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“All matters connected with the sea tend to have, in a greater or less degree, a distinctly specialized character, due to the unfamiliarity which the sea, as a scene of action, has for the mass of mankind
Alfred Thayer Mahan
The North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington on 4 April 1949. From that instrument came the most successful multipartite alliance in history: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO is a true and effective deterrent against Warsaw Pact aggression, and it has a record of 28 years of success to prove it.
It is difficult to assess the nature of the image which the word “NATO" creates in the mind of the typical American citizen. The American news media, in contrast to the European, have never taken the trouble to learn what NATO is or how it works.
The trouble with understanding NATO is that it is basically a maritime alliance. The very name bespeaks its maritime nature. It is very much a matter connected with the sea, and does indeed have a distinctly specialized character on that account, just as Mahan said would be the case. And there’s the rub. The great expounder of sea power was the first to comprehend that most people, and most Americans in particular, really do not understand maritime affairs, including the functions and uses of navies. The meaning of sea power has been lost, to a very large degree, on a nation with a tradition of isolation and a population little given to seafaring.
Most of the readers of this essay are ipso facto exceptions to the foregoing generalities. For most readers, the realities and subtleties of maritime mat-
ters and naval affairs are matters of professional cognizance. With regard to the meaning of sea power, it is unfair to say that the layman “cannot understand.” He can understand, but not without extensive exposition of the subject by those who do understand.
It is important to the security of the United States that public understanding of, and appreciation for, the alliance be enhanced. No public institution, national or international, can be expected to endure without the support and goodwill of large numbers of the people who pay for its existence. Surely NATO is no exception, and surely the American people underwrite a large share of its expenses.
It is, to some degree, surprising that NATO has survived thus far. The rising tide of antimilitarism within the United States over the past decade has produced political advocates who appear to make a vocation of denigrating the military. They are abetted by an array of magazines, newspapers, and television news organizations which routinely refer to senior officers as “brass” and which tend to favor the disgruntled underling as the source of information in military news-gathering. The very word “Pentagon” has become a pejorative in the rhetoric of politics and in the lexicon of the news media.
This unfortunate and absurd situation has had some collateral negative effect on the attitude of the public toward NATO. But somehow, NATO per se never has become a major target of the antimilitarists, although it is expensive, and the United States pays a disproportionately high share of its cost. We refer again to Mahan to explain this somewhat paradoxical state of affairs. Perhaps, from the antimilitarist point of view, it is difficult to aim at a target which one cannot define, and the image projected by the news media is indefinite indeed. The media seem to envisage NATO as an encampment of troops, mostly American, on the eastern perimeter of Western Europe, waiting for the Russians to attack. The Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) is frequently referred to as the “head of NATO” by the press. The nature, or even the existence, of the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic (SACLANT) is rarely mentioned in network or wire service news stories. The news media are confounded by the specialized character of NATO. Considering the temper of the times, perhaps this is a very good thing for the viability of the alliance.
Antimilitarism aside, the alliance has survived a number of other threats to its existence. One of the most serious was the so-called “initiative” of France, which took place in the mid-Sixties. From its inception, NATO had embraced a strategy which envisioned general war as the inevitable result of
Communist aggression against any member nation of the alliance, a “trip-wire” concept which in the opinion of its proponents offered the maximum deterrent value against such aggression. As planning evolved with the passing of time, and the U.S./NATO monopoly of nuclear weapons changed into a condition approaching parity with the Soviet/Warsaw Pact nuclear capability, the need for contingency planning to provide for situations of limited aggression became apparent to most of the member nations of the alliance. The United States took the initiative in the development of a new NATO strategy of controlled response, which admitted the possibility of confrontations with the Warsaw Pact short of general war. France, under the leadership of President Charles de Gaulle, considered the new strategy unacceptable in that it opened the door to the possibility of limited war being waged on the continent of Europe in which neither of the superpowers, the United States or the Soviet Union, had its territory or population threatened or involved.
