Leaders agree to multinational strike force

London Guardian 11/22/02: Ian Black

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Nato leaders pledged yesterday to build a new force to fight terrorism and rogue states across the globe, and narrow the yawning gap between Europe and the US in the weapons and capabilities needed to wage modern war.

Warned by George Robertson, the Nato secretary general, to undergo modernisation or face marginalisation, the Prague summit backed a controversial plan for a 20,000-strong multinational strike force designed to fight far from Nato's traditional European area of operations.

Washington had billed the Nato response force (NRF) as its most important goal for a summit that was overshadowed by Iraq and at which the focus shifted from the organisation's enlargement to the east to a desperate bid for relevance in the post-September 11 world.

The summit's laboriously negotiated declaration said: "Nato must be able to field forces that can move quickly to wherever they are needed ... to sustain operations over distance and time, including in an environment where they might face nuclear, biological and chemical threats," said the summit's laboriously negotiated declaration.

The new force is designed to allow the 19-member alliance, which expands to 26 in 2004, to strike back quickly and forcefully when a member is attacked, anywhere on earth.

It is to be based on a rotating pool of combat forces, headquarters and support elements able to deploy at short notice to deal with situations ranging from small-scale contingencies to high-intensity conflict.

US officials want it to be capable of generating 200 combat sorties a day and make use of advanced precision munitions controlled by a modern command structure. It is also intended to act as a catalyst for the development of new hi-tech weapons, intelligence and surveillance equipment.

Critics fear it may become an instrument to force European allies to pursue US policies against groups such as al-Qaida or "states of concern" such as North Korea. But its use will still be subject to Nato's consensus-based decision making.

Nato also insists it will not conflict with slow-moving efforts to build a 60,000-strong EU rapid reaction force, which is intended for peacekeeping and humanitarian missions.

Leaders also agreed to streamline the alliance's cold war era military structures, with a US general to be appointed strategic commander for worldwide operations.

The allies committed themselves to improving their defences against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks.

Another key goal is to acquire more secure communications, precision-guided munitions and the big transport aircraft needed for long-distance rapid deployment - an area where the gap between the US and Europe is embarrassingly wide.

In recent months, Lord Robertson has called Europe a military "pygmy" and complained that the 150bn (100bn) it spends annually on defence is a waste of taxpayers' money.

Specific pledges, however, were kept secret, and it is far from clear whether the European allies are prepared to increase their defence budgets. Another option pointed to by the summiteers is to increase specialist capacities with the help of niche contributions from the seven east European newcomers.

Nato's labyrinthine bureaucracy is also to be streamlined, with more executive power for the secretary general and a reduction of the alliance's 467 committees by 30%. The alliance also said that it would launch a study to examine how it could join the US in setting up a missile defence system.

Agreement on the NRF and new capabilities are part of an ambitious attempt to reassert the value of the alliance as the institutional embodiment of US-European relations. Only a year ago Nato's future looked bleak as sparks flew in the "wimps versus warriors" debate, over crises where Americans fought and Europeans "did the dishes".

Yesterday's decision to give Nato its first formal role in Afghanistan is a sign of how anxious it is to extend its traditional mission.

Nato's message from the summit is that it is busy, busy, busy. But it will take some time after the orchestrated fanfare in the Czech capital to see whether the US is impressed.


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