Defence and Aerospace special report: Ankara will signal D-Day for reaction force

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Series Details 18/10/01, Volume 7, Number 38
Publication Date 18/10/2001
Content Type

Date: 18/10/01

By Dick Leonard

RAPID Reaction Force? Yes, but how rapid, and how much force? These were the questions pondered by the 15 defence ministers of the EU at their informal council last Friday, held symbolically at the Musée Royal de l'Armée in Brussels.

Their task was to prepare a report for the December summit at Laeken which, the Belgian presidency still fondly hopes, will declare the force operational one year ahead of target.

Fresh urgency is added by President Bush's 'declaration of war' against world terrorism. This could expedite the day when American forces will withdraw from the NATO operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, leaving Europe to shoulder unaided the preservation of peace in its own backyard.

The decision to establish the RRF was taken at the Helsinki summit in December 1999, in the perspective of the European Union taking over the responsibilities of the 50-year-old Western European Union, which was in the process of becoming defunct, though it still exists on paper.

The EU leaders decided that the Union needed its own military force to back up its common foreign and security policy. The aim was to assemble a force of 60,000 troops within three years, available for deployment to a crisis area up to 2,500 miles away within 60 days, with the troops being able to stay in place for at least a year.

The missions which the force would fulfil were the so-called 'Petersberg tasks', enumerated at a WEU conference at Petersberg, West Germany in June 1992. These were as follows: l. Humanitarian and rescue tasks, 2. Peacekeeping tasks and 3. Tasks of combat forces in crisis management, including peacemaking.

All these are missions normally carried out by NATO. The largely unspoken justification for having a separate EU force was to cover situations in which NATO (and, more particularly, the US) did not wish to be directly involved, but was nevertheless sympathetic.

The institutional basis for the RRF is now almost completely in place. The political and security committee (PSC) has been established at ambassadorial level. It meets once or twice weekly, under the chairmanship of the current EU presidency, though with a provision that Javier Solana, the High Representative for the CFSP, may take over in times of crisis.

This is flanked by the military committee, chaired for a three-year term by Finnish four-star General Gustav Haglund. The 140-strong military staff is now almost up to strength. It is headed by German General Rainer Schuwirth and his British deputy, General Graham Messervy-Whiting.

If the infrastructure is almost in place, what about the troops? With more than one-and-a-half million men under arms, it should not be too hard to find the 200,000 needed, with due provision for rotation, to keep the RRF up to strength.

It did, however, prove extremely difficult for the European members of NATO to find equivalent numbers, and with the right 'mix', for the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo.

A year ago, the EU held its first 'capabilities conference' at which the member states were asked to make firm offers of the men and equipment they were prepared to earmark for the force.

With Britain and France taking the lead, there was a promising response so far as troop numbers were concerned. The shortfalls were mainly on the equipment side, with significant shortages of air-lift and sea-lift capacity, communications equipment and headquarters, intelligence-gathering satellites and aircraft and precision-guided weapons.

In a bid to try to fill these gaps, a 'capabilities improvement' conference has been scheduled in Brussels for 19-20 November, when member states will again be asked to make offers. It is unlikely that they will be as forthcoming as a year ago.

If there was unlimited money available to throw at the problem, it should be relatively easy to fill the gaps within a reasonable period. Yet in the present economic climate this is clearly not on.

The substantial decline in military spending, which affected the US as well as all its European allies in the decade after the end of the Cold War, has now bottomed out. In most EU countries defence spending is now easing gently upward. Yet not nearly enough to allow any splurging out.

More effective use of existing resources, rather than a big expansion, is clearly the order of the day.

The movement towards more professional armies with the scrapping of conscription in most EU countries is an important move in this direction. Conscript armies are more expensive as well as being less effective, and 'more bullets for the buck' is the underlying objective.

The Belgian presidency believes that further pooling of national efforts is the key to future progress. It points to the experience of Kosovo, where Belgium and the Netherlands were jointly able to put a squadron of F-16 fighters in the air, which neither of them could have managed on their own.

Other multinational forces, currently attributed to NATO, include the five-nation Eurocorps and joint UK-Netherlands and the Italian-Spanish amphibious forces.

In the medium- and long-term the really big economies could be affected by joint procurement. At the moment, the British, Germans and French all have their own tanks, as well as the Americans. When these need replacing, perhaps in four or five years, will four different tanks and four research development programmes make any sense at all?

In the more immediate future, it is evident that the RRF will remain extremely dependent on NATO for equipment as well as planning and intelligence resources.

At the present time, the necessary agreement is totally blocked by the Turkish veto, which shows no sign of being lifted.

Pending resolution of this problem, there is little point in declaring the RRF operational. It would be largely a phantom force and would be capable only of operating small-scale and relatively low-risk missions.

The effective date for its launch will be decided in Ankara, rather than in Brussels.

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