De Gaulle proved adamant in his opposition to the new strategy, with the result that French forces earmarked for NATO’S use were withdrawn. Concurrently, the headquarters of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (General Lyman Lemnitzer at the time) were moved from Rocquencourt in the suburbs of Paris to Casteau, near Mons in Belgium- The headquarters of the North Atlantic Council were moved from Paris to the outskirts of Brussels. And the NATO Defense College was moved from Paris to Rome. France, however, did not leave the alliance, a fact which is frequently overlooked. Moreover, at least in naval matters, France continued liaison and a certain degree of coordination and cooperation with NATO commanders, a situation which has persisted. Nevertheless, the French initiative was a severe shock to the structure of the alliance.
Certainly there was a great deal more involved in the French initiative than disagreement over NATO strategy. De Gaulle, ever mindful of considerations of prestige, almost certainly took action in contemplation of the enhancement of France’s position of preeminence among the nations of Western Europe, leadership within the Common Market bloc of nations, and the establishment of France as a nuclear power, completely independent of the United States, with the creation of the force de frappe. Nonetheless, from the viewpoint of NATO’s military leaders, that is the Military Committee and the Major NATO Commanders, basic strategy lay at the heart of the crisis, and the resolution of that crisis in favor of the new strategy was worth the price paid in French intransigence.
Subsequent crises have been largely the effects, either actual or potential, of the traditional antagonism between Greece and Turkey, with its corollary petulance against the United States and/or NATO , when the interests of either Greece or Turkey apI peared to be favored. Both Greece and Turkey were latecomers to the alliance, joining in February 1952. Their contribution to the security of NATO’s southern flank is unquestionably important under the premise that they will be, in fact as well as in theory, working members of the alliance if its defenses are tested.
There was recently some trepidation that Portugal, in its political metamorphosis from oligarchy to popular government, might end up with the leftist totalitarianism of a Communist government. It is a tribute to the good sense of the Portuguese people that this did not happen. Indeed, the political evolution of Portugal may well enhance rather than diminish the stability of that nation within the alliance.
The importance of Portugal to the alliance is hard to overstate. The fact that the Azores, those Atlantic islands of almost ideal strategic location, are Portuguese territory has much to do with that importance. Portugal, in addition, commands the approaches to the Mediterranean, and is thereby a key to control of the sea lines of communication between North America and Europe. The Iberian Atlantic Command, a NATO organization whose commander reports directly to the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic, maintains headquarters near Lisbon because of the importance of Portugal to the vital maritime interests of NATO. It is an interesting anomaly that Portugal, despite its location on the continent of Europe, does not fall within the purview of the Allied Command Europe, and SACEUR is not responsible for its defense.
It is not the purpose of this essay to give a detailed exposition of NATO structure and organization. Nevertheless, the general principles upon which the alliance functions are simple and can be stated succinctly for the betterment of understanding:
► NATO is not a supranational body with its own decision-making authority. It is an alliance of 15 nations joined in a pact of mutual defense against the threat of aggression by the Warsaw Pact bloc of nations, i.e., the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites.1 The fundamental principle of defense, stated in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, is that an armed attack on any one of the NATO nations will be considered an attack on all of them.
^ NATO has a political as well as a military structure. National representatives of ambassadorial rank meet in permanent session at Brussels in a body called the North Atlantic Council. The Secretary General of NATO is the presiding officer of this council; if anyone is entitled to be called “head of NATO,” it is he. The North Atlantic Council makes no decisions as a corporate body; it merely reflects the positions of its member nations.
► The military structure of NATO is not organized under a single, overall commander. The senior military body is the Military Committee, which meets in
1 The 15 nations are Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Federal Republic of Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States.
permanent session in the same location as the North Atlantic Council. Its permanent members are senior military officers assigned by the nations which contribute forces to the defense of the alliance. NATO forces are commanded by three coequal Major NATO Commanders, who share military responsibilities for the alliance’s defense: the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic (SACLANT), and the Commander- in-Chief, Channel Command (CINCHAN). Their respective titles indicate roughly the areas of their respective responsibilities, the latter referring to the English Channel. It is often assumed or even argued that SACEUR is primus inter pares in this organization, but the proposition fails when the limited mission of his command is considered, i.e., the defense of Allied Command Europe. There is no disparaging implication in the factual statement that SACEUR is not charged with the defense of NATO, but only of those nations which lie within the Allied Command Europe. Five member nations (Canada, Iceland, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States) do not lie within his area of responsibility at all, and their defense has no place in his plans.
► The military planning for NATO is carried out by the respective commanders in implementation of their assigned missions, under the general planning guidance of the Military Committee and in accordance with approved alliance strategy. As plans are prepared, forces required for their execution are identified. Individual nations affected by particular plans earmark forces for those plans as required, although such forces usually are retained under national command and control until required for plan implementation. In general, forces are assigned to the command and control of NATO commanders when advanced stages of military readiness are declared. There is no preclusion, however, to the assignment of forces to NATO commanders under conditions of normal readiness, and some forces are so assigned on a regular basis.
General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first SACEUR, activating his headquarters at Roc- quencourt on 2 April 1951. SACLANT and CINCHAN were not established as Major NATO Commanders until 1952. This is another reason why the misconception of SACEUR as the head of NATO, or at least the military head, still persists. Admiral Lynde D. McCormick, U.S. Navy, was the first SACLANT, with headquarters established at Norfolk, Virginia, on 10 April 1952.
It is no coincidence that two of the three major commanders, SACLANT and CINCHAN, are naval officers whose responsibilities in defense of the alliance are primarily maritime in nature. The scope of NATO maritime activity in confrontation with Warsaw Pact aggression would far transcend the deployment and employment of naval ships and aircraft. The complete spectrum of sea warfare comes into play in such an emergency. Protection of the sea lines of communication between the nations of Western Europe and the rest of the Free World would be a primary concern. Naval control of shipping, that complex art of maritime logistics control and protection in wartime, would require the implementation of plans and instructions which are the results of countless hours of peacetime planning effort and hundreds of international conferences. The lifeblood of NATO, at any level of confrontation from limited, localized conflict to all-out general war, will be the logistic support to keep the NATO forces in Europe supplied with munitions, provisions, fuel, and reinforcements. The overwhelming preponderance of this support must come by sea. Excepting the strategic nuclear arsenal of the United States, the credibility of NATO as a deterrent against Warsaw Pact aggression depends more on the maritime strength of the alliance than on any other single factor.
There is reason to believe that many officers of the U.S. sea services who have not served on NATO staffs neither understand the structure of the alliance nor subscribe wholeheartedly to the concept. If this observation is indeed valid, the reason for their general indifference may follow from their failure to recognize the fundamentally maritime nature of the alliance. But a second and more insidious reason may lie behind this casual attitude, even among those who appreciate fully its maritime essence: the conviction, whether or not consciously expressed, that the U.S. Navy by itself is capable of handling the situation in the Atlantic arena, with the contributions of the other navies of the alliance considered unnecessary or superfluous.
In his address to the North Atlantic Assembly at Williamsburg, Virginia, on 15 November 1976, Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, Jr., U.S. Navy, the present Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic, identified this attitude as one of the probable factors affecting adversely the improvement of the navies of some NATO nations. To quote Admiral Kidd: “The Soviets know better than that. They know very well that the North American forces are too few in numbers and too far away to cope with the Soviet maritime threat alone or in best time.”
The point to be emphasized here is that NATO is as important to the maritime security of the United States as the United States is important to the maritime security of NATO. The U.S. Navy cannot do the job alone.
Whatever the vicissitudes affecting the politics or economics of its member nations, the North Atlantic Alliance is not in disarray. This is proof of its fundamental soundness in conception and organization, and testimony to its continuing necessity. It can even be argued that NATO’s military planning continues to be responsive to the capabilities of the Warsaw Pact nations to carry out aggression against the alliance, as shown by the October 1976 strengthening of NATO-committed air forces in Western Europe as a countermeasure to a buildup of Warsaw Pact air forces. But there is, nonetheless, a malaise affecting the alliance. It has become trite to state that it is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success, but beneath that hackneyed expression lies a frightening reality: the complacency of those whose freedom depends on NATO, after 28 years under the alliance’s shield. The inescapable facts are that Soviet naval strength, and maritime power in general, continue to grow, while equivalent strengths within the alliance are declining.
No regular reader of the Proceedings can be unaware of the trend of Soviet maritime strength since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Nor can he be unaware of what has happened to the numerical strengths of the U.S. Navy and other navies of the alliance during the same period.
It is a fact that NATO has remarkable resilience. The alliance survived the French initiative. It would have survived the loss of both Greece and Turkey as members, if that had occurred, however serious that loss might have been to the security of the southern flank. It even might have survived the loss of Portugal to the Communist world. NATO has endured as a credible deterrent despite the fact that the numerical strength of its forces in Europe never has been equal to that of the Warsaw Pact opposition. But there is one crisis that NATO will not survive, and that will come when the progressive degeneration of the naval strength of the alliance reaches the point where the sea lines of communication between North America and Western Europe cannot be maintained in confrontation with Soviet naval strength.
When that time arrives, as it surely must if present trends continue, NATO will no longer present a credible deterrent posture toward limited aggression by nations of the Warsaw Pact. So long as the scale of aggression is kept within bounds, the Communist nations are well aware that they have nothing to fear from the nuclear arsenal controlled by the United States. The validity of this point has been demonstrated time and again. The only hope of the alliance is to control limited aggression by conventional means, and how this can be accomplished if Europe is isolated logistically from America is difficult to imagine. If NATO’s sea lines of communication cannot be maintained, this isolation will have become a point of fact. No extrapolations of airlift or stockpiling can affect significantly this isolation in prolonged conflict. And NATO will have lost its value as a means of deterrence.
There can be little doubt that the experts of the Soviet Union will be at least as skillful as our own planners in making accurate assessment of the situation as the naval capability curves cross. We are not dealing with inshore sailors, as might have been the case a generation ago. We are confronting master maritime strategists for whom the specialized character of NATO holds no mysteries. There may indeed come a moment of truth, as clear and decisive as that moment of truth in 1962 when the Soviet ships bound for Cuba turned away together, unable to cope with the superior U.S. sea power.
The fundamental truths about the basically maritime nature of NATO, and its importance to the defense of the Free World, should be matters of conviction among officers of the naval services of the alliance. NATO needs more than friends; it needs advocates who will raise their voices and fight for naval force levels adequate to maintain that degree of sea power without which the NATO concept becomes meaningless. The specialized character of the alliance, which cloaks its realities from an uncomprehending public, can be no barrier to those of the maritime professions in such advocacy.
When allied naval strength becomes inadequate to guarantee the integrity of the sea-lanes between America and Europe, all the rest of NATO’s defense planning becomes a facade. And when NATO’s deferent posture has lost its credibility, the alliance has failed. The problem is not merely to deliver this message to the public, but to understand and to believe.
Captain McClane graduated from the Naval Academy V in 1943 and served in destroyers in both the Atlantic
Wt and Pacific theaters during World War II. Following
• j?v w ' command of the USS Requisite (AM-109), he entered jFk flight training and was designated a naval aviator in 1949. Subsequent duties included aviation squadron and staff assignments, duty with the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, the Naval Air Special Weapons Facility, the USS Oriskany (CVA-34), and the staff of CinCLant/CinCLantFlt. He served eight years in primary or collateral NATO staff assignments, including duty as Director of Plans and Operations on the staff of the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic. Prior to his retirement in 1973, Captain McClane was Commander, Nuclear Weapons Training Group Atlantic. He now resides in Virginia Beach, Virginia.