Sunday, November 21, 2004

BRUSSELS — EU defense ministers will sign off today on plans to establish battle groups of troops poised for instant action in a significant move toward a European army.

The British and the French, the driving forces behind the plan, will provide the first 1,500-member battle group, or “expeditionary force,” starting in January.

The unit is to be ready for action anywhere within 15 days of a decision by EU ministers. “These are combat troops in their barracks with their boots on ready to go,” a British diplomat said.

The move comes as the European Union takes on its first big military mission on Dec. 2, replacing NATO in charge of the 7,000-man Bosnia task force.

Most of the troops will remain the same, merely switching from NATO to EU insignia, but the politics could change abruptly.

The European Union already has deployed troops in Macedonia and Congo, but the Bosnia operation is viewed as much riskier. One British diplomat called it a crucial test of Europe’s military ambitions, fearing that Bosnian hard-liners could cause trouble after U.S. NATO forces leave.

“We need to respond very quickly and robustly to incidents because they can spiral out of control,” he said.

The Bosnia force will be commanded by a British general but report through NATO’s command at Mons, Belgium. The battle group plan was floated last year by Britain and France with German support. Italy will take over in the second half of 2005, then Germany.

By early 2007, the European Union will have two battle groups on call, giving Brussels a strike force of 3,000.

It is not clear whether NATO or the European Union will have day-to-day battlefield command. Each country can choose whether to join an expedition, contributing what it can. Britain is offering its existing “Spearhead Battalion” for missions. The first tasks are likely to be in Africa, possibly in Sudan.

Non-NATO states such as Austria, Ireland and Malta do not intend to prevent the others from going ahead under an EU flag.

The battle groups are more nimble than the European Union’s 60,000-man Rapid Reaction Force, which takes two months to assemble. Introduced this year, it has a military staff of generals and colonels in Brussels, but little else. It needs U.S. support to transport equipment and carry out most operations.

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