NATO’s Military Organization

A submarine travels during the anti-terrorist military demonstration staged by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), in the Gulf of Taranto.

From its inception NATO was involved in delicate juggling acts to balance a frequently bewildering variety of requirements. The overriding aim was to field forces which would deter an attack by the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, since anything else the Alliance attempted was wasted if it could not achieve that. But this had to be balanced against what was both politically acceptable and economically affordable to the members – requirements which were not always mutually compatible. Then, too, the command structure needed to share out the posts to achieve a balance between the United States, which was not only the most powerful single member but also met a very large proportion of the bills, and the remaining nations, who wished to ensure that their national aspirations were seen to be met. Finally, the organization as a whole needed to present a good public image, and to produce solutions which would not offend public opinion in any member nation too greatly.

At the top of the military organization was the Military Committee, on which all nations were represented by their chiefs-of-staff and which normally met three times a year. Since the chiefs-of-staff were based in their national capitals, there was a need for some permanent representation at NATO Headquarters to conduct day-to-day business, and this was originally provided by the Standing Group, which consisted of just three members – France, the UK and the USA – with all other nations except Iceland appointing a ‘permanent national liaison officer’. The title of the group changed to the ‘Military Representatives Committee’ in 1950, and to the ‘Military Committee in Permanent Session’ in 1957. When France withdrew from the integrated military structure in 1966 this top-level body was reorganized again, being expanded to include a permanent ‘national military representative’ at three-star level (i.e. lieutenant-general or equivalent) from all nations except France and Iceland, although the title remained unchanged.

Originally, the chairmanship of the Military Committee in Chiefs-of-Staff Session rotated annually between members, but a separate chairman of the Military Committee in Permanent Session was appointed in 1958, and from 1963 onwards the same officer chaired both committees. Designated the Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, this officer was in effect the senior military officer in NATO, and since the post was created in 1958 he has always been a European, thus balancing the US influence in other senior posts in the Alliance.


On the establishment of NATO, a series of regional planning groups (RPGs) was set up, each comprising those nations with a strategic interest in the particular area:

  • Canada/US RPG – Canada, USA;
  • Western Europe RPG – Benelux, Canada, France, UK, USA;
  • North Atlantic Ocean RPG – Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Norway, Portugal, UK, USA;
  • Northern Europe RPG – Denmark, Norway, UK, USA;
  • Southern Europe/Western Mediterranean RPG – France, Italy, UK, USA.

These RPGs were not, however, the only forums where discussions were taking place, and there were a number of bilateral links, of which by far the most important was that between the United States and the United Kingdom. These two countries not only had strong traditional and cultural ties, but also had forged a close alliance during the war under the Allied Combined Chiefs-of-Staff (CCS) organization. This CCS mechanism continued to be used after the war, and during 1945–9 it produced a variety of combined war plans to counter possible Soviet aggression. The link continued with the setting-up of NATO, and was used by them, as the two predominant military powers in the new organization, for private discussions on the command arrangements for the Alliance.

The RPGs produced a variety of organizational proposals, but, despite external pressures such as the explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb, the Communist takeover in China and the outbreak of the Korean War, the discussions dragged on through the whole of 1950 and 1951, and it was not until early 1952 that a full structure was in place.

Naturally, a hierarchy of command appointments were needed, and these were designated as follows:

  • major NATO commands (MNCs) – the most senior appointments, at four-star level, normally designated ‘Supreme Allied Commander …’ (SAC); e.g. SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander Europe);
  • principal subordinate commands (PSCs) – the next level down, headed by a commander-in-chief (CINC) at either three- or four-star level; e.g. CINCENT (Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces Central Europe);
  • major subordinate commands (MSCs) – these were usually at four-star level, headed by a commander; e.g. COMCENTAG (Commander Central Army Group).

