Sat, 12 Feb 2000

EU exercises to flex military muscle

By Ian Black

BRUSSELS: It is a military planner's nightmare: two simultaneous crises on two different fronts.

In make-believe Yellowland, not a million miles from real-life Libya, long-range ballistic missiles threaten the cities of southern Europe; vital shipping lanes could be affected.

At the same time -- further afield, but well within range of CNN news casters -- a civil war is raging in Kiloland, somewhere vaguely in the vicinity of Africa.

Thousands have been killed and injured in clashes between this fictitious country's rival factions -- the Adonians and the Butonians. Hungry, frightened refugees are fleeing.

At an emergency meeting in New York, the UN security council has authorized international intervention to deal with an increasingly grave humanitarian situation.

But North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) cannot handle both problems at once. The U.S. congress -- recalling its troops' unhappy experience in Somalia when they and other foreign forces tried to bring aid and peace to areas terrorized by fighting warlords in 1992-1994 -- is unwilling to get sucked into a Kiloland quagmire. So in theory the hour of Europe has finally come.

No real soldiers, ships or planes are involved in Crisex 2000, beginning next week at NATO headquarters in Brussels and a few miles across town, at the Western European Union (WEU), the EU's long established but very untried defense arm.

But testing how these two military organizations will respond to this pair of notional crises is an unprecedented event in Europe's slowly emerging "defense identity".

Crisex's outcome will be an important first indication of whether the EU can acquire the military clout to match its economic power -- and to act if the real moment comes.

"We want to get the EU and NATO, these two big sumo wrestlers at either end of Brussels, to talk to each other without it being a threat to each other's virility," says one diplomat. "We need to see how something like this actually works in practice."

Learning from the bloody lessons of Bosnia and Kosovo, the EU has at last begun to make progress on defense. At December's Helsinki summit, the union pledged to build a 60,000-strong rapid reaction force for peacekeeping and humanitarian tasks, able to act where NATO as a whole is not engaged.

Throughout the long and tortuous process, the EU has had to keep NATO happy, to assuage fears -- especially in Washington -- that Europe is trying to undercut or duplicate what NATO does best.

British critics -- including former foreign secretaries David Owen and Malcolm Rifkind -- voiced similar fears on Wednesday.

Crisex is about the nuts and bolts of how the WEU, with almost no operational military experience or permanently available troops, would "borrow" NATO assets and capabilities -- such as the heavy transport aircraft and satellite reconnaissance needed to deal with a Kiloland situation.

The six-day command post exercise will involve NATO's 19 members and the 11-strong WEU, which takes in neutral Ireland, Sweden, Finland and Austria. Europe will be led by a French admiral, Jean- Marie Ziriot; NATO by its deputy supreme commander, Rupert Smith, a British general. It is going to be a complex business.

The planners, poring over organizational diagrams and acronym- heavy flow charts, say that no less than 49 separate stages of consultation will be required before the hard decisions can be made.

NATO is not holding its breath. The United States -- as its defense secretary, William Cohen, stated bluntly last weekend at an international security gathering in Munich -- fears that the European partners may be doing little more than building another unwieldy bureaucratic structure, while they go on slashing their military spending.

No one even expects WEU forces to be able to handle Yellowland -- a clear projection of the "Club Mad" idea that sees a threat from a North African pariah like the Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafy, whose state is a major oil supplier to several European countries. Nor could the EU deal with a big and difficult crisis on the scale of a future Kosovo.

But Europe might manage the sort of limited role envisaged in Kiloland, clearly inspired by recent African crises: Sierra Leone, say, or Rwanda, where international intervention was a bitter failure in 1994. "The scenario is entirely fictitious, but it contains all the generic elements to provide a realistic test in the real world," said a spokeswoman for the WEU.

Under current plans it will be 2003 before a European rapid reaction force might come into existence. Possible future roles could include peacekeeping in Cyprus, if the parties agreed, or even helping to police a Syria-Israel deal on the Golan Heights. Next week EU foreign ministers are due to approve the first permanent committees to steer EU defense efforts. So Crisex comes at a key moment.

-- Guardian News Service