- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 25, 2006

MINDELO, Cape Verde — Four years after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld prodded NATO to reconfigure itself for a post-Cold War world, the alliance is putting the final touches on a strike force able to move rapidly against terrorists anywhere in the world.

The NATO Reaction Force (NRF) held its coming-out party Friday, when 7,800 troops staged a mock assault on a terrorist camp on a wind-swept beach on the Cape Verde island of Sao Vicente, off Africa’s west coast.

Land, sea and air forces participated in the exercise, in which four American F-16s strafed targets before helicopter-borne Turkish special forces secured a beachhead. Backed by a Spanish aircraft carrier, a submarine and a flotilla of frigates, troops from a dozen NATO nations made an amphibious landing before advancing toward the fictitious terrorist camp.

“You see here the new NATO, which has the possibility to be expeditionary and project stability,” NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters gathered in Cape Verde for the war games, which will continue for six weeks.

U.S. Ambassador to NATO Victoria Nuland said it was an “exciting day to see the birth of the NRF less than four years after the idea was put on the table.”

With a push from Mr. Rumsfeld, NATO leaders agreed to create the NRF at a 2002 summit in Prague. 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.

“The Cold War was the industrial age; this is the information age,” said Cmdr. Eric Jabs from the Allied Command Transformation in Northern Virginia. “We’ve got to be light, expeditionary and mobile and what we are doing down here in Cape Verde is proof NATO has transformed. We are not the legacy organization we were 20 years ago.”

The new force will allow NATO to deploy up to 25,000 troops on five days’ notice anywhere in the world for up to one month. Gen. James L. Jones, the four-star supreme allied commander for Europe, acknowledged that logistical problems continue, but said he hoped to declare the elite force fully operational in October.

The NRF already has been used twice: to bring aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina in September and a devastating earthquake in Pakistan a month later. NATO leaders made it clear they had no intention of keeping the force under wraps.

“If people come to us for help, you cannot say, ‘We’re not at home; ring the neighbor’s doorbell,’” said Mr. de Hoop Scheffer. “If you have an NRF, you shouldn’t leave it on the shelf, because then it will get dusty.”

Although preventing terrorist attacks will remain the core task of the NRF, humanitarian assistance will be one of the main goals. The forces yesterday evacuated thousands of locals from the Cape Verdean island of Fogo after a simulated volcanic eruption.

“I say as a mom, knowing the NRF is up and running makes me sleep better at night,” said Mrs. Nuland.

Asked whether this meant Osama bin Laden would lose sleep over the creation of the force, Gen. Jones told The Washington Times: “I hope he doesn’t sleep at all.”

The United States is contributing 1,200 troops to the six-week exercise as well as much of the command-and-control hardware, including the joint task headquarters aboard USS Mount Whitney.

Cmdr. Jabs said it was “in America’s vital interests that the NRF succeeds,” adding that a more mobile NATO would allow Washington to free up some of its forces.

Cape Verde, an arid archipelago 300 miles off the coast of Senegal, was chosen as the venue for NATO’s first exercise in Africa because of its isolated location and austere environment. Aside from the dust and heat, communications are a major challenge.

“I applaud when we have a difficult time because then we have to work as NATO to overcome the problem,” said Lt. Col. Sean Cunneen, one of 35 F-16 pilots from the 52nd fighter wing of the U.S. Air Force.

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