NATO has cleared the flight path for Central European countries to land safely in its alliance.
NATO's military brass has backed away from insistence that the leading candidates for membership - Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic - reach weapons and operations "inter-operability." Instead, the decision on admission now rests solely with policymakers in Brussels and Washington.
"If it were up to me, they'd be admitted today. But it's a political decision," says Belgian Air Force Maj. Gen. Karel Vervoort, NATO's chief of staff support for Central Europe. "They don't have to be militarily compatible for NATO enlargement.... It can come gradually."
The sooner NATO expands, alliance officials say, the sooner the region stabilizes. The fighting in Bosnia has been a reminder that the threat to Europe no longer comes from outside, but from within. Centuries-old border disputes and ethnic rivalries are still a potential source of warfare.
Cozier, more neighborly relations were at the heart of the first joint air exercise between NATO and its Partnership for Peace (PFP) allies, conducted last week in central Hungary. At the week-long event - the first held in the former Soviet bloc - participants noted that none of NATO's 16 member states has warred with a fellow member.
Instead, even bitter foes like Greece and Turkey have been prodded toward the negotiating table. So the talk at the 25-nation, 1,100-soldier event was of "the more, the merrier."
"If you close the door [of cooperation] and leave countries behind, [the soldiers] are the first ones who'll get hurt," says US Air Force Capt. Carol McCaskill, a flight nurse instructor and one of the 22 women who participated in the exercises. "We're the ones who'll go to war, not the politicians."
Several recent developments have reassured the Central Europeans that the door to NATO is indeed open. Many of them have pinned their foreign policies to eventual admission into NATO.
The US House of Representatives last Thursday authorized $60 million to help the Central Europeans meet certain criteria for NATO membership.
On Friday, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, speaking at the air exercise, indicated that negotiations with the members-in-waiting would begin in earnest next year. Membership within three years now seems certain.
What also seems certain is that it may be years before the newcomers play anything but bit parts in NATO missions. At the exercises last week, in which there was simulated disaster relief and maintenance of a "no-fly zone," PFP soldiers were mostly relegated to air-traffic control, logistics, engineering, and working the computers - similar to their current duties in Bosnia. Mediocre English-language skills remain a huge obstacle to cooperation.
In addition, Russia remains unconvinced about the necessity of an enlarged NATO. Retired Gen. Alexander Lebed, chairman of Russia's Security Council, was quoted as saying that although he finds NATO expansion unnecessary, