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The Multilateral Force (MLF) was an American proposal to produce a fleet of ballistic missile submarines and warships, each manned by international NATO crews, and armed with multiple nuclear-armed Polaris ballistic missiles. The proposal was floated by the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations.
The proposal was inspired by complaints of NATO countries that the nuclear defense of Europe was beholden to the Americans, who held the bulk of nuclear capability. The proposed fleet of warships would be manned and operated by NATO command, instead of an assortment of independent forces ultimately under their own national banners. In this way, other NATO powers were theoretically ensured an active role in European defense.
The idea of using surface ships as part of the force received criticism in Europe, who felt that surface ships would be vulnerable to attack, while a wholly submarine force would be more difficult to eliminate. President Kennedy argued that using only submarines would defeat the purpose of minimizing American control of the force, as the United States was the primary power capable of building the requisite number of submarines and training their crews. Including surface vessels would allow for greater European involvement in both construction and training, argued Kennedy, who also dismissed the notion that an entire pan-Europe nuclear-armed fleet could be eliminated before any of them could commit retaliatory strikes.
The proposal eventually fell flat when American and European differences over basing strategies and financing could not be reconciled. The Italian cruiser Giuseppe Garibaldi was actually refitted with four launchers for Polaris missiles. Despite the successful launching tests, the U.S. never went ahead with the MLF. Instead the Italian government set out to develop an indigenous missile, called Alfa, with a successful program, officially halted by Italian Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ratification.
MLF experiment on USS Claude V. Ricketts
From June 1964 to the end of 1965 USS Claude V. Ricketts (DDG-5) was part of a mixed-manning experiment for the proposed MLF. Its crew consisted of 10 officers and 164 crew from the US Navy with the remainder filled by sailors from West Germany, Italy, Greece, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Though the MLF never was created, Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze stated that the project on Claude V. Ricketts was successful.
- European Defence Community - an unsuccessful proposal of the early 1950s to create a multinational European army
- Bouwmann, Bastiaan. Present at the Undoing: The Netherlands and the Multilateral Force, Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, 5 November 2013. Web. 5 November 2013.
- Lundquist, Edward. Sea Classics. Mixed Manning Demonstration was a Success: Guided-Missile Destroyer Sailed with Multinational Crew. September 2006.
- Tom Lehrer performing MLF Lullaby in the 1960s
- Solomon, James. The Multilateral Force: America's Nuclear Solution for NATO (1960-1965). (Abstract)
- Kennedy, John F. News Conference 51.
- JFK Library Releases 1963 White House Recordings
- Article and primary sources on the Multilateral Force at the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project