It was clear that one supreme allied commander would be required for Europe (SACEUR), that he would be an American, and that he should be the most prestigious military officer of the day. Thus, General Dwight D. Eisenhower took up this appointment on 2 April 1951, with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the British former military head of the Western Union Defence Organization (Brussels Treaty) forces, as his deputy. They established Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) at Fontainebleau in France, and quickly agreed on a command structure, which was in place in November 1951. This consisted of:

  • Allied Land Forces Central Europe (AFCENT) – a four-star land command covering Benelux, France and West Germany;
  • Allied Air Forces Central Europe (AIRCENT) – a four-star air command, covering the same geographical area as AFCENT;
  • Allied Forces Northern Europe (AFNORTH) – a four-star, joint (i.e. navy, army, air force) command, covering Denmark and Norway;
  • Allied Forces Southern Europe (AFSOUTH) – a four-star joint command, covering Italy and the western Mediterranean, and including the US Sixth Fleet;
  • Flag Officer Western Europe (FOWE) – who provided naval representation to SHAPE, but commanded only the French, UK and US Rhine flotillas.

It was, however, significant that the British refused to place the land or air defences of the United Kingdom under NATO. As a result, the land defence of the UK remained a national responsibility throughout the Cold War, although, as will be discussed later, the air defence eventually did become a NATO responsibility.

If SACEUR’s demesne was agreed without much disagreement, the same cannot be said of the Atlantic, where the two basic issues were the subdivisions of the command and the fact that both the Americans and the British wanted to provide the sea-going commander. The matter was not just a question of national prestige, however: it also included important factors of wartime strategy, with the United States being concerned about troops and supply convoys crossing the Atlantic in a west–east direction in war, while British concerns centred on south–north trade routes, including that for oil. Many meetings were held and a large number of alternative plans were discussed, with the naval discussions not being helped when the issue entered the British political arena in 1951, with Churchill, at that time the leader of the opposition, attacking the socialist government (led by Clement Attlee) for agreeing to a US officer as SACLANT. The problem was also complicated by disagreements over command in the Mediterranean and in the southern part of NATO’s Atlantic area, which had already been designated IBERLANT.

In the autumn of 1951 a British general election put the problem on hold, and when Churchill again became prime minister, on 26 October, the question of NATO naval commands featured high on his list of priorities. Churchill went to Washington in January 1952, and after a round of fierce arguments he eventually gave way, although a British admiral was to be appointed Deputy SACLANT. The principle agreed, the navy planners then set up a complicated organizational system which involved numerous situations where an officer held two appointments (known as ‘double-hatting’) or even three (‘triple-hatting’), although the problems inherent in such an arrangement were alleviated by having separate staffs for the various functions.

The problems did not go away, however, and among the knotty issues was the question of the US navy’s aircraft carriers. The control of atomic weapons aboard these carriers was governed by the US McMahon Act, which stipulated that control could not be passed to another power, and this raised a major hurdle when the US Navy’s Strike Fleet Atlantic (STRIKE-FLTLANT) was operating in the Eastern Atlantic area, where the NATO commander was Commander-in-Chief Eastern Atlantic (CINCEASTLANT), a British officer. There were also problems over IBERLANT, which were eventually solved by placing Commander IBERLANT, a British officer, under CINCEASTLANT.

After much argument, the naval organization in the Atlantic settled down in late 1952:

  • SACLANT (US) and his deputy (UK) were in the headquarters at Norfolk, Virginia;
  • STRIKEFLTLANT remained under the command of SACLANT, regardless of its position in the Atlantic;
  • CINCWESTLANT (US) exercised command over most of the northern Atlantic, with two sub-area commands: US Atlantic Sub-Area and Canadian Sub-Area;
  • CINCEASTLANT (UK) controlled four geographical sub-areas – Central (UK), Northern (UK), Biscay (French) and IBERLANT (UK) – with a fifth functional command (Commander Submarines Eastern Atlantic (COMSUBEASTLANT)), being a British officer.

One notable difference between the American and other command systems concerned the air. Under the US system the naval commander controlled all his air assets, since the US navy had assumed responsibility for long-range maritime patrol aircraft from the (then) US Army Air Force in 1943. Under the British and French systems, however, land-based air support was provided by the air force, as a result of which there were two commanders of equal rank – one navy, one air force – at EASTLANT and at the geographical sub-areas.

