THE North Atlantic Treaty Organization has approved a series of reforms that will drastically alter the strategic aims and military capabilities of the 42-year-old alliance. A new "crisis management" strategy adopted by NATO defense ministers in Brussels on May 28 calls for a two-thirds cut in the number of United States troops in Europe. It will also create a highly professional multinational mobile corps, up to 100,000-strong, capable of reacting swiftly to threats to alliance territory in Europe.
British Defense Minister Tom King described the plan as "a considered and sensible response" to the huge changes that have been occurring in Europe since the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in late 1989 and the breakup of the Warsaw Pact.
Mr. King's officials say it is likely a British general will command the planned rapid-reaction corps. Two divisions of British professional soldiers would make up half the unit, they said.
NATO sources in Brussels spoke last weekend of initial misgivings from the German government over the prominent role Britain would play, but said that those problems have been overcome. Britain, unlike Germany and most other NATO members, has a highly trained, all-regular Army.
Before the May 28 meeting, NATO sources said the corps would have two other divisions besides the British component. One would consist of troops from north European countries - mainly the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium - the other from the European south - Italy, Greece, and Turkey.
Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at London University, describes the NATO plan as a "post-cold-war strategy." Instead of planning against the contingency of an attack from the east through Germany, he says, the allies must be able to respond to threats in places other than NATO's central region.
Alliance members are concerned that, in the fluid politics of post-cold-war Europe, conflicts or crises may arise in areas such as the Balkans and the Middle East, requiring a NATO response.
The Soviet Union, which continues to be heavily armed and could well become unstable in the future, remains a threat. But NATO strategists are concerned that future planning should not consist of simply defending a line across Central Europe.
LAST month, Norway's Gen. Vigleik Eide, chairman of NATO's military committee, described the strategy's aim as providing "maximum flexibility" in "Europe's new circumstances."
The new-look NATO, according to officials in Brussels, calls for alliance forces to be organized into three main parts, or layers: rapid reaction units; main defense units (six corps of mixed nationalities); and "augmentation forces" (reinforcements) based in NATO member countries, including the United States.
According to Mr. Freedman, the rapid-reaction force (RRF) will be the core. This all-European force will have US air and logistical support, enabling it to be deployed within a few weeks.
Spearheading the RRF will be a special unit, 5,000-strong, on permanent stand-by and able to act on extremely short notice. Later, the full RRF could be mobilized if that proved necessary.
A major attraction of the new strategy, British defense sources say, is that it will enable Prime Minister John Major to secure a promised "peace dividend" from the post-cold-war situation in Europe by making deep cuts in Britain's overall defense budget.
Similar thinking inspires other European governments and the Bush administration. The German government said May 24 that it planned to close one-third of its bases in western Germany. US Defense Secretary Dick Cheney is under congressional pressure to cut US forces in Europe from 300,000 troops to around 100,000 over several years.