Updated: January 2006 NATO Publications


The beginnings of NATO's military structure

5. End of one era, transition to another

  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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Estimating the specifics of the NATO/Warsaw Pact military balance was the focus of much staff work on both sides during the Cold War. Here, at a 1989 news conference, Russian officials are explaining their calculation that there was now an "approximate parity" between the opposing military forces. (© ITAR-TASS)

By the 1980s, NATO bore little resemblance to the loose original structure of 1949. On the civilian side, the most important reforms had taken place at Lisbon in 1952, with the creation of a permanent session of the North Atlantic Council, an International Staff, and a Secretary General. The key developments on the military side had occurred one year earlier, following the NAC's decision to create an integrated military command structure and appoint Supreme Commanders for Europe and the Atlantic area. The process of creating the integrated command structure was not always easy, due to competing national interests, old rivalries and conflicts between some of the member states, as well as clashes of personalities. Nevertheless, compromises were ultimately reached and consensus was achieved.

At its 40th anniversary in 1989, the Alliance stood at 16 members, with virtually no military undertakings or dialogue with non-member states, nor any military operations or exercises conducted outside its boundaries. At the time, 7.5 million Warsaw Pact soldiers and almost 8.5 million NATO soldiers were in the active and reserve ground forces alone. Warsaw Pact soldiers were buttressed by 145,000 main battle tanks and artillery pieces, against NATO's 61,000 and a military organisation directed by a surfeit of almost 80 NATO headquarters. Successful as it was as a collective defence organisation, NATO had but to sit and prepare in the event of a direct military attack.

In early November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and five weeks later Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze visited Brussels for talks with NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner, the first such visit by a minister of a Central or Eastern European government. After four decades of relative predictability and stability, NATO was soon to be faced with regional instability at its borders. Responding to the "end of the Cold War" was certainly not NATO's first major test of resolve, but would present it with the most formidable challenge in its history.


4 April 1949 Signing of Washington Treaty and creation of NATO

17 September 1949 First North Atlantic Council meeting

6 October 1949 First Military Committee meeting

2 April 1951 SHAPE becomes operational

10 April 1952 SACLANT becomes operational

1952 Appointment of first Secretary General, full-time NAC, and creation of the International Staff

10 February 1967 International Military Staff created

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