Updated: January 2006 NATO Publications


The beginnings of NATO's military structure

1. Birth of the Alliance to the fall of the Berlin Wall

  1. Birth of the Alliance to the fall of the Berlin Wall
  2. The Issue of "Command"
 3. Building the military structure
 4. The military commitee adapts its work
 5. End of one era, transition to another
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Two Belgian workmen mark out the area on the site of the "new" NATO Headquarters in Brussels, in March 1967. It is home to the NATO Secretary General and support staff; national military delegations from NATO and Partner countries; the International Military Staff; and the Military Committee, which shapes military direction from political guidance and provides consensus-based military advice to NATO's civilian authorities. The other Belgian-based NATO headquarters is near Mons, less than an hour southwest of Brussels, where the Alliance's military operations are planned and coordinated.

More than five decades since NATO's founding, it is hard to imagine that the Organisation did not always have the complex military and political structures that have long been key features of its decision-making process. When the Alliance was created by the Washington Treaty of 4 April 1949, it possessed very little in the way of political structures and virtually no military establishments.

The first organisational structures were created by the Washington Treaty itself. Article 9 established a Council that became known as the North Atlantic Council (NAC), the top political decision-making body within the Alliance. Initially composed of member country foreign ministers, it was authorised to "set up such subsidiary bodies as may be necessary." The Council was specifically instructed to "establish immediately a defence committee which shall recommend measures for the implementation of Articles 3 [maintain and develop individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack] and 5 [an armed attack against one or more of them shall be considered an attack against them all]."

The Defence Committee, composed of defence ministers or their representatives, came into existence at the first NAC meeting of 17 September 1949. The Council also directed the new Defence Committee to establish subordinate bodies for defence matters: a Military Committee composed of the chiefs of defence of member nations; the Standing Group, a three-nation executive body for the Military Committee with representatives from France, the United Kingdom and the United States; and five committees known as Regional Planning Groups (Northern Europe, Western Europe, Southern Europe/Western Mediterranean, United States/Canada, and the North Atlantic Ocean) to examine issues of military import in each respective area.

The first meeting of the Military Committee was held on 6 October 1949, a day after its creation, in Washington DC. It was composed of the chiefs of defence from 11 of the 12 founder countries (Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States), and civilian representation from Iceland, which did not (and still does not) have military forces. The Defence Committee no longer exists as such, and thus the Military Committee is the oldest regularly convened body in NATO after the North Atlantic Council.

The Alliance's initial organisational structure was very loose. Bodies meeting at the ministerial level were only obliged to convene once a year, although they could have met more frequently. During the early years when the Alliance structure was being put into place, the Council actually met four times between September 1949 and May 1950. However, it soon became clear that a mechanism was needed for decision-making during the periods between ministerial-level Council meetings. It was not until a major NATO reorganisation was approved at the Lisbon Conference of 1952 that a true, full-time permanent session of the NAC came into existence. In parallel, a Secretary General was appointed to head a new international staff for NATO and chair the permanent session of the Council.

On the military side of the Alliance, the Military Committee faced the same situation as the Council: because it existed at a very senior level, it did not meet very frequently. Nonetheless, it had a permanent executive body – the Standing Group – to carry out its decisions, direct military planning, and provide staff support.

The limitation of the Standing Group's membership to France, the United Kingdom and the United States was a real source of irritation to the other nine NATO members. Eventually, pressure exerted by the non-members for more influence during the periods when the Military Committee was not in session led to the creation of the Military Representatives Committee, with national liaison officers as "Accredited Military Representatives." Nevertheless, the Standing Group, with its permanent office, full-time operations and influence over agenda-setting, remained the predominant body giving direction to planning within the Military Committee during the 1950s. This situation also contributed to making the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) at that time the pre-eminent source of military advice to the Secretary General and the NAC. In 1957, each non-member of the Standing Group was invited to send a planning officer and in 1963, all NATO members were fully represented. From then on, the Standing Group became known as the International Planning Staff.

Despite these changes, the Standing Group remained an unwieldy instrument, in which national viewpoints tended to outweigh international perspectives. Faced with the pending relocation of NATO's political and military headquarters from France, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Lyman Lemnitzer, in May 1966 suggested a major reorganisation: one Supreme Allied Commander NATO, to replace the three positions of SACEUR, the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic, and the Chairman of the Military Committee.

Realising that such a major change would be very difficult to implement at a time when NATO was attempting to deal with the French withdrawal from the integrated military structure, General Lemnitzer also presented an alternative proposal to the Secretary General: the establishment of a "completely integrated, international military staff, headed by a director of three-star rank, to serve as the executive agency for the Military Committee." On 15 June 1966 the North Atlantic Council adopted this proposal, and on 10 February 1967, the International Military Staff was born. The Standing Group stood down and in October that same year the International Military Staff moved permanently from Washington DC to NATO Headquarters in Brussels, where it works still, on behalf of the Military Committee.

Initially, the chairmanship of the Military Committee was held on a one-year rotational basis by each of the members according to the alphabetical order of nations in English, beginning with the United States. As such, in 1949-50, American General Omar Bradley became the first chairman. This approach held firm until 1964, when it became clear that the range, scope and complexity of issues and activities called for a full-time Chairman to assist and guide the work of the Committee. The Chairman is now elected by a simple majority vote by all NATO chiefs of defence, and normally serves a three-year term, though this can be for a shorter period, or extended one year. He also acts exclusively in an international capacity.

The Military Committee, composed of all NATO's chiefs of defence, is the highest military authority in the Alliance and its chairman the senior officer in NATO. It is through him that consensus-based military advice is brought forward to the political decision-making bodies and the Secretary General.

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