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NATO Striving to Build Professional NCO Corps

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 9, 2006 – Just as noncommissioned officers and petty officers are the backbone of the U.S. military, they also are increasingly becoming the backbone of NATO, a top U.S. NCO said here today.

Marine Sgt. Maj. Alford L. McMichael, senior noncommissioned officer for NATO's Allied Command for Operations, is at the forefront of that effort. He spoke during a conference of service senior enlisted advisors and combatant command senior enlisted leaders meeting at the Pentagon this week.

McMichael is a former sergeant major of the Marine Corps. He assumed his current position in September 2003 and is the first senior enlisted advisor to the NATO operational commander.

He began his briefing by describing some challenges facing NATO and an presenting overview of how the alliance has changed focus in the past few decades. For starters, decisions are not made with the concept of "majority rules" within NATO, but only by unanimity among the 26 member nations. "Everyone in the room, every nation, has to agree on any proposal," he said.

In 1989, when the Cold War ended, many in the world questioned the necessity for such an alliance. "We had no enemy," McMichael said, "or at least no enemy with a return address."

Ten years later, when NATO led operations to end ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the tide of relevancy was turning for the Atlantic alliance, and member states began to realize they needed to get outside their comfort zone, McMichael said.

The true turning point came with the November 2002 summit in Prague, Czech Republic. The sergeant major said that summit "changed NATO forever." Leaders of member nations recognized they needed to downsize -- of 3 million uniformed members of member states, only 30 percent were combat ready -- and globalize. The idea for the NATO Response Force also came out of that summit.

McMichael today called that response force NATO's "golden jewel." He explained that the force basically fulfills the same role as a Marine expeditionary unit: able to stand up and deploy anywhere in the world within five days and then sustain itself for 30 days.

Another significant change was a realization that NATO forces needed to build a professional NCO corps. Since McMichael was appointed to his position, he has worked to model NCO training programs on U.S. military NCO professional development programs.

"It works for us, and it will work for them," he said.

NATO countries are working together to develop a common standard for NCOs to accept responsibility and successfully execute any mission. NCOs from many NATO nations now receive training in management and leadership techniques to help those NCOs become "the single most effective combat multiplier in the NATO alliance," McMichael said.

He said the seven nations that joined NATO in March 2004 are among the fastest to accept the idea of a professional NCO corps. "We went into it as a team" with those countries, he said.

The sergeant major said he believes the true benefit of these efforts will become evident in future combined operations. "When your soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines see it on the battlefield, that's when it'll pay off," he said. "They won't be with someone on the battlefield with the same pay grade but with no understanding of their level of responsibility."

Still, McMichael said, it's a challenge to ensure these efforts aren't "misconstrued as just another 'ugly American' idea being forced down their throats."

Mobile teams for training and education include 32 instructors from 14 nations, he said.

"Our biggest challenge in the future is not to make it appear that it's the U.S. way or no way," he said, but to bring the other member nations along willingly toward the common goal of a professional NCO corps.

With NATO now sharing in responsibility for training Iraqi forces, McMichael was at the first Iraqi-forces graduation under the NATO Training Mission in Iraq. He said he was impressed with the Iraqi troops' dedication to their cause. "They were pumped up," he said. "You could see it in their eyes."

Still, he added, he is a strong proponent for adding a strong NCO corps to the training plan. "We're training them without a Sergeant York," he said, without a sergeant to "put foot in butt and make sure their rifles are loaded."

McMichael said he believes a development program for a strong NCO corps only improves combat effectiveness in a force. "We need to all speak a common language" to work together effectively, he said of allies working together. "We don't have time to be saying, ... 'Stay out of my (area of operations)' to each other."

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Sgt. Maj. Alford L. McMichael, USMC

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