LONDON — BRITAIN'S armed forces are beginning to adopt a new type of role - international humanitarian relief. But arguments are surfacing about how far and how fast the trend should be allowed to develop.
As the first of 600 members of the 5th Airborne Brigade begin arriving on the Rwanda-Zaire border to join United States troops already there, independent military analysts say the troops' presence signals a welcome shift toward relief work.
The brigade's task in Rwanda is being compared with work done over the past two years by Britain's 2,600 troops in Bosnia. One of their main missions has been to shepherd United Nations relief convoys through battle zones to deliver food and other supplies to communities cut off by fighting.
Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at Bradford University in Yorkshire County, describes the Rwanda operation as ``tardy, limited, but welcome.''
He urges the British and other governments to ``rethink their assumptions and priorities'' about the part the military can play in coping with civilian emergencies.
Before dispatching the unit to Rwanda, Malcolm Rifkind, Britain's defense secretary, stressed that the troops would concentrate on relief work and not be engaged in peacekeeping duties.
A behind-the-scenes dispute preceded the decision to send the troops. Last month, Mr. Rifkind indicated that there was little prospect of it happening. But President Clinton's decision to send US troops to aid in relief work appears to have helped change the defense secretary's mind.
The sending of a relief force to Rwanda represents a significant switch in British policy, according to Hugh Hanning, chairman of the Fontmell Group, an organization that favors the use of the military for peaceful purposes.
``At first the government resisted, but then it changed its mind,'' Mr. Hanning says. ``It did so thanks largely to the sheer scale of the refugee tragedy.''
How often military units should be used in response to international civil emergencies is being vigorously debated in British defense circles.
Mr. Rogers notes that a key ``growth area'' in the armed forces of Western nations is the establishment of rapid-reaction units that are able to fly long distances at short notice.
``The stress is on versatility and mobility,'' he says. ``It may be that two types of units will have to be formed, one for orthodox military use, the other for humanitarian operations.''
Deployment of the 5th Airborne comes at a moment of flux in British Army planning.
Prime Minister John Major has said that if a decision is taken to rearm the Bosnian Muslims, the British UN contingent in the former Yugoslavia will probably have to be withdrawn.
On the other hand, the troubles in Northern Ireland show no sign of abating, and there may be pressure to reinforce the 20,000 British troops currently deployed there.