What kept NATO running militarily?

Jan Hoffenaar

For 75 years, NATO has been a unique political and military alliance. Never before in history have so many sovereign countries entered into such far-reaching and so long-term military cooperation. However, it is striking – though understandable – that the historiography on the alliance mainly focuses on the international-political and military-strategic aspects and less on the concrete military aspects of this cooperation, I would almost say: on the daily military routine within the alliance. While this was and is precisely one of the driving forces behind NATO’s success.


Several factors led to the creation of NATO and then to the long-term existence of this close-knit alliance. Let me run through them with you. The horrors of World War II made one commandment prevail in Western Europe: this must never happen again! With this in mind, Western European government leaders in those first post-war economic reconstruction years cautiously embarked on the path of mutual cooperation and the creation of common interests. Thus, it was assumed, the tendency to take up arms against each other would be stifled. The United States, which benefited from a socially and economically stable Europe helped the Europeans in this regard. By making the extent of their economic and financial – and soon military – aid to Europe dependent on the degree of mutual cooperation, the Americans forced the Europeans in this direction at a faster pace than the Europeans were inclined to do themselves.


Extended deterrence

At the same time, another push factor for mutual cooperation loomed from the east, namely the political and possibly military threat from the Soviet Union. The political threat existed in the form of potentially increasingly Soviet- and communist-leaning own populations and ditto governments in Western European countries. However, this threat was defused by those same governments and populations by successfully tackling reconstruction and thus containing social discontent. In contrast, the perceived military threat increased very rapidly during the second half of the 1940s. By necessity and partly again under considerable pressure from the United States, some countries therefore joined forces in the defense field as well and concluded the Brussels Treaty in 1948. This helped the United States cross the threshold of abandoning its isolationist security policy for the first time in its history already in peacetime. By signing the Treaty of Washington, they gave Europeans a security guarantee with ‘extended deterrence’.


The dean of NATO historiography, Lawrence Kaplan, writes that NATO “drew its strength from a perceived need to contain the Communist threat to Western democracies and facilitate the political and economic integration of a divided Europe”. However, Western cooperation was never entirely self-evident. Or as Linda Rosso wrote five years ago on the occasion of the alliance’s 70th anniversary: “Yet, during the Cold War, Western political leaders feared the disintegration of the West as much as an attack of the Soviet Union. In fact, in their eyes, the two challenges were not entirely separated.” Hence, in more recent studies on NATO, historians are bringing the two complementary functions of the alliance – both deterrence and defense as well as cooperation and consultation – closer together. In this context, they point to the existence of a “common political culture”, a “NATO method”, a “NATO system”. All terms to characterize day-to-day political practice within the alliance, namely a steady and meticulous process of political cooperation and dialogue that goes on behind the scene in committees, working groups, and council sessions on a weekly basis.


A strong engine

Today, however, I would like to draw your attention to the great importance of the military side of the “NATO system”. That was and is also characterized by many, almost autonomous processes, which ensure uniquely far-reaching organizational and operational cooperation between the allies’ armed forces. This too was and is not self-evident. After all, member states are and remain sovereign to make or not make their armed forces available to NATO’s joint defense and to allow or not allow foreign units on their territory. The NATO military process not only gave and gives substance to decisions and directives at the political level, but is in itself a strong engine that holds NATO together. If only because the armed forces of all member states are wholly or largely geared to their tasks in the NATO context.


The success of the far-reaching military cooperation is largely due to, first, the integrated command structure and, second, the annual review procedure. Let me explain. Setting up an integrated command structure in peacetime sounds very obvious because we are already so used to it, but historically it certainly was not and is not that obvious. Previously, countries usually did not go beyond general agreements on mutual assistance. NATO, however, went much further. The Korean War precipitated the creation of Allied Command Europe and Allied Command Atlantic. Under the two Main NATO Commanders, the Allied defense build-up took direction and shape. They formulated – from their perspective – the minimum requirements that national military contributions had to meet. This has remained true ever since.


Meeting these NATO military requirements was again by no means a foregone conclusion. Each ally had its own national views, priorities and wishes that could clash with those of NATO. This could be due to various issues, such as, to name a few, differences of opinion on strategy, operation plans or the composition of units, but also the financial-economic situation, domestic political pressures or military operations outside NATO could cause problems for a member state.


This permanent area of tension was managed almost from the beginning as much as possible through the procedure of Annual Reviews. Here, the defence requirements of each member state were weighed against the country’s political and economic capabilities according to a fixed, intensive and detailed procedure with the participation of all parties involved. This resulted in ‘firm goals’ for the following year, ‘provisional goals’ for the following year after and ‘planning goals’ for the third year. This procedure promoted consistency and permanence in Allied defense preparation. It has been the ‘beating heart’ of NATO ever since.




No task specialization imposed from above

Close military cooperation between the allies took shape in many areas and ways. First, in the form of ‘balanced collective forces’. We should start by noting that with the exception of the United States, no member state had all the necessary capabilities. As a result, the allies were practically condemned to each other and various task specializations developed almost unnoticed. For example, only a few countries specialized in nuclear warfare. The same can be said about having carriers, satellite communications, high-end signal communication, command and control and strategic lift capability. Other allies specialized in submarine warfare or mine sweeping, for example. However, there was no further division of labor and task specialization imposed from above. For that, the member states were too attached to their sovereignty. However, all allies made more or less binding commitments regarding the supply of units, from ‘assigned forces’, ‘earmarked forces’ to ‘other forces for NATO’.


With regard to infrastructural, weapon and equipment cooperation, the joint organization and financing of NATO infrastructure should be highlighted. You can think of airfields, signals and telecommunications installations, military headquarters, fuel pipelines and storage, port installations, missile installations, forward storage sites, support facilities for reinforcement forces and certainly also the NATO Integrated Air Defense System.


Standardization in the form of Standardization Agreements (STANAGs) is the third leg of NATO’s integrated military cooperation. As early as 1951, the Military Standardization Agency was established, the start of a whole network of committees and agencies aimed at standardizing product specifications and common practices. Some examples include equipment and procedures for air-to-air refueling; common sizes, safety rules and tests to make ammunition interchangeable; specifications to make national communications systems compatible; and formats to facilitate sharing intelligence and other information.


Minimum requirements

In the end, however, it was all about optimal military operational cooperation, on being able to best execute Allied operation plans within the framework of allied strategy. This dominated the daily lives of all military personnel at sea, in the field and in the air. These operation plans were linked to the phased NATO Alert System. For each unit was described when and at what location it was to be present combat ready. Most notable, of course, were the large and small joint and sometimes combined exercises – either with staffs alone or with the units attached – which were held as early as 1950 to practice joint command and joint action. Here, individual units had to show what they were worth – after practice and training in a national context – in an allied context.


NATO’s interference in concrete action went much further. In addition to or during exercises, all kinds of inspections and tests initiated by the alliance took place, on the basis of which points for improvement were drawn up, which were additionally monitored in subsequent years. Special tests included competitions between similar units from different allies, such as the Canadian Army Trophee, for which tank units from the Northern and Central Army Group of the Allied Forces Central Europe competed with each other every year from 1963 to 1991. Another type of interference from NATO concerned all kinds of minimum requirements that units and logistics had to meet and on the basis of which they were classified according to their degree of deployability. Here you can think of requirements relating to reaction time, the number of days’ supply of ammunition or spare parts, or the percentage of regular soldiers.


Of course, there were and remained several serious challenges. For a start, tensions always remained because member states did not always fully agree on the strategic or operational course to be followed, and because they were not always able to meet NATO requirements or even fulfil their commitments. Of interest was and remains the position of the United States vis-à-vis that of the European allies. For the United States, Europe was just one of its theatre of operations, albeit the most important one, while this was obviously different for the Europeans. What this meant was evident during the war in Southeast Asia, when the US had to move troops from Europe to that part of the world. Furthermore, for the Europeans, the fear of ‘disengagement’ remained constantly in the background and occasionally in the foreground. That is, they feared that when it came down to it, the US would not go to the, possibly nuclear, extreme and wanted to keep a war confined to Europe.


Too many NATO tasks

An entirely different challenge related to the speed and cost of the arms race. The introduction of tactical nuclear weapons did not, as initially hoped in the 1950s, lead to a reduction in conventional armament. There was soon a nuclear as well as a conventional arms race. Over the years, both the pace and the cost of adapting to new weapons technologies went up, while the need for combat ready units also increased and US arms aid was cut off in the early 1960s. All these developments made it for the allies increasingly more difficult to adequately perform all tasks and fulfil all commitments undertaken. Task division and task specialization offered a solution on paper, but proved a step too far in practice. My country, the Netherlands, in the 1970s, when other countries were hardly willing to discuss concrete division of tasks, even threatened to take unilateral steps by divesting itself of tasks, but eventually gave in because it wanted to remain a reliable ally. It chose the solution in retaining all NATO tasks accepted in the early 1950s, but with a smaller but more modernly equipped armed force. In the early days, many allies had taken on many, too many, NATO-tasks and had been stuck with these ever since.


Finally, military cooperation had other limits. Battle readiness, the transition from peace organization to war organization, education and training, logistics and intelligence remained mainly a national concern. And despite various initiatives to this end, more joint arms production also remained largely a utopia, with all the negative consequences for interoperability that this entailed.


In short, NATO was a close, well-functioning political and military alliance – with some ‘challenges’ – held together by the possibility of a military attack by the Warsaw Pact, by the common shared interest in acting together and resolving political and economic disputes peacefully, by Europe’s dependence on US leadership, as well as by the “NATO system”, politically and military. With the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the threat disappeared and with it the urgency to maintain a strong common defence. The allies individually proceeded to make drastic cuts in defence budgets without NATO having any control, let alone guidance. The alliance was struggling with an identity crisis. It was a well-oiled machine, the value of which everyone recognised, but a costly one, which without a clear raison d’être could not continue to exist in its existing size. This existential issue was framed as ‘out of area or out of business’. The choice was made in favor of the former, arguing that this would preserve the NATO system and that NATO missions could contribute to maintaining international stability and reducing on the spot risks of conflict that would directly affect allies. This led to NATO missions in the former Yugoslavia, Libya and Afghanistan.


New power politics

Now Russia is back on the doorstep and the international situation at first sight resembles that during the Cold War. But that is partly appearance. There is now no longer a Cold War in the sense of a comprehensive struggle between two mutually exclusive, missionary alternatives for a new world order. It is back to old-fashioned power politics between multiple parties.


In this new constellation confidence in effective and convincing US assistance in line with Article 5 of the NATO Treaty risks becoming less firm. This puts Europe in a vulnerable position. During the Cold War, it could shelter under the US military umbrella and did not feel the need to develop its own security and defense identity. After the Cold War Europe got little further than announcing various nice initiatives. Concrete military cooperation was mainly driven by financial scarcity and came mainly from the bottom up.


If Europe is to become more self-sufficient, it will have to cooperate as soon as possible and much more extensively and increase its defense spending to overcome the military-strategic deficiencies hitherto covered by the US. It must develop the capabilities to defend itself to create greater deterrence in the first place. In this regard, Western European countries can take inspiration from their Central and Eastern European allies in terms of sense of urgency and boldness. For now – but for how long? – the development of a European defense profile will have to take place in close coordination with that of NATO, as strategic and nuclear dependence on the largest ally will remain for the time being. Hopefully, in the meantime, the military ‘NATO system’ will keep running.

Jan Hoffenaar is Head Research Department of the Netherlands Institute of Military History in The Hague and professor in Military History at Utrecht University.