"Forward Defence"

A NATO Archives seminar on NATO's Early Military Planning for Central Europe

  • 09 Dec. 2013 -
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  • Last updated: 22 Apr. 2014 16:32

Following the pattern established in 2011, the NATO Archives Committee meeting of December 2013 ended with a seminar. Its subject was the "forward defence" strategy developed by NATO at the turning point of the 1950s and 60s to defend Central Europe.

The seminar was held at NATO HQ (Luns Theatre) and brought together a panel of military history experts invited specially for this occasion. It coincided with the publication of the first five volumes of SHAPE Histories (1952-1958) and the declassification and public disclosure of the first volumes of the AFCENT (Allied Forces Central Europe) Histories (1956-1959). These are documents of great historical value, shedding new light on NATO's initial defence plans for Central Europe.

Following an introduction by Mr Wayne Bush (Assistant Secretary General for Executive Management), discussions were led by Mr Diego Ruiz-Palmer (Head of ESA Unit) with contributions by three experts: Professor Jan Hoffenaar (Dutch Institute of Military History, The Hague), Dr Dieter Krüger (Germany Centre of Military History, Potsdam) and Dr Gregory Pedlow (SHAPE historian, Casteau).

With the delightful mix of expertise and humour that is typical of NATO Archives seminars, the four contributors took turns to present an aspect of the subject and then answered the many questions posed by those present (some of whom, and Dr Krüger, had served in NATO forces stationed in Germany during the Cold War).

Several ideas which emerged from the discussion made a particular impression.

  • The spirit of NATO is in the tradition of France-United Kingdom alliances during the two world wars: look at what unites (democracy, common interests, powerful enemy) rather than what divides (text of the Franco-British Treaty of Dunkirk, pdf /365KB).  Despite occasional internal differences and thanks to the support of the United States, SHAPE has been able to meet the challenge of guaranteeing its members' security, as successive enlargements went ahead and without human losses.
  • NATO's defence strategy evolved during the 1950s and 60s, driven by successive SACEURs, in consultation with the member states and following military and political considerations. The defence plans were flexible and based on nuclear deterrence (Employment of atomic weapons in manoeuvers and exercices, pdf /338KB). They were intended for the defence of borders rather than invasion of enemy territory. Troop strength (much reduced in 1949) increased to a peak in the 1950s, and then diminished and stabilized at an intermediate level in the 1970s and 80s.
  • Germany's role grew during the 1950s (Planning for forward strategy, pdf /197KB). It joined NATO in 1954 and was permitted to form an army in 1955. The German General Johan Graf Von Kielmansegg was appointed CINCENT in 1966 and became his country's security spokesman. The line of defence (initially on the Rhine) was moved to the centre of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in 1958, then to the Iron Curtain itself in 1963 at the request of the FRG and spurred on by the United States. The idea was to defend the entirety of the member nations (including the FRG and the Netherlands) and to be as close as possible to Berlin to give assistance if necessary.

In conclusion, Mr Ruiz-Palmer said that he hoped researchers would receive additional resources to work on their theories (for example, on the strategy of the Warsaw Pact in the event of open conflict).  He called upon the various archive services concerned to declassify more documents on this subject and this period.