Updated: January 2006 NATO Publications


The beginnings of NATO's military structure

3. Building the military structure

  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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Much of the early years of the Alliance were spent building the organisational and physical structures to effectively coordinate and defend against a direct military attack. Large standing forces required many large headquarters. Pictured, a NATO joint army and air force HQ in Germany.

General Eisenhower and staff from seven other countries were now faced with the daunting task of establishing an Allied command structure that would be acceptable to all 12 NATO members. The "SHAPE [Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe] Planning Group" quickly began to draft the new command and staff structure for Europe, benefiting greatly from the plans – and later the personnel – it inherited from the Western Union Defence Organisation. To avoid unnecessary duplication of Allied defence efforts, the Western Union agreed that its defence roles and responsibilities would be assumed by NATO when SHAPE was activated on 2 April 1951. Field Marshal Montgomery moved over as well, serving as the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe for the next seven years and played an important role in SHAPE's early development.

As the military structure started taking shape, it was clear that military considerations were not the only factors that needed to be taken into account and that questions of personalities, politics, and national prestige were also very important. Eisenhower quickly discovered that the task of "devising an organisation that satisfies the nationalistic aspirations of twelve different countries or the personal ambitions of affected individuals is a very laborious and irksome business."

The greatest controversy concerned an appointment over which he had no control, that of the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic (SACLANT). As a second major NATO commander, he would be equal in status, not subordinate, to the SACEUR. In December 1950, the NAC had decided that the United States should fill the SACLANT post, which meant that Americans would hold both of NATO's Supreme Commander positions. This raised a storm of controversy in the United Kingdom, fuelled by opposition leader Winston Churchill's acerbic criticisms of the government. Against this backdrop, the SHAPE Planning Group worked to build a true command structure for their own area of responsibility, which proved to be a slow process. In 1951, Allied Command Europe was divided into three regions: the Northern Region including Norway, Denmark, the North Sea and the Baltic; the Central Region consisting of Western Europe; and the Southern Region covering Italy and the Mediterranean (Greece and Turkey were not yet members of NATO). Resolution of command problems in the Northern Region required years of planning and delicate negotiations before an integrated NATO Command – Allied Forces Baltic Approaches, with German and Danish personnel – came into existence in 1962. The Central Region underwent its own considerable organisational changes up to 1953, then remained virtually the same until NATO-wide changes in 1966-67.

Trying to devise a command structure that would satisfy the national interests of France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, Greece, and Turkey in the southern area proved difficult. It took two years to integrate these countries into a NATO command structure that made sense only if viewed in political rather than military terms. The initial challenge was reconciling differences between the United Kingdom and the United States over command appointments, with the British determined to maintain their traditional dominance in the Mediterranean.

French desires for a stronger say were met with the creation of a Western Mediterranean Command under a French admiral in September 1951, and three months later an Italian-led Central Mediterranean Command was established, with the UK's naval forces remaining outside the whole Southern Region command structure. The impasse began to be resolved in January 1952 when the British dropped their objections to an American serving in the post of SACLANT, and that headquarters became operational in the US in April of that year. This was all made easier by the United States' agreement in late 1951 that the boundaries of SACLANT's command should be redrawn to exclude the British home waters, in particular the vital channel ports. In February 1952 this area became part of a third major NATO headquarters, the Allied Command Channel, whose commander was the British admiral in charge of the Home Fleet. "Channel Command" was theoretically equal in status to Allied Command Europe and Allied Command Atlantic, even though its forces and geographic area of responsibility were much smaller. By March 1953, NATO had also created Allied Forces Mediterranean under British Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten of Burma, reporting to the SACEUR.

Given the conflicting views and interests, it was a major accomplishment that a command structure acceptable to all parties was developed at all. In the end, it was a temporary solution with problems of competing commands and overlapping responsibilities. However, despite its obvious flaws, no one wanted to disturb this laboriously achieved solution, at least for the moment.

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