Similar difficulties faced the planners in the Mediterranean. The British had considerable interests here: they regarded the sea lines of communication (SLOC) as vital to their wartime requirements; they were strongly involved in Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus and Egypt; and they had a predominant interest in the security of the Suez Canal. They had also, as they pointed out, been the predominant naval power in the region for some 150 years, and maintained a sizeable Mediterranean Fleet, based in Malta. The French also had strong interests here, since they had colonial ties with Morocco and Tunisia, while Algeria was legally a département of France, and they needed to secure the north–south SLOC to metropolitan France. The US Sixth Fleet was permanently based in the Mediterranean, but, since it carried atomic weapons, its command, was subject to the McMahon Act. Italy also had a major interest, as the largest power bordering the Mediterranean and with a rapidly growing navy. Allied to all this was a totally new factor – the imminent entry of Greece and Turkey into the Atlantic Alliance, with a concomitant need to accommodate the geographically adjacent but traditionally hostile countries into the command structure.

A further and novel factor was added to the situation when the British posted Admiral Earl Mountbatten as commander-in-chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet. This was seen as slightly underhand by some Americans, although it was part of such a senior officer’s normal career progression. Nevertheless, the British could not deny that such a thrusting, charismatic and successful officer – he had previously served as Supreme Allied Commander South-East Asia Command from 1943 to 1945, as viceroy of India in 1947 and as governor-general of India in 1947–8 – might not have some influence on the situation.

A series of plans was proposed by the tri-national Standing Group at NATO Headquarters, by SACEUR and by the various nations involved, but every one of them met with a fundamental objection from one or several of the parties concerned. Eventually, however, a compromise was reached in which:

  • Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces Mediterranean (CINCAFMED) (UK) reported direct to SACEUR;
  • geographical subordinates were Gibraltar (GIBMED) (UK), Occidentale (MEDOC) (French), Central (MEDCENT) (Italian), South-East (MEDSOUEAST) (UK), Eastern (MEDEAST) (Greek), and North-Eastern (MEDNOREAST) (Turkish);
  • there were also three functional commands: US Patrols Mediterranean (USPATMED) (US), Submarines Mediterranean (SUBMED) (UK) and Submarines North-East (SUBMEDNOREAST) (Turkey).

Admiral Mountbatten duly set up his NATO headquarters in Malta in December 1952, but without STRIKEFORSOUTH – the US Sixth Fleet – which remained under CINCAFSOUTH, an American four-star officer with his headquarters in Naples, Italy.

These examples from the very early days of NATO show one of the underlying strengths of the Alliance: not that bureaucratic conflicts – which might today be termed ‘star wars’ – were avoided, but that they were always resolved. It would have been too much to expect that the various national susceptibilities would not have resulted in some bruising discussions, but somehow the will was always there to find a solution.

The organization did not, of course, remain static: it changed to meet altered circumstances in national organizations and to match political and military developments within the Alliance. Thus the national ‘share’ of appointments had to be adjusted to include the Germans in 1955, again in 1966 to cover the departure of the French, and yet again in 1982 to accommodate Spain, although Spain did not enter the integrated command structure.

In the late 1960s two events increased yet further the importance of the UK to the Alliance. The first was the move of many USAF air bases from France to the UK as a result of General De Gaulle’s diktat; the second was the adoption in 1967 of the strategy of ‘flexible response’. As a result the British Isles became of major significance as a base for offensive and defensive operations, and their security became a matter of great concern to the Alliance. A new NATO command was therefore established on 10 April 1975, when Commander UK Air Forces (CINCUKAIR) took post at High Wycombe, England. CINCUKAIR was ‘double-hatted’ as Commander-in-Chief RAF Strike Command, and, although only a major subordinate commander (MSC), he reported directly to SACEUR. This brought British airspace firmly under NATO’s control in war, but failed to cause the sort of political and public reactions which had made the decisions on the naval commands in the Atlantic and Mediterranean so difficult in the 1950s.

When NATO was set up there were two principal subordinate commands (PSCs) on the Continent: Land Forces Central Europe and Air Forces Central Europe. The air-force headquarters was subsequently disbanded, but was resurrected in 1975 as Allied Air Forces Central Europe (AAFCE), although a directive by NATO’s Defence Planning Committee that it should be moved from Ramstein in southern Germany and collocated with AFCENT at Brunssum was successfully resisted by the air forces until well past the end of the Cold War.

Physical moves were also made. As has already been described, the French decision to leave the integrated military structure also involved a large-scale movement of NATO facilities from France to Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. For different reasons HQ IBERLANT was transferred from Gibraltar to Lisbon, Portugal, in 1966, and HQ Allied Naval Forces Southern Europe (NAVSOUTH) from Malta to Naples in 1971.


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