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NATO: Alliance Establishes 'Virtual' Rapid Response Force

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) held a ceremony today at its Northern Command in the Netherlands to bring into being its elite rapid reaction force. The alliance says the new NATO Reaction Force (NRF) is a prototype unit that eventually will become a 20,000-member force able to deploy on short notice anywhere in the world. But some analysts aren't so sure.

Prague, 15 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Early in the last century, children's writer Frank Baum published a series of fantasy books about the fabled land of Oz and its wonderful wizard. One book in the series described the army of Oz. It had a general, a colonel, a major, a captain and a lieutenant -- but no troops.

Today, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) held a ceremony at its Northern Command in the Dutch city of Brunssum to inaugurate its new NATO Response Force (NRF) to become fully operational in October 2006. With this ceremony, NATO established a command structure and installed British General Jack Deverell as its first commander.

The NRF appears to be a model of the most up-to-date kind of organization, a virtual armed force. Its potential soldiers are to remain in place with their respective countries until mobilized for some specific mission.

Lieutenant Colonel David Watson is an NRF planning officer at NATO's Northern Command. He tells RFE/RL that the nations promising forces to the NRF are to be absolutely committed to providing them as a first priority. "All of the forces will fundamentally be under national training regime[s] and many of them will be being used -- quite rightly -- by [their own] nations. That said, they are all declared to NATO at [agreed levels of] readiness," Watson says.

He says that is what keeps the NRF from being a real-life army of Oz -- one with a leadership but no followers. Watson says, "if the NRF is to be what it is to be, then those forces [when promised] must and will be on the ground."

The NATO ceremony today was planned to inaugurate an initial corps of 6,000 ground troops backed by naval and air forces to serve as a prototype for the NRF that NATO expects to be fully mature in 2006. NATO says this latest rapid response force is unprecedented. Never before in its 54-year history has the alliance tried to keep ready a multinational military task force combining air, land, and sea power for use anywhere in the world on short notice.

Up to now, NATO was prepared to move only with great deliberation and only in response to military threats in Europe. Watson says the idea was "to produce an organization that had a great deal of punch, a great deal of speed, and could achieve something in its own right, and also actually be the precursor for a larger follow-on force if it was required."

Ultimately, NRF forces of up to 20,000 are to be put together at short notice and sent into situations such as peacekeeping, counterterrorism, or embargo enforcement with time limits of no more than 30 days on their own. After that, each would need to resupply or be replaced by a larger, more permanent NATO force.

The NRF concept has aroused some skepticism. Tim Ripley is a research associate at the Center for Defense and International Security Studies at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. He tells RFE/RL that a proliferation of forces with similar names casts a shadow of doubt on the workability of the new contingent. "We've had allied mobile forces. We've had allied reaction forces. We've had allied rapid reaction corps," he says. "There's more NATO [rapid] reaction forces than we can shake a stick at. And they all tend to draw on the same troops."

Ripley says despite NATO assurances that its NRF will have top priority, there exists the possibility that multiple calls might come in for the same forces. "The EU's got a rapid reaction force," he points out. "And it's got the same troops assigned to it as this one." He adds that "one gets a bit jaundiced at alleged rapid reaction corps that have the same troops that all the others have."

NATO spokespeople concede that much remains to be determined about how the new NRF will work -- including the process for deciding whether and when to deploy the task force. NATO says on its NRF website that the decision-making process remains under discussion -- and, so far, undetermined. One stumbling block is that NATO members Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Turkey currently have requirements for parliamentary approval before sending troops into action. This process must be streamlined if any force involving these nations is to have a "rapid reaction" to a crisis.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld proposed the NRF two years ago. The idea was eagerly approved at NATO's summit in Prague last November. NATO Secretary-General George Robertson ignored NRF skeptics during a speech in Switzerland this week. He said NATO is creating what he called a "cutting edge" response force.