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EU: Time Running Short For Plans To Build Rapid-Reaction Force

  • Breffni O'Rourke

European Union defense ministers have reaffirmed plans to have their 60,000-strong rapid-reaction force ready for deployment by the target year of 2003. That would be despite months of delay caused by a dispute over the force between Greece and Turkey, which has left time short. Can the EU still meet its ambitious target?

Prague, 7 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's sagging plans to develop a major military capability have received a boost from the EU's defense ministers.

At a meeting on the Greek island of Crete at the weekend, the ministers discussed plans to have ready for deployment by next year a rapid-reaction force of some 60,000 soldiers backed by the necessary equipment for diverse tasks.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said afterward that "impressive" work has been done toward creating the force, and that things are moving in the right direction.

Such optimistic words are needed to help maintain confidence in the idea, which in reality faces an uphill path. Shaky defense spending among some key EU members is threatening to rob the force of equipment needed to perform its tasks. And a lingering dispute between Greece and Turkey has stalled plans to give the EU access to NATO's military planning capabilities.

Greece, an EU member state, is objecting to a previous agreement between the EU and Turkey under which Turkey would allow the new force access to NATO military planning facilities in return for a limited say on how the force is deployed. Turkey is demanding co-decision rights on any future operations of the rapid-reaction force in the Balkans, a region it includes in its own area of interest. But Greece says Turkey, which is not an EU member, should not have any influence in the matter.

In spite of the dispute, the rapid-reaction force has made certain advances. One concrete achievement is the creation of a military committee under the chairmanship of Finnish General Gustav Haglund. The committee includes the first commander of the rapid-reaction force, German General Rainer Schuwirth, and a small staff of senior officers.

This will be the only standing body of the EU force. The troops for any given mission will be assembled for temporary EU duty from the existing units of national armies, or from NATO-dedicated units. They will not form a standing army of their own.

From that point of view, manpower is not a problem. London-based security analyst Dan Keohane of the Centre for European Reform says that Haglund, for any given mission, will specify what manpower is required. Government ministers from EU member countries will then discuss his request and offer contributions.

More problematic is the question of equipment. Keohane says the Europeans have major gaps in their capabilities, such as heavy-lift transport aircraft, communications technology, and -- in particular -- surveillance equipment.

At the defense ministers' meeting in Greece, the ministers even agreed to consider renting planes from Russia and Ukraine.

Keohane says the issue comes down to a lack of funds. The planned delivery of Airbus A400M military heavy transport planes is likely to be delayed beyond the scheduled date of 2007 because of German reluctance to make available finance for its order of 73 of the planes.

But it is in the high-tech communications and surveillance sectors where the shortfalls are greatest. Keohane: "Europeans don't spend enough on research and development. That really is where they are most lagging behind the U.S., in terms of future capabilities. And they must work much harder in pooling their research and development resources."

Keohane continues to say that the United States, for instance, last year spent about $26,000 per soldier on research and development, whereas the average in Europe was about $4,000 per soldier.

Still, he says the EU will be able to make do in the short term with what it has, but only under certain conditions: "If the EU were able to use NATO assets in areas where it does not have its own assets, it won't be such a problem. But of course if NATO needs to use them for something else, and the EU does not have [its own capabilities], then that's a problem."

Returning to the question of manpower, another senior analyst, Ian Kemp of Jane's military publishing group, says the existing trend toward rapidly deployable forces in NATO could help in building the EU's military capability.

He says that NATO is now putting together a series of such units, which could be temporarily taken over by the EU and used as part of its own rapid-reaction force as needed. As Kemp puts it:

"It is not a case of spending resources on one thing at the expense of another. I mean, there is only a limited European force pool, and all of these troops are going to be 'double-hatted' ( will be serving both NATO and the EU)."

In the meantime, however, the EU has missed an opportunity for taking command of the small Macedonian peacekeeping force which consists mostly of European troops, but is under NATO command. The EU had hoped to take over the mission as a relatively easy first task, in the next few weeks, but the Greece-Turkey dispute has prevented that.