the KC-45 offer (based on the A330 long-range aircraft). With the UK and Australia already committed to a Multirole Tanker Transport essentially identical to the KC-45, an opportunity for a largely common fleet flown by the U.S., U.K., Australia, and ultimately France, exists.

These suggestions are by no means the only ways to move the Alliance forward. That said, when such opportunities for trans-Atlantic cooperation are present, every effort must be made to extract the most benefit possible. Failure to take advantage of these situations results in little more than squandered financial resources and decreased military capability and interoperability among Alliance members.

For much of its history, NATO successfully partnered across the Atlantic and executed a strategy of deterrence to avoid war against a massive, conventional force. Now, in perhaps a defining moment, the Alliance finds itself embroiled in battle on a very distant front with an unexpected enemy posing a different, but equally grave, threat to long-term peace and security. In confronting the challenge of adapting its forces to this evolving threat, NATO must refocus on the trans-Atlantic foundation that served it so well for 60 years. Further collaboration on force structure and specialization, doctrine transformation, and equipment modernization will strengthen the Alliance and ensure that for every invested euro, pound, or dollar, NATO fields the best capability possible.

Thomas Enders is President and Chief Executive Officer of Airbus.

This piece is selected from Freedom’s Challenge, an Atlantic Council publication commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.