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NATO: Are U.S. Plans For A Rapid-Reaction Force Bad News For The EU?

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has presented plans to Washington's NATO partners for a new rapid-response force of up to 20,000 U.S., European, and Canadian troops to conduct military operations anywhere in the world. The plan could bring a new focus to NATO that has been missing since the Cold War. But it could also undercut the European Union's own plans for a rapid-reaction force.

Prague, 24 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has presented to its European NATO partners plans for a new rapid-response force, able to intervene anywhere in the world at short notice.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld unveiled the plans to a meeting in Warsaw today of alliance defense ministers. The plans call for a force of some 20,000 U.S., European, and Canadian troops who should be able to deploy operationally within a week.

Reports say it would include specially trained ground troops backed by NATO's formidable array of support capabilities, ranging from AWACS radar aircraft to intelligence-gathering services and equipment able to confront biological and chemical threats.

Before leaving Washington for Warsaw, Rumsfeld told journalists the United States believes that a rapid-reaction force would equip NATO to confront the security problems of a new era -- a reference in particular to the fight against global terrorism.

The director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Alyson J.K. Bailes, said the European partners will need to consider what she calls the political strings attached to the new U.S. plan. "In many Europeans' eyes, what will jump forward about this, first of all, is the political implication that NATO collectively is being somehow invited to associate itself with the new U.S. security doctrine [that was] just published," Bailes said.

Bailes said this doctrine envisages intervention, when considered necessary, and also suggests the United States might act preemptively to defend U.S. and allied interests against the threat of terrorists and their state sponsors who possess or seek weapons of mass destruction. She said not all the European partners will find it easy to support this line of thinking.

Another senior analyst, Ian Kemp of Jane's military publishing group, agreed that the allies will tend to be cautious. "I think it is highly unlikely that all 19 allies are going to subscribe to any sort of proposal that would bind the allies to taking part in NATO military action outside of the traditional area," Kemp said.

The American plan for a rapid-response force comes at a time when the European Union is struggling to get its own rapid-reaction force off the ground. The envisaged 60,000-strong EU force has been beset with problems over the last two years. Formation of the force has been stymied for months over a disagreement between Turkey and Greece over non-EU member Turkey's role in the force's decision-making process.

For the U.S.-led NATO to form a rapid-response force ahead of the EU, after all of Brussels' efforts, would be something of an embarrassment for the EU. Some continental commentaries are already suggesting a rivalry between the two projects.

Kemp dismissed that idea. He suggested that the existing trend toward rapidly deployable forces in NATO could actually help in building the EU's military capability. Kemp noted that NATO is already creating a series of units known in military jargon as HRFLs, which stands for "High Readiness Force -- Land." These units could be temporarily taken over by the EU and used as part of its own rapid-reaction force.

Kemp noted that the EU force will not have any standing troops, just a permanent panel of military staff officers in Brussels. The soldiers will be temporarily assigned to the EU from member states' national forces or from NATO-dedicated units. "None of these forces are working in opposition to one another. 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,'" Kemp said.

Independent London-based military analyst Alexandra Ashbourne said that since the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States, Washington has relaxed some of its objections to the development of an EU military capability in view of the Europeans' support for the war against terrorism.

She said the present situation shows the validity of the concept of independent European capabilities. "Events in Iraq are proving at the moment that there are times when Europe and America will not necessarily want to get involved in the same campaigns and that Europe will need its own [military] assets," Ashbourne said.