French general to assume top NATO post in U.S. this week


Regular Member
Aug 3, 2009
In his wildest imagination, Gen. Stéphane Abrial never envisioned taking up the job he will begin Wednesday.In a ceremony on an aircraft carrier at Norfolk Naval Station, Abrial, now chief of staff of the French Air Force, will be installed as the new commander of NATO’s Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk.

It will be a historic moment for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization: the first time since the alliance’s founding 60 years ago that a European officer has been appointed to the top post at its U.S. headquarters.Abrial is one of two French generals to assume top NATO commands since French President Nicolas Sarkozy brought his nation back into NATO’s military structure in March.

An earlier effort to reintegrate France into the alliance in the 1990s failed because of mistrust and misperceptions on both sides, Abrial said at a get-acquainted meeting with local reporters last week. The idea seemed dead until Sarkozy resuscitated it this year. “The president talked to me about it in May, the official announcement was made in June, and now here I am,” Abrial said with a smile. “That’s the way we operate in France – by surprise.”

France’s return to the NATO military command seemed almost as abrupt as its departure under Sarkozy’s predecessor Charles de Gaulle in an assertion of French sovereignty in 1966.

“De Gaulle feared that France might become engaged in a conflict that it didn’t want to be in,” Abrial said. “But France has been a player in every single NATO engagement since then. So at some point you have to ask: How does it help us to be outside the military structure but to always be involved when something goes wrong?

“Now we are part of the club, and there’s no reason for any kind of mutual suspicion. It’s much better to be inside than outside.”Abrial has spent a large portion of his career serving outside France. He was an exchange cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy in the 1970s and attended the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., in the early 1990s. His 17-year-old daughter, the older of his two children, was born there. He has also served with the German and Greek air forces, helped liberate Kuwait during the first Gulf War, and spent three years on NATO’s international military staff in Brussels.

Abrial, who turns 55 today, is the son and grandson of soldiers. He began flying combat jets in 1976 and kept his flying qualifications current until he was named to the three-year NATO post. Now, he says with a twinge of regret, he’ll be a full-time desk jockey.

The Transformation Command’s mission is to help NATO retool to confront emerging 21st century security threats while supporting ongoing NATO operations – principally, at the moment, the six-year effort to prop up the government of Afghanistan.

The Afghanistan operation has grown from 5,000 to more than 50,000 troops since NATO took it over in 2003, the majority of them American but including soldiers from all 28 NATO member nations.

The commander of the operation, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has said it will be a long slog and has hinted he will ask for still more troops. August was the deadliest month yet for American forces there. Some critics are warning of a Vietnam-style quagmire.One thing is clear, Abrial said: “You cannot solve the crisis only with military means. … If you ask me, are we going to win? I can only say, I hope so.”Abrial takes over the NATO post from Marine Gen. James Mattis, who will retain his second job as head of the U.S. Joint Forces Command.

The change-of-command ceremony will be held aboard the carrier Eisenhower – an appropriate setting, Abrial said, considering the ship’s namesake, Dwight Eisenhower: former president, NATO’s first supreme commander and leader of Allied forces in Europe during World War II.“He organized and led the operations to free my country,” Abrial said. “It’s a very good symbol.”

ASIAN DEFENCE: French general to assume top NATO post in U.S. this week

Latest Replies

Global Defence