When Russian tanks rolled into Georgia a few weeks back, it triggered a great deal of consternation and hand-wringing among NATO members.
In other words, what was the alliance supposed to do? Georgia, which has sought NATO membership, pleaded for western military support as Moscow's forces gobbled up large chunks of its territory.
As we know, NATO's ultimate response was limited to humanitarian aide, sharply-worded statements and vows to "punish" Russia, diplomatically and economically. So far, Vladimir Putin doesn't seem overly concerned.
Realizing that Moscow's next military adventure may require tougher measures, NATO has (according to the Los Angeles Times) been hard at work, creating a "rapid reaction" force that could be dispatched to nations threatened by Russia, or other foes.
The creation of such a force would take NATO back to its roots as a deterrent against Soviet might after years of concentrating on missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan. North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense chiefs plan to discuss the proposal at a meeting today. The Bush administration is pushing the idea as a compromise that could reassure allies without provoking Russia.
The deployment force being considered would be small, light and defensive in nature. However, some Defense officials acknowledge that any NATO move has the potential for provoking Moscow's anger.
The senior Defense official, who described the proposal on condition of anonymity, said there was broad support within the alliance but that key issues were undecided. They include questions about who would provide equipment for the force, who would have the authority to deploy it and under what situations.
The U.S. previously has pushed to create NATO rapid-reaction forces, with little success. The reemerging sense of threat from Moscow may provide incentive, but some Defense officials are uncertain that NATO countries will invest in the necessary equipment and personnel.
And there's the rub. Getting various alliance members to pony up and provide the necessary forces is a daunting challenge, as is actually using the rapid deployment force.
It's no secret that our European allies have been doing defense "on the cheap" for years. As a result, capabilities needed to support a reaction force--think airlift, for example--remain underfunded.
True, countries like Great Britain has purchased a handful of C-17s, and other NATO members are investing in the Airbus A-400 transport. But the fact remains that any alliance reaction force would rely, overwhelmingly, on the Air Force's Air Mobility Command to deploy forces to potential hotspots. Did we mention that the U.S. airlift fleet is already stretched thin by its current, worldwide commitments? We're not saying that NATO couldn't deploy its rapid reaction force, but (given current airlift shortfalls), it won't be as easy as some imagine.
There's also the issue of inter-operability. Military operations work better when the various partners can communicate and share information. But once again, various NATO countries remain behind the power curve in purchasing and integrating systems that allow them to operate with U.S. forces. The problem was evident during Operation Allied Force a decade ago, and there are still gaps in some areas. Overcoming those obstacles means spending more money on defense, a touchy issue in some allied nations.
But those challenges pale in comparison to actually deployment the rapid reaction force, particularly in response to Russian aggression. When Georgia and Ukraine pressed for NATO membership earlier this year, one of the alliance's principal members (Germany) derailed that proposal, lest Moscow be offended. Instead, Tbilisi and Kiev received vague promises that they might be allowed to join the alliance someday.
It was that kind of dithering that gave Mr. Putin a green light for his recent military operation. And, he's counting on the same sort of reluctance to slow creation of a NATO reaction force, and prevent its use in future contingencies. Sadly, the Atlantic Alliance has done little--so far--to prove his theory wrong.
If NATO does assemble a rapid reaction force, it will be (surprise, surprise) heavily American, both in terms of equipment and hardware. With the notable exception of Great Britain, our European allies are always willing to let someone else do all the heavy lifting.