NATO in War

The command structure of NATO is designed for a purely defensive war but it would function effectively only if provided with two main factors:

  1. Those political decisions to assign national forces are taken quickly so that NATO forces can mobilise in time to meet a surprise Warsaw Pact attack.
  2. That the Atlantic air and sea passages are kept open to allow the crucial US reinforcements to cross to Europe.

Preparing contingency plans, pre-positioning huge stocks of equipment and supplies in Europe, and conducting large scale exercises with an emphasis on heavy mechanised forces were some of the main NATO tasks carried out to prepare for a possible Warsaw Pact attack.

The organisation of both sides stayed much the same throughout the 1970s and 80s, as NATO and Warsaw Pact armed forces continued to grow in quantity and quality. At its 40th anniversary in 1989, NATO stood at 16 members, having been joined by Spain in 1982. At that 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 backed by 145,000 main battle tanks and artillery pieces, against NATO's 61,000. Successful as it was as a collective defence organisation, NATO had but to sit and prepare in the event of a direct military attack from the Warsaw Pact

Key Dates

  • 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 (Supreme Headquarters Allied Personnel Europe) built in Belgium 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.