- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

BRUSSELS — NATO’s ability to deploy troops to world hot spots on days’ notice will be put to the test in a major exercise that begins today on the Cape Verde islands off the coast of West Africa.

Code-named Steadfast Jaguar 06, the military maneuvers will involve about 7,000 soldiers, sailors and air crew from the NATO Response Force (NRF), the alliance’s fledgling rapid-reaction corps.

“Cape Verde will be a major test of the NRF to operate quickly, strategically and at distance,” NATO spokesman James Appathurai told The Washington Times. “We will be testing stuff we have never done before.”

Over a fortnight, French-, Spanish- and German-based land, air and marine forces — under the command of a joint task force headquarters aboard the USS Mount Whitney — will conduct a series of exercises on the arid, mountainous islands. One will involve evacuating civilians from a 9,900-foot-high volcano on the island of Fogo after a fictitious eruption. In another, alliance troops will stage an amphibious landing on one of the archipelago’s 10 islands.

Lt. Col. Mike Nicholson, from the Allied Press Information Center in Cape Verde, said NRF troops will be asked to respond to “ever-changing missions, from military to humanitarian and back again.”

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, along with Supreme Allied Commander for Europe Gen. James L. Jones and alliance ambassadors, will oversee the maneuvers next Thursday and Friday. Gen. Jones, the four-star U.S. general who commands NATO’s military campaigns from his Mons, Belgium, headquarters, has described the NRF as the “primary vehicle for transforming the alliance’s force structures and improving its military capabilities.”

The Cape Verde islands, which lie about 300 miles off the coast of Senegal in the Atlantic Ocean, were chosen to test the Response Force’s ability to carry out complex missions in far-flung places with little support from the host nation. The United States initially wanted to hold the exercise in the deserts of Mauritania, but France blocked the proposal.

The show of strength will be NATO’s first military exercise in Africa, although the 57-year-old alliance has helped train and transport African Union troops in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region.

NATO leaders agreed to create the NRF at a summit in Prague in 2002. The aim is to help transform the Brussels-based alliance from a static, Europe-centered, defensive organization into a security body with global ambitions and reach.

Once fully operational, the Response Force will allow NATO to deploy up to 25,000 troops within five days anywhere in the world for up to one month.

Under the principle of “first force in, first force out,” the NRF will carry out counterterrorism operations, humanitarian missions and the evacuation of civilians from conflict zones.

“The NRF makes NATO much more expeditionary and much quicker reacting to events,” Mr. Appathurai said. “It is the hothouse for the alliance’s latest doctrines and technologies.”

Despite some troop shortfalls, NATO officials, speaking on the alliance’s usual condition of anonymity, said the 26-member organization was “on track” to meet its deadline of having the NRF up and running by the fall. Gen. Jones is expected to declare the NRF fully operational in October, a month before alliance heads of state meet in the Latvian capital, Riga.

The rapid-reaction force was used to deliver relief supplies to the New Orleans region in September after Hurricane Katrina. It also flew in about 3,500 tons of aid to Pakistan in October after an earthquake in the mountainous Kashmir region killed 80,000 and left more than 3.5 million homeless.

The exercise in Cape Verde, which will include troops from United States Special Operations Command Europe, will be the first meeting of the NRF’s land, air and sea components. It also will be the force’s biggest military maneuver since its creation.

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