MONS, Belgium - NATO opened a new headquarters complex for its special forces Wednesday as part of a larger move aimed at offsetting the effects of deep defense cuts and better coordinating the elite military units.
In a ceremony in Mons, Belgium, NATO's supreme commander Adm. James Stavridis said the new command center will ensure that the national contingents continue to develop their capabilities by training together.
The move comes as NATO is reforming its forces across the alliance. NATO's new philosophy of "smart defense" calls on members to share resources and equipment in order to reduce duplication.
"The ultimate point of smart defense is to build connections," Stavridis said at the opening ceremony.
Twenty of NATO's 28 member countries have cut their defense budgets since the Europe's financial crisis began in 2008. Military spending, which has already shrunk 15 percent in the past decade, is set to plunge further as part of the austerity measures implemented by many European governments to cope with the continent's debt crisis.
Elite units are much cheaper and easier to deploy than conventional forces that require armor, artillery and logistical support. Although they are much fewer in number, commandos often have a disproportionally large effect on the enemy.
"One of the real comparative advantages of special forces is bang for the buck," Stavridis told The Associated Press. "They are very cost-effective because it is a relatively small number of people who create enormous effect."
The United States and NATO countries have increasingly relied on special forces to fight guerrillas in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The U.S. military already has a U.S. Special Operations Command that unites the special forces operated by each individual service. The command is headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.
In a spectacularly successful helicopter-borne operation last year, U.S. commandos flew into a Pakistani army town and killed terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. And just last weekend, a U.S. special operations team carried out a rescue mission in Afghanistan that freed an American doctor abducted by the Taliban outside of Kabul.
The new NATO Special Operations Forces Headquarters, which replaces a small building in the alliance's military compound in this southern Belgian town, aims to preserve the capabilities developed by NATO's special forces in Afghanistan, where national contingents have been operating together throughout the war.
U.S. and NATO advisers have worked with Afghan special forces and developed them from the ground up for several years. Military analysts consider them the most effective units within the Afghan security forces.
So far 26 of NATO's 28 members have declared their intention to participate in the new command, along with three neutral nations: Austria, Finland and Sweden. The only NATO countries not participating are Luxembourg, which doesn't have a commando force, and Iceland, which doesn't have an army.
Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and Switzerland have been invited to join.