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Seven Nations Bring Capabilities-Enthusiasm Mix to North Atlantic Alliance

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia, Nov. 24, 2002 – "Our people have been tested in the fires of history; they have been tempered in the furnace of suffering and injustice," said Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. "They know the meaning and the value of liberty. They know that it is worth every effort to support it, to maintain it, to stand for it and to fight for it."

The speech of the Latvian president captured the mood and attention of the NATO Summit held in Prague Nov. 20-21. Her country and six others Estonia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia had just been invited to join the North Atlantic Alliance.

Up until 1991, all of the countries were communist. Bulgaria, Slovakia and Romania were members of NATO's enemy the Warsaw Pact. Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania were integral republics of the Soviet Union. Slovenia was a part of then-Yugoslavia, which distanced itself from Soviet rule.

Now they have been invited to the Western alliance. When they finally become members, they will have all the rights and responsibilities of NATO's 12 founding members. An attack on any of these countries is an attack on all.

What do they bring to the alliance? NATO and the United States are actively pushing development of the so-called "niche capabilities" that the invitees bring. An example most often used by NATO and U.S. officials has been the Czech Republic, which joined NATO in 1999. The Czech military fields a world-class chemical, biological and nuclear defense capability. Czech leaders sunk money into developing this, and any NATO force deploying would need this type of capability.

Neighboring country and new invitee Slovakia would follow suit in niche capabilities. "We are a mountainous country," said Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda during a press conference in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava Nov. 22. "We have some specialized troops trained to operate in high mountains. This is also the way we are training our specialists for reconnaissance."

The Slovak military also fields engineer units now working in Afghanistan and the Balkans. "We also manufacture good equipment for removing mines and they are quite successfully employed in peace missions," Dzurinda said.

The prime minister said the Slovak military has a model for transforming the armed forces by 2010, including shifting to an all-volunteer military by 2006. "But we are aware of the new challenges," he said. "We know that our armed forces should be not only professional but also flexible, able to communicate with the armed forces of other NATO member states. So if I may sum up, we are aware that we are expected to be active and we want to be an active player in NATO, and very soon we would like to come with a specific offer for enriching the alliance."

In Slovenia Nov. 23, Rumsfeld got a small view of the type of capabilities these new forces bring. The Slovene military staged a demonstration for the secretary and his traveling party. A small army unit had set up a checkpoint just like those in the Balkans, Afghanistan or other places in the world. A group approached shouting at the soldiers. They fired "shots" at the Slovenes manning the checkpoint.

Then the soldiers went into action. Mounted in light armored vehicles, soldiers drove on and gave covering "fire." A group of the opposing forces took cover in a building. A Huey helicopter with Stabilization Force markings flew in and four soldiers rappelled off the skids onto a balcony. They tossed stun grenades into the building and cleared it, while soldiers on the ground secured the perimeter.

The close cooperation among all elements of the force was apparent. The ability to work with allies was also obvious: The officer briefing the secretary about the operation ended with "And, Mr. Secretary, it's only 14 days until Army beats the hell out of Navy in football." The Slovene officer was a 2001 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

The Slovene army has about 5,000 members. It has a small coast guard and no air force. Yet the military fields a superb special operation force. The Slovenes are consciously developing a small, well-equipped and professional asset just what observers say NATO needs.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld agrees that the new countries don't bring large military forces. NATO doesn't need that -- the era of large-scale combat on the European continent is past. "Russia is not the enemy," NATO Secretary General George Robertson said during the summit.

No country, or coalition of countries, can hope to best the NATO alliance army to army, navy to navy or air force to air force. The threat has changed to shadow groups that believe in extremism, challenging countries that believe in the rule of law and individual rights and freedoms. The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington are a tactic in this war, and NATO must change to meet these asymmetric threats.

The threat also lies with failed and failing states and areas where governments cannot exercise authority. These areas provide safe havens for terrorist organizations and their sympathizers. These areas lie in South America, Asia, the Balkans, Middle East and Africa.

Rogue states that defy the United Nations and actively support terror groups are the greatest danger. States such as Iraq have weapons of mass destruction and are actively seeking more.

NATO forces can no longer afford to pour money into "heavy metal" items like tanks, armored personnel carriers, fighter-bombers and the like, said Robertson and Rumsfeld in separate interviews during the summit. Instead, the alliance must develop lighter, more agile and deadly forces able to confront these groups far from the European continent.

The United States military is grappling with this same transformation. U.S. military actions in Afghanistan are an example. Highly trained U.S. military specialists entered the country. Using a combination of high-tech communications systems and good military skills, they worked with local oppositions groups to bring down the Taliban.

The NATO Response Force is the prime example of this shift in thinking. U.S. officials proposed this force in September. NATO leaders immediately saw the advantage of this idea and endorsed it at the Prague Summit. NATO military officials are working on plans to have a brigade-sized unit ready to go outside the area in "days, not months," said a DoD official.

But the new countries will mean more to the alliance than military capabilities. Rumsfeld said these new countries bring a "spirit and enthusiasm" to NATO that the other countries need. The elation of the press from the seven countries was apparent as the heads of state and government voted to extend the invitation to these countries. The leaders felt the same way. "Every one of you ... will understand that the most important reason for our joy and happiness is that the Slovak Republic, my country, was invited yesterday to become a member state of the North Atlantic alliance," Dzurinda said in Bratislava.

"In the life of every country there are exceptional events, and the invitation of Slovakia to join the alliance is such an exceptional event. I think it is an exceptional event not only for the Slovak nation ... but it is an exceptional event for the whole of Europe because this robust enlargement has definitely made the Iron Curtain something of the past and Europe has become united," he said.

The spirit and enthusiasm was also apparent in Latvian President Vike-Freiberga's closing remarks in Prague: "We make a solemn pledge and a commitment here today on this historic and solemn occasion, that we will strive to our utmost to do our part to contribute not just to strength of the alliance but to do whatever needs to be done to create the world where justice and liberty are available to all."

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