HEADQUARTERS, ALLIED COMMAND TRANSFORMATION, NORFOLK, VIRGINIA: A new era is dawning for NATO — though no one knows quite what it means. Now Allied Command Transformation, the only NATO organization headquartered on US soil, is driving an overhaul of how the alliance trains, strategizes, and shares the burden among its increasingly cash-strapped members in a post-Afghanistan, post-”Pacific pivot” world.

That’s a tough task when NATO must make do with what its 28 member nations choose to contribute, each on its own terms. In Afghanistan, some NATO contingents have fought hard — France has lost 86 troops, Canada 158, Britain 438 — but others have been largely kept out of combat by “caveats” imposed by their home countries. In Libya, a European-led operation helped oust Muammar Gaddafi but struggled with intelligence-sharing and shortages of smart bombs. And back in Europe, the alliance has struggled since 2003 to stand up a 13,000-strong crisis-response unit called the NATO Response Force, NRF.

The NRF is short of helicopters, command-and-control equipment, force protection gear, and “there is no logistic tail present ever,” one frustrated European general told over 240 officers from 52 nations, both NATO members and partners, at ACT’s annual Chiefs of Transformation Conference in Norfolk, Va. (I and two other reporters were allowed to attend on the condition that we did not identify participants by name).

“Nobody in this room is going to tell me we don’t have this shit in our inventory,” the general fumed. “It’s all about will to commit.”

ACT has now developed plans to strengthen NRF and to overhaul multinational training and exercises across the board, having taken over all NATO training programs (historically run out of another NATO HQ in Belgium) as of December 1st. Those proposals now await approval by the alliance’s 28-member Military Committee. “The ambition we recommend is an annual LIVEX [Live Exercise] for the NATO response force,” said the general. “That is obviously going to be a challenge.”

But realistic training will only become more important to the unity and relevance of the alliance. NATO units in Afghanistan worked together of necessity, but as the war winds down, that enforced intimacy will wither away unless replaced by regular multinational exercises. It’s what one officer called a “back to the future” moment, because such training was the alliance’s main activity during the Cold War, when the national independence of NATO’s European members depended on readiness to respond rapidly to threats.

“The crisis won’t wait for us, so our forces should be ready, and that’s where I see a major role for the NATO Response Force,” said Jean-Paul Paloméros, the four-star French Air Force general who took over ACT as “Supreme Allied Commander – Transformation” just three months ago.

In last year’s Libyan war, where Paloméros played a leading role as the French Air Force chief of staff, allied aircraft launched their first strikes within 36 hours of the UN Security Council passing its long-awaited resolution.

“Why were we able to come together…in less than two days?” asked Paloméros, speaking to reporters after his remarks to the conference. “Because we trained together, because we know, we trust each other, because we are interoperable.”

NATO’s European members need to get their multinational act together because the United States has lost its post-9/11 appetite to take the lion’s share of operations, as it did in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US is disbanding two Army brigades now based in Europe, shifting forces to the Pacific under its new Asia-focused strategy, and expecting the Europeans to take on a larger burden. But as ominously as sequestration and budget cuts loom in the US, the interminable economic crisis has hit Europe — and its already anemic defense spending — even harder.

“The balance is changing day by day,” said Paloméros. “The commitment of the US in Europe will change, we know that. [American leaders] are very clear on the allies and the European Union taking its full role in NATO, and that’s why I’m here,” a European officer in charge of a US-based command, he told reporters Tuesday: “This is not simply for the beauty of getting a different color of uniform.”

Until 2009, Paloméros noted, Allied Command Transformation was always headed by a US officer, not a European. That American also served as chief of the US Joint Forces Command, which tended to overshadow the NATO outfit. JFCOM was dissolved last year, leaving ACT on its own — but, Paloméros’s staff argued, in a good way.

“With the demise of JFCOM I was concerned [that] we would be less effective. The reverse has happened,” said ACT’s chief of staff, a Royal Navy Vice Admiral with the impeccably British name of Tony Johnstone-Burt.

“Before JFCOM was a system we had to go through to reach the Pentagon; now we don’t have that. Gen. Flynn has become a really good friend,” said Johnstone-Burt, referring to Lt. Gen. George Flynn, the head of Joint Force Development (directorate J-7) on the Joint Staff. “I’m on the phone all the time.”

Johnstone-Burt’s American deputy for capabilities development agreed. “I will be very frank with you,” Vice Adm. Carol Pottenger told reporters. “I think that we, ACT, now have more opportunity, better connections, higher visibility, increased leverage, in the United States because we now talking directly to the joint staff and there’s no intermediary. [It's now] just like other nations where we other nations can talk straight to capitals,” without any intermediary: “It’s much more effective.”

So ACT is becoming increasingly important to the Alliance. Besides its new training mission, the command also plays a central role in the alliance’s laborious NATO Defense Planning Process (NDPP) to rebalance the burden among member nations. “There’s a series of negotiations underway at the moment where my team is going around each capital saying, ‘All right, Country B, here are your targets… Are you happy to accept those?” said Johnstone-Burt. “[Then] we need to come to a compromise.”

The whole process depends on consensus, one of the major limits of the alliance. (While American defense planners often find Congress frustrating, at least it operates by majority rule). “ACT doesn’t work for itself….We work for the countries,” said Paloméros. “At the end of the day every country develops its own vision according to what it can do.”

“There is always a degree of friction in trying to get to an agreed position and we probably take longer than most organizations to do there,” acknowledged Johnstone-Burt, “but once we’re there, boy, is it hugely powerful, hugely powerful, when you get 28 nations all agreeing.”

That agreement is harder to come by in today’s uncertain world than it was in the face of a monolithic Soviet threat. But let’s not get nostalgic for the clarity of the Cold War, Gen. Paloméros told the assembled officers at the ACT conference. Once upon a time, he acknowledged, NATO existed in “a stable, predictable world with predictable threats… a known potential enemy… increasing defense budgets… and thoroughly rehearsed plans.” But for Eastern Europeans living under Communist oppression, and for everyone living in fear of nuclear annihilation, he said, “it was a nightmare.”

So let’s be grateful for the messy world we have — and try to manage it a little better.