Updated: January 2006 NATO Publications


The beginnings of NATO's military structure

2. The Issue of "Command"

  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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The Standing Group, initially composed of officers from the United States, the United Kingdom and France, was the forerunner to the International Military Staff. The latter was created in 1967 to support the work exclusively in a corporate, or international capacity, of the Military Committee and its chairman.

In the early 1950s, in addition to the disputes about who would give direction to Alliance military planning, were the questions of who would actually do the planning, and then execute the plans in time of war. The military structure initially developed made no provisions for wartime command and control. It had no fixed military headquarters or commanders and relied instead upon committees with representatives from the member states. As a consequence, the only military bodies subordinate to the Military Committee and the Standing Group during the Alliance's early years were the five Regional Planning Group committees, none of which was capable of providing command and control to NATO forces.

Europe did have one combined military headquarters in 1950, but this belonged to NATO's predecessor, the Western Union Defence Organisation, created by the Brussels Treaty of 17 March 1948 and signed by Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Although it had a military headquarters at Fontainebleau, France, the organisation lacked a true command structure. Additionally, its senior military officer, Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, was the chairman of a committee – the Western Union's Commanders-in-Chief Committee – and not a supreme commander. Neither Montgomery nor the three subordinate heads of the land, sea, or air forces had any operational authority in peacetime, and "Monty" did not even have real authority over the commanders, as was demonstrated by his frequent disagreements with the head of the ground forces. Still, the development of a professional, international headquarters and loyalty to an Alliance concept rather than staff representing national perspectives, found root here.

At the NAC meeting of 16-18 September 1950 in New York, Alliance foreign ministers discussed the need for the "creation, in the shortest possible time, of an integrated military force adequate for the defence of freedom in Europe." This work had been expedited by the invasion three months earlier of South Korea by communist North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union. There was concern that the Soviets might turn this war into a world-wide struggle by supporting a similar invasion of Europe, where Germany was also divided into communist and non-communist blocs. Following consultations with their governments, the ministers reconvened in New York on 26 September 1950 and announced that an integrated force would be created "at the earliest possible date" and would be placed "under a Supreme Commander who will have sufficient delegated authority to ensure that national units allocated to his command are organised and trained into an effective, integrated force in time of peace as well as in the event of war."

In December 1950, the NAC approved the principle of German contributions to European defence, and had reached agreement on the establishment of an integrated military command structure with Supreme Commanders for both Europe and the Atlantic Ocean. There was universal agreement on both sides of the Atlantic that General Dwight Eisenhower be selected as the new SACEUR. He had led the Allied forces to victory in Western Europe during World War II and was now serving as president of Columbia University. His official appointment as SACEUR was announced at a meeting of the NAC on 18-19 December 1950, and a small group of officers was dispatched to Paris to plan for the new headquarters.

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