NATO Ministers Set to Give Military Chief Power to Act More Quickly

Abrams tanks from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division take part in a live-fire exercise June 16, 2015, at Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area in Poland. Brandon Anderson/Army
Abrams tanks from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division take part in a live-fire exercise June 16, 2015, at Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area in Poland. Brandon Anderson/Army

BRUSSELS -- Expanding NATO's crisis-response force and giving the alliance's top military commander the power to deploy forces on short notice are among a series of measures expected to be approved by NATO defense ministers during two days of talks that open Wednesday.

The moves are part of the alliance's ongoing attempts to better position itself to confront threats, both old and new.

In the east, the alliance faces a resurgent Russia, which has raised tensions not felt since the Cold War. In the south, the Islamic State group and other militant groups seek to extend their reach and press close to alliance turf.

"At our defense ministerial this week, we will take new steps to strengthen our collective defense. So we can respond to the challenges even faster and more effectively," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said ahead of the meeting.

On Wednesday, NATO will likely approve a plan to expand the size of its crisis-response force, which had been slated to double from 15,000 to 30,000. Now, it could grow to as many as 40,000, Stoltenberg said.

"The centerpiece of this enhanced NATO Response Force is the Spearhead Force," he said. "Its land component was decided in February to be a brigade. At the meeting this week, we will approve the air, sea and special forces components of the new Spearhead Force."

Earlier this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who is attending the meeting, announced that the U.S. would make contributions to the effort in the form of airlift capabilities and special operations forces.

Meanwhile, NATO also plans to expand the powers of Gen. Philip Breedlove, the alliance's top military officer.

For a quick-reaction forces to be effective, Breedlove will need the flexibility to send them on missions on short notice, which requires a faster political approval process.

"To further promote faster decisions, we will have more detailed and advanced plans, which is key to be able to deploy forces quickly," Stoltenberg said.

For NATO, Russia's intervention in Ukraine last year has served as a spark to reinvent itself after a decade of fighting in Afghanistan. During the past year, the alliance has nearly doubled the number of exercises it has conducted in Europe, with forces focused on initiatives in the Baltics and other parts of eastern Europe.

On Monday, Carter announced a long-expected move by the U.S. to pre-position tanks and other armor vehicles in the Baltics and in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. The measure is aimed at facilitating a more robust training mission in the region, which is funded in part by America's nearly $1 billion European Reassurance Initiative.

With 250 armored vehicles positioned in strategic locations, the effort is also expected to give NATO readiness a boost.

Speaking alongside Stoltenberg during a NATO war game in Poland last week, Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak talked of a new security environment in Europe that reflected the anxiety felt by many allies in the east.

"The peaceful period after the Second World War is over," Siemoniak said. "We cannot defend our European way of life if we don't do more for our defense."

Turbulence isn't restricted to NATO's eastern flank. In the south, the Islamic State group now operates within miles of NATO partner Turkey.

Breedlove, speaking to reporters in Poland last week, emphasized that the alliance's growing response force could be called upon for missions anywhere it is needed.

"It is a force for NATO in the north, south, east and west," he said.

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