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Apr 2 2021

Celebrating SHAPE, 70 years of deterrence and defence

MONS, Belgium - On Friday April 2, 2021, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) celebrates its 70th anniversary after on the same date in 1951 General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR), signed the activation order for Allied Command Europe.

If you mention NATO anywhere around the world it’s likely to ring at least a few bells of recognition. However, when you mention SHAPE, the responses may vary wildly. For example, SHAPE is a popular North American women’s fitness magazine; and don’t forget the classics: squares, circles, triangles, rectangles and so on. So, who/what/when/where/why exactly is SHAPE?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) needed to provide a military structure for the newly founded Alliance. In December 1950 the North Atlantic Council (NAC), the principal political decision-making body within NATO, selected U.S. Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower as the first Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) based on his exceptional service in Europe during World War II.


General Dwight D. Eisenhower and senior members of his initial staff officers discussing plans and operations in early stages of Allied Command Europe, that later became known as Supreme Allied Powers Europe, now situated in Mons, Belgium. Photo from archive.

SACEUR’s first task was to develop the military structure to support the North Atlantic Treaty (often called the Washington Treaty as it was signed in Washington, D.C). Article 3 of the treaty laid the foundation for cooperation in military preparedness among the twelve original Allies, but it did not outline how this would be achieved. It was up to SACEUR Eisenhower and his staff to develop the structure for the Alliance’s military component.

SACEUR Eisenhower travelled to Paris where the Alliance was headquartered at the time, and set up ‘camp’ in the Hotel Astoria in central Paris while construction of a permanent facility began in the Parisian suburb of Rocquencourt. It was here that he and his staff developed the plans for Allied Command Europe (ACE), and its headquarters, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE).

On 2 April 1951, SACEUR Eisenhower signed the activation order for Allied Command Europe and its headquarters at SHAPE. In July 1951 the SHAPE facility in Rocquencourt was opened for business.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower signs the activation order for Allied Command Europe and its headquarters at SHAPE on April 2, 1951. Photo from archive.

Over the next few years NATO, through the NAC and SHAPE, adopted a defence plan based heavily on nuclear weapons. This plan was replaced by one of “massive retaliation” by 1957.

Under rising Cold War tensions across the Alliance, SHAPE’s first U.S. Air Force SACEUR, General Lauris B. Norstad, oversaw the beginning of the evolution of the Alliance defence strategy. He envisioned moving away from complete reliance on nuclear weapons to defend Europe, towards a more flexible policy in which forward-deployed forces would serve as NATO's "Shield” while the nuclear retaliatory forces remained the Ally's "Sword.”

The next SACEUR, U.S. Army General Lyman L. Lemnitzer, played an important role in shifting the Alliance away from “massive retaliation” toward “flexible response,” a term still used in SHAPE’s strategic planning today.

One of the most significant events in the history of Allied Command Europe was France's withdrawal from the Alliance’s integrated military structure in 1966, which made it necessary for SHAPE and several other ACE headquarters to leave French territory. Belgium quickly offered to host both NATO headquarters and SHAPE. In just six and a half months, with coordination between Belgian central and local authorities, the building consortium and SHAPE, the new headquarters in Mons was ready to use.

SACEUR Lemnitzer called the construction effort "a miracle of achievement” and praised the Belgian authorities and workmen for their efforts to ensure that SHAPE had a new headquarters in a remarkably short time. SHAPE held a closing ceremony at their headquarters in Rocquencourt near Paris on March 30, 1967, and the next day held a ceremony to mark the opening of the new headquarters in Casteau.

The now 30 flags representing 30 Allied Nations in NATO at the SHAPE headquarters in Mons, Belgium. Photo by MC1 Brett Dodge.

In 1975 SACEUR, U.S. Army General Alexander M. Haig, introduced a major new Allied exercise programme called Autumn Forge, whose best-known element was the REFORGER (Return of Forces to Germany) series. These exercises brought together national and NATO exercises, improved their training value and annually tested the ability of the Alliance's North American members to rapidly reinforce Europe. This model of rapid reinforcement is present in today’s exercise programmes, namely U.S.-led exercise DEFENDER EUROPE and the NATO-led exercise STEADFAST DEFENDER.

Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, SHAPE implemented precautionary measures to ensure the security of Mediterranean Allies and prevent the spread of tension and conflict. This included increased coverage of the area by NATO Airborne Early Warning aircraft, deployment of Allied naval forces to deal with threats to shipping in the Mediterranean, provision of significant logistics and air defence support to Turkey, and the deployment of the ACE Mobile Force (Air) to Turkey in January 1991. While not a direct participant in the Gulf War, Allied Command Europe played a major role in supporting those Allies impacted by the conflict.

Following the collapse of the Former Yugoslavia, SHAPE worked with NATO, the United Nations and the Western European Union to provide assistance in the Balkans. Operations Maritime Monitor, Maritime Guard, Sharp Guard, Sky Monitor and Deny Flight provided Allied support to the UN embargos in the region. These commitments in support of the UN, led to the Alliance first combat actions since its founding in 1949. On February 28, 1994 NATO aircraft shot down four Bosnian Serb fighter-bombers carrying out a bombing mission in clear violation of the UN no-fly zone. Following Operation Deliberate Force, where NATO carried out targeted attacks on Bosnian Serb military targets, SHAPE and its subordinate headquarters quickly produced the Alliance’s military plan to implement the Dayton Peace Accords and the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) was born.

One of many air/land operations and activities during the NATO Implementation Force mission (IFOR) that from 1996 was transformed into the Stabilisation Force mission (SFOR). The mission evolved into the Kosovo Force mission (KFOR) that is active to date. Photo from archive.


The SHAPE staff also continued work on less visible but critical tasks. The partnership for Peace programme was launched in 1994 to improve Alliance military cooperation with many neutral countries and former Warsaw Pact members and a Partnership Coordination Centre was established at SHAPE.

Reignited tension in the Balkans led to NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, ending with the activation of the international peacekeeping Kosovo Force (KFOR).

The pace and breadth of Alliance operations increased sharply in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the United States on 11 September 2001. The following day, and for the first time in its history, NATO invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. This Article states that an armed attack against one or more of the Allies in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all. The Alliance immediate assistance included Operation Eagle Assist in October 2001, when NATO Airborne Early Warning aircraft began assisting in monitoring the skies over North America.

Following the Prague Summit in 2002, Allied Command Europe was transformed into Allied Command Operations (ACO) headquartered at SHAPE and responsible for all Alliance operational activities. In 2003, NATO took command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, transitioning to the Resolute Support Mission in January 2015.


One of many patrols during the NATO missions in Afghanistan, evolved into the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) from 2015 onwards. Photo from archive.

The NATO Training Mission-Iraq (NTM-I) was established from 2004-2011, at the request of the interim Iraqi government and in support of UN Security Council Resolution 1546. At the 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels, again following a request from the Iraqi government, Allied leaders launched a new training mission called NATO Mission Iraq (NMI). As with NTM-I, NMI is a non-combat advisory, training and capacity-building mission. NMI is focused on supporting Iraq in strengthening its security institutions and forces, so that they themselves are able to stabilize their country, fight terrorism and prevent the return of Daesh.

While military training, readiness, deterrence and defence have always been the primary focus of SHAPE and its leaders, humanitarian efforts continue to hold a high priority. From providing support to the UN in the Balkans, to the U.S. following hurricane Katrina, in Pakistan following a major earthquake, and the most recent COVID-19 pandemic, SHAPE continues to lead humanitarian relief efforts in support of Allies and partners. From food, medical and logistics supplies, to field hospitals and refugee camps, the NATO military efforts to support the more than one-billion people they are sworn to protect are tireless.

Throughout its 70-year history, SHAPE served and continues to serve as the site of many high-level negotiations, accension discussions, political and military meetings. If these walls could talk, what other stories would they tell?


Stay tuned for more on 70 Years of SHAPE and be sure to check out the History Corner and An Enduring Alliance Podcast for more on this amazing headquarters and/or watch video below in English, or in French.




Story by SHAPE Public Affairs Office, video by the NATO Archives.

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