NATO SHAPE Histories Declassify “Restricted” Nuclear Data
In December 2012, historians at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization published on-line unique and valuable formerly secret histories of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Power Europe (SHAPE), the alliance’s top military command organization. This publication raises important questions about nuclear secrecy and the U.S. government’s outmoded regulations on the historic locations of its nuclear stockpile.
Once highly classified, some as high as “Cosmic Top Secret,” the volumes chronicle the creation of SHAPE in 1951 and the development of NATO as a military organization during the following years through 1958. It is difficult to generalize about these lengthy histories but they cover every element of the SHAPE story, including the creation of an international staff and the complex story of strategy and planning. Basic physical elements are also part of the story, such as the initial location at the Hotel Astoria in downtown Paris (where former bathrooms were used to store classified documents) and the creation of headquarters buildings on what was a presidential shooting range near Fountainebleau. For anyone interested in the history of Cold War Europe, these volumes are a significant resource; it is to be hoped that more of them will be declassified and published in the months ahead.
What may have made these volumes difficult to declassify for many years, but what also makes them especially valuable, is their thorough coverage of the more sensitive elements of NATO military planning, from alert procedures to the nuclear war plans initiated by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). For example, the volume covering 1953-1956 provides the complex story of the creation of SHAPE’s Atomic Strike Program. In early 1954, planners involved in the “New Approach Group” assumed that by 1957, NATO forces, including the U.S. Strategic Air Command, would have an advantage in “nuclear strike capability” that it could “destroy the Soviets’ will and means to fight.” If that did not occur, the planners envisaged six target categories for nuclear strikes: airpower, combat elements, reinforcements, “command and communications lines,” “supplies,” and “naval power” (see page 48). In October 1954, SACEUR General Alfred Gruenther told his commanders that 125 nuclear weapons would be available to them, once they established specific plans for air and ground operations (p. 95). 1954 was a period of relative atomic scarcity compared to a dozen years later, when NATO had over 7,000 nuclear weapons. By then alliance leaders did not have agreed concepts on how nuclear weapons could actually be used in less than all-out war situations.
What is unexpected about this is release is that the volumes include specific information on U.S. nuclear deployments in NATO countries that has not been declassified before in official documents. For example, in the volume covering 1958 , the historians recount the initial planning of the nuclear stockpile program, involving the sharing of U.S. nuclear weapons with NATO members in the event that war broke out. While the United States would have legal custody over the weapons, the cooperating countries would control the delivery systems (strike aircraft, etc.). The history reported on plans to create nuclear storage sites for four British Canberra squadrons deployed in West Germany, Belgium’s request for a nuclear weapons storage site for strike squadrons, and the Netherland’s requests for a storage site to support an Honest John missile unit (see page 71). An atomic stockpile would be created in Turkey not only for an Honest John battalion in Turkey but also for intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), for which deployment plans were being negotiated with the Turkish government (page 53). Plans for IRBM deployments in Italy were being negotiated, including provisions for launch control by SACEUR with consent of the Italian and U.S. governments (see pages 57-59).
If U.S. government reviewers had been responsible for the security review, they would have invoked the Atomic Energy Act and excised all the information on deployments as formerly restricted data (FRD) that cannot be declassified. That would be so even though the history includes no technical specifications about the weapons. Fortunately U.S. laws and regulations did not constrain NATO reviewers in Brussels and they freely declassified this historically valuable information. This usefully illustrates the archaic character of FRD classification rules governing information about the country locations of U.S. nuclear deployments in NATO Europe. With NATO reviewers taking a pragmatic view of these old nuclear secrets, it may not be too much to hope that nuclear information regulators in Washington will someday support changes that will bring some necessary transparency to U.S. nuclear history..