Today we took a trip to the Strategic Headquarters of the Allied Powers in Europe, or SHAPE. The 8 am departure time for our bus was a cause for groans from the class, but after all was said and done, I think we all agree it was well worth the trip.
The SHAPE military base in Mons, Belgium serves as the military HQ of NATO and the home of the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR). As such, security was very tight (although somehow we were allowed into the military base of NATO but not its political center) and we were handed passes on the bus by our guide, a political action officer from Poland. When we walked into the main office building, we were immediately surrounded by soldiers from every NATO member country. They were all wearing their country’s camouflage or dress uniforms, and the only way to distinguish between a French naval officer and an Italian air force commander was the flag on their sleeves. With this mixing of nationalities, I would have expected that communication would have been difficult. I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when we figured out that everyone there spoke English.
Our briefings with our NATO tour guide and a representative from the EU military logistic representative were informative and entertaining. We learned about the history of SHAPE, including its move from France to Belgium in the 1960’s after Charles de Gaulle decided to remove his country from NATO the command structure. Our hosts gave that as the reason for the older look of the building; it had been constructed in under a year to replace the French facility that had previously housed SACEUR and his staff. But that didn’t hinder its effectiveness. Each representative spoke about their respective organization’s missions around the world, and listed off the majority of them as successes (others are ongoing or were replaced by other missions). Finally, we had an in-depth Q&A session with NATO officials during which we learned about how the allies are adapting to address Russia’s hybrid warfare tactics and what problems still exist with integration between national military units.
After lunch in the cafeteria downstairs, we were given new passes and escorted to a more classified area of SHAPE. I’m not exactly sure what I am allowed to say about our briefing there, but I will say that NATO seems to be in a constant state of evolution: learning from the past to predict the future and act accordingly in the present.
Finally, we reached the nicest room on the base: SACEUR General Breedlove’s office. Gen. Breedlove is a Georgia Tech alum, and even though he was not present himself, he still arranged for us to tour his office with members of his staff. From wall to wall, his work space seemed like a museum to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (the first SACEUR), military personnel and his own military career. There were badges and coins from units in every armed service of the NATO member states, and even some from non-members (I think I saw one from South Africa). There was the desk that Eisenhower used during his time at SHAPE, still being used by the SACEUR today. And then there was the famous globe around which all SACEURs and Commanders of US forces in Europe have stood and discussed matters with visiting officials. Of course, we couldn’t leave without taking some pictures (including Grainne in the big chair).
It was a fantastic day at SHAPE and we are all looking forward to the Council of the European Union tomorrow. Special thanks to Gen. Breedlove for supporting the Yellow Jackets!