NEWS

Dispute over bases threatens to delay NATO restructuring

BRUSSELS (AP) – Plans to slim down NATO’s command structure, considered essential to the military modernization of the alliance, are threatened with delay due to a dispute over where to locate bases. US Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the other NATO defense ministers will seek to overcome the deadlock at a meeting at alliance headquarters today and tomorrow. «This will be the most radical restructuring of NATO since NATO was created,» NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson said last week. «It’s a huge program… savagely sliced down from the old structures.» The streamlining of commands are part of a military transformation under debate within NATO as the alliance seeks to shift its focus away from the static forces of the Cold War toward more agile units able to respond to sudden, unpredictable threats and project power around the world. To that end, the defense ministers are set to push forward plans to create a 20,000-strong NATO response force to form the sharp end of the alliance’s military might and review efforts to beef up Europe’s outdated military kit through the acquisition of new capabilities, ranging from big transport planes to precision weapons and electronic jamming gear. All 19 allies have agreed to changes at the top of NATO’s military structure – uniting the alliance operational command at its European headquarters in southern Belgium, while converting the old Atlantic HQ in Norfolk, Virginia, into a «transformation headquarters» that will oversee the military modernization. They are also set to agree this week on three regional headquarters in Naples, Italy, Brunssum, the Netherlands, and Oeiras in Portugal. However, plans to slash the number of regional HQ’s from 20 to 11, have fallen foul of nations seeking to defend military pride or civilian jobs. Southern European nations in particular are fighting to hang on to their bases, with Spain and Greece at the heart of the dispute. With the closure of NATO’s four sub-regional joint commands, Greece loses a base at Larissa and with the halving of its combined air operations centers from around 10, Spain loses one in Madrid, Reuters reported yesterday. Robertson said he was confident an agreement would be found this week. He stressed governments had to put political considerations aside in the interest of the alliance. «Military effectiveness can be the only criteria for NATO’s command structures,» he told a news conference in Spain ahead of the meeting. «If we’re going to be able to properly meet the challenges that face us, we’ve got to have the structures that enable us to respond as speedily as possible.» Robertson was also pressing European allies to make good on pledges at a summit last November in the Czech capital of Prague to beef up their military and start closing the gap with US forces. «Only a Europe that is strong militarily will be listened to in Washington,» Robertson wrote in Germany’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper on the weekend. Signaling advances in at least some of those areas, allies are today due to sign «letters of intent» committing them to charter roll-on-roll-off ferries and other cargo ships to boost the alliances outreach ability. A similar letter was due for signing on the leasing of large transport planes, a key shortfall for European allies. The allies are expected to go for a mixture of American-built C-17s leased directly from Boeing and Antonov 124s chartered from Ukraine. Robertson has praised the allies’ progress in finding a solution to the strategic lift problem and on procuring precision-guided munitions and air-to-air refueling. However, his scorecard on their other military capabilities is less complimentary. He has awarded the allies just three out of 10 on ground surveillance and combat support, NATO jargon for such unglamorous but essential equipment as field canteens and first aid centers needed to keep troops in the field. The slowing down of efforts to build up defenses against chemical, biological and nuclear attacks, electronic jamming gear and secure communications have also drawn criticism from the secretary-general.