Washington, 14 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Military officers from several eastern European nations that aspire to full membership in the NATO alliance sharpened their skills in the southwestern United States this week during an eight-day exercise organized by NATO's "Partnership for Peace" program.
A total of 47 representatives from Albania, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Macedonia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan met at a U.S. Air Force base in the state of Arizona for what NATO calls a close air support and forward air control exercise. They were joined by NATO instructors and demonstration teams from Britain, Canada, Holland, Italy, and the U.S.
According to NATO, the exercise involved the coordination of air power to support ground troops in a simulation of combat. NATO says it was the first time such an exercise took place in the United States. The maneuvers, called Cooperative Zenith, concluded Wednesday.
NATO has conducted other Partnership for Peace maneuvers in the U.S., however, this week's exercise was the first to involve the inter-action between air units and ground troops.
U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Glenn Williams says the purpose of the exercise was to develop common operating procedures and capabilities, a concept he called "interoperability." The maneuvers were also designed, he says, to develop a mutual understanding of close air support, forward air control and combat search and rescue.
He told RFE/RL that the objective of the exercise was, in his words, to have every member of the orchestra playing from the same sheet of music.
Next year, the Czech Republic -- along with Hungary and Poland -- is scheduled to become a full member of the alliance. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania as well as Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia are eager to become full members.
NATO has said the door to expansion will be kept open after the first round of enlargement, but the alliance has not set a date for consideration of more new members.
Russia, which only grudgingly accepted the first round of NATO expansion, is strongly opposed to the inclusion of its three Baltic neighbors in NATO. Russia is a member of the Partnership for Peace program.
Williams says another objective of the Arizona exercise, and similar NATO maneuvers, is to help countries that want to join NATO reach a level of operations that would make it possible for them to join.
The Partnership for Peace program is a NATO initiative aimed at increasing confidence and cooperative efforts to reinforce a European collective security climate. NATO says the program offers participating countries the opportunity to strengthen relations with the alliance. One of the long-term goals of the PfP program is the development of forces that are better able to operate with NATO members.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Harold Murphee says "Bosnia has been the spark at forcing NATO and Partnership for Peace nations to sit down at the same table and standardize close air support." NATO has deployed a large force in the former Yugoslav republic to implement a peace accord reached in 1995. A number of Partnership nations have also sent military units to support NATO operations.
Murphee says it is very important for pilots, crews and other key personnel to speak English and use the same procedures when conducting operations.
The first phase of Cooperative Zenith consisted of academic instruction blocks on NATO procedures, equipment and training. That was followed by a planning phase designed to improve mutual understanding and communication. The third was execution phase of the exercise, and the exercise finished Wednesday with a "live-fire" demonstration for the PfP nations by NATO teams.
Williams says the Partnership nations will be asked to evaluate the exercise to determine what the officers learned and whether the exercise reached its goal. The maneuvers will also be evaluated by senior NATO and U.S. officers.
Williams says that while the exercise was useful from a military point of view, the program provided many intangible benefits that were not on the formal agenda. He says it offered an opportunity for military personnel from 18 nations to work together over an extended period. He says the participants got to know each other better, establish friendships and make professional contacts. He says, "we basically had a lot of fun."