- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Today marks a major milestone for the future security of the United States and its NATO allies. In Brunssum, Netherlands, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization commissioned its NATO Response Force (NRF). The NRF combines integrated land, sea, air and special forces. After a test period, the high-readiness, highly trained component, about 6,000 troops, will be deployable within five days to a crisis.

This force is expeditionary and rapidly usable virtually around the globe. Organized, trained and equipped for a number of combat and stability missions, the NRF will provide the alliance with new and relevant capabilities for today’s challenges. However, within most of NATO’s soon-to-be 26 members, there is little public awareness of the NRF. Nor is there much understanding of why this force is important and why the alliance was wise in bringing it into being.

Fifty-four years ago, ten countries met in Washington to create NATO. NATO was established as a military alliance to defend against a military threat — the clear and present danger of the Soviet Union. NATO grew to 13 and then to 16. And, it was the most successful alliance in history. In 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. Total and unconditional victory was won without a single shot being fired.

With the demise of its principal enemy, NATO began a long process of re-inventing itself. For five decades, the alliance was based on fighting a big war in Europe against a massive Soviet military attack with conventional and nuclear weapons. NATO was static and reactive, with its forces largely stationed in or near the borders with the Soviet Union and its East European allies. All of that changed, including its membership. NATO expanded eastward, adding three new members. It will admit seven more.

Today, there is no threat remotely approaching the Soviets. The prospect of NATO fighting the European war for which it was originally designed is zero. That world is gone. Yugoslavia in the 1990s was the first of NATO’s new challenges. That intervention culminated in the 78-day campaign in Kosovo in 1999, marking the first time NATO went to war as an alliance.

September 11 was the catastrophic demonstration of the dangers and threats that lie ahead. The next day, for the first time in its history, NATO invoked Article 5, the heart of the Washington Treaty. Article 5 effectively meant that an attack against one was an attack against all. All of NATO joined the United States in the war against terror. Clearly, that war extended far beyond NATO’s original boundaries.

This August, NATO embarked on another profound departure. A NATO force of nearly 6,000 was dispatched to Afghanistan, where it will remain for a considerable time stabilizing and assisting that country. Unimaginable a decade ago, NATO’s boundaries had become essentially global in reach. And, underscoring this new NATO, Gen. James L. Jones was selected as supreme commander, the first time a Marine had been awarded that post.

With the understanding that the security challenges were profoundly changed, NATO agreed last year to form the NRF. That decision, reinforced by the declaration made at NATO’s summit in Prague held in November 2002, is as remarkable as NATO actions in the Balkans, the invocation of Article 5 and sending forces to Kabul. Had the NRF been in existence on Sept. 12, as Gen. Jones notes, that force would have no doubt been employed in the fight against terrorism.

But there are obstacles. NATO is based on consensus. Each member holds a veto. Decision-making was purposely glacial, a sensible policy when the enemy was the Soviet Union. And, NATO forces were “heavy” with tanks, fighter aircraft and substantial ground forces to defeat a Soviet attack. But, none of these past virtues is helpful in a world that is dynamic, with dangers entirely different and likely to arise unexpectedly — and probably more than one at a time.

The NRF is meant to cope with this world. And the test for the alliance is clear. NATO must transform. There is an overabundance of ground forces, combat aircraft and tanks. Lighter, agile forces more akin to Special Forces are needed. And “niche” capabilities to counter chemical, biological and radiological agents are essential. As postwar Iraq and Afghanistan showed, dealing with failed and failing states after military action is over are part and parcel of what the NRF must do.

Gen. Jones rightly predicts that the NRF is NATO’s future. However, negotiating that path with 26 different nations will be daunting. The challenge is making NATO as effective and relevant an alliance in the 21st century as it was in the 20th century. And, Gen. Jones and his military and civilian colleagues will only succeed if each nation fully remains committed to these ambitious goals. That will determine NATO’s future, and to a large degree the security of the United States.

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