NATO scales down plans for rapid reaction force

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NOORDWIJK, Netherlands, Oct 25 (Reuters) NATO defence ministers agreed today to scale down the alliance's ambition to keep a 25,000-strong rapid reaction force on standby, ready to intervene in crises around the world.

The brainchild of former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the NATO Response Force (NRF), was conceived to field troops from a pool of up to 25,000 at five days' notice and was a key part of efforts to revamp the alliance after the Cold War.

The project was a victim of the pressure on NATO members to maintain a 40,000-strong force in Afghanistan, a mission some argue is proof that NATO is in any case revamping its armies to meet far-flung military challenges.

''The number of forces we will have on permanent stand-by will decrease,'' NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told a news conference after talks in the Dutch coastal resort of Noordwijk.

Alliance sources said last month the future of the NRF was in question after allies, including the United States, withdrew earlier pledges of troops or equipment, saying they were needed for operations such as Afghanistan or Kosovo.

NATO military chiefs subsequently suggested a ''graduated approach'' under which only a much-reduced core of the NRF would survive, with the understanding that national contingents could be quickly added as needed.

De Hoop Scheffer said military chiefs would study how such a core NRF might look, but stressed the move would still allow it to take on the seven original missions -- from evacuations to counter-terrorism -- for which it was originally conceived.

DIFFICULTIES He conceded the difficulties of such an approach, which could lead to deployments being delayed as countries balked at sending troops to reinforce any core NRF presence.

''I admit that the pressure on forces is very big indeed and that force generation is never an easy process,'' he said.

The NRF was declared fully operational at a NATO summit a year ago but has not been deployed on any mission since. Parts of it were used to fly in and distribute relief to victims of the October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.

There is also intermittent debate within the alliance as to whether it could be used to plug shortfalls in the Afghanistan peace force, something which several nations strongly oppose.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a speech to the Conference of European Armies in Heidelberg, Germany, said US troop commitments to the NATO response force would be driven by the alliance's decision on making the force available for use by commanders in ongoing operations.

US officials wanted the NRF to be available to help in Afghanistan.

''At the summit in Riga last November, we declared the NATO response force fully operational. Since then, we have reaffirmed the NRF's twin roles: to catalyze transformation, and to be available for unforeseen needs - in ongoing operations as well as new crises.'' ''For the NRF to be successful, it will require full allied political support - both in terms of pledges to the force and agreement that the force won't just sit on the shelf. Progress in these areas - and on other allied contributions - are factors that will help determine what future US contributions will be.'' Reuters SZ VP0216

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