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EU: Official Declares Rapid Reaction Force Operational, If Not Rapid

The European Union yesterday declared its 60,000-strong Rapid Reaction Force operational, although acknowledging that shortcomings remain. The EU's foreign policy and security chief, Javier Solana, said last night that the EU's military capability could soon be tested in peacekeeping operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo. RFE/RL reports from Brussels.

Brussels, 20 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- More than three years after it was first announced, and six months after the deadline expired, the European Union has declared its Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) operational.

Yesterday's announcement echoes one made at the Laeken summit in December 2001, when the EU's then Belgian presidency declared the RRF "partly operational." A deadline set at a Helsinki summit in 1999 for the RRF's full operational readiness expired at the beginning of this year.

Greek Defense Minister Ioannis Papantoniou, who chaired an EU defense ministers' meeting yesterday in Brussels, said the full RRF complement of 60,000 troops is, finally, fully operational. Well, almost.

"We can say now that the European Union can mobilize up to 60,000 persons if the need arises. Of course, you may say that in Skopje [Macedonia, on the EU's first military mission], we have simply 360 [soldiers]. But that was the scope for the necessary operations in Skopje. No more were needed. If more were needed, of course, we could consider sending more. So we can now undertake all missions assigned to us. But, of course, the effectiveness with which we may fulfill these missions is not fully adequate to the extent that some shortfalls still remain," Papantoniou said.

The declaration adopted by the ministers yesterday notes that the limitations affect deployment time and adds that "high risk may arise at the upper end of the spectrum of scale and intensity, in particular when conducting concurrent operations."

In other words, the EU's RRF is not yet very rapid, is unable to engage in sizable operations in terms of numbers or firepower, and cannot safely sustain more than one operation at a time.

Papantoniou said yesterday that the EU's Greek presidency said the EU still lacks 26 of the necessary 144 capabilities identified at the inception of the defense project at the Helsinki summit in December 1999. But, added Papantoniou, he "thinks" most of them will be covered by the end of the year.

He said 10 "project groups" have now been formed to help the EU move toward fulfilling the missing capabilities. A look at the list of the project groups provides a telling overview of the defense project's shortcomings -- air-to-air refueling; combat search and rescue; nuclear, biological, and chemical protection; special operations forces; theater missile defense; unmanned aerial vehicles; space-based assets; and -- most tellingly -- strategic airlift.

Some experts estimate it will take at least until 2008 for the EU to acquire its own strategic airlift capability.

Lending his weight to the occasion, the EU's foreign policy and security chief, Javier Solana, said the RRF could soon face a much more serious test than its ongoing observer mission in Macedonia.

Solana revealed that Kofi Annan, the UN's secretary-general, has asked the EU to contribute troops to a peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"The secretary-general of the UN has asked the European Union, the countries of the European Union, if we can contribute to the stabilization [of the Ituri Province in Congo]. [Today] for the first time we have discussed it at lunch, and [the ministers] tasked me to continue working on it and see if we can cooperate. I think that we will be able to cooperate with the United Nations in the stabilization process of Ituri. If we achieve that, that would be very important to stop a major humanitarian catastrophe in Africa. Secondly, a good, stronger cooperation with the United Nations is another test for the ESDP [European Defense and Security Policy]," Solana said.

The Ituri Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo is considered one of the areas worst affected by the country's civil war, which has killed millions.

Solana said the EU could send a small force -- or as he put it, a "not very large force" -- for a short period of time, but added that the decision will take "months, not days."