Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Multilateral Force, NATO

A sea-based nuclear weapons–sharing arrangement promulgated by the United States during 1960–1965 among its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. In a move to counter and contain nuclear weapons development by Great Britain and France as well as to improve cohesion among all the nations of NATO, the United States in December 1960 proposed the development of a multinational seaborne alternative to the land-basing of medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) in Europe. Indeed, as France distanced itself from routine military participation in NATO during these years and as Cyprus became a crucible for Greek and Turkish disagreement, NATO badly needed a unifying force, which the Multilateral Force (MLF) attempted to provide.

Initially conceived as a force comprising five U.S. Navy ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) operated by crews drawn from various NATO states that would fire its weapons only upon reaching a unanimous committee vote, the MLF elicited a largely skeptical response from most NATO members. But it was bolstered by nuclear delivery system provisions set forth in the 1962 Nassau Agreement, alarming not only some NATO partners but the Soviet Union as well by placing the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) closer to putative control over nuclear weaponry.

Concerns voiced in the U.S. Congress and by nuclear propulsion proponent Vice Admiral Hyman Rickover over the perceived operational and security risks that multinational manning might visit upon complex vessels such as Polaris submarines led President John F. Kennedy's administration in February 1963 to propose a much less costly and more easily developed alternative. The proposal called for a purpose-built fleet of twenty-five apparent merchant ships, each armed with eight Polaris missiles, and formally established that October as the MLF template by a participant NATO Working Group comprising the United States, Great Britain, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Greece, and Turkey. Military, security, and legal subgroups addressed such issues as basing for the fleet, crew training and discipline, and the all-important firing protocol. The anonymity of these ships, roving the Atlantic and Mediterranean shipping lanes with their international crews and concealed ballistic missiles, would have created an almost insurmountable barrier to their timely positive identification by the Soviets, who condemned the MLF as an exercise in piracy.

A crew drawn from seven NATO participants reported aboard the U.S. missile destroyer Biddle in mid-1964 for what would constitute the only deployment of the MLF: the Mixed Manning Demonstration, an eighteen-month trial of the multinational crew concept. This test was carried out against the backdrop of doubts and misgivings about the transfer of U.S. nuclear weapons and personnel to an international force, the British Labour Party's opposition to the MLF, and resentment by the smaller NATO contingents of the apparent control of MLF policy by the United States and Germany.

President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration, tired of the political and military complexities of promoting the MLF as the Vietnam War deepened, gladly greeted Britain's late 1964 counter-MLF proposal for a European-derived Atlantic Nuclear Force (ANF) within NATO. The British proposal thereby dissolved the increasingly problematic MLF before it could be chartered, leaving its Mixed Manning Demonstration to carry through what became essentially a NATO friendship cruise.

Gordon E. Hogg


Further Reading
Priest, Andrew. "'In Common Cause': The NATO Multinational Force and the Mixed-Manning Demonstration on the USS Claude V. Ricketts, 1964–1965." Journal of Military History 69(3) (July 2005): 759–789.; Solomon, James B. The Multilateral Force: America's Nuclear Solution for NATO (1960–1965). Trident Scholar Project Report No. 269. Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Academy, 1999.
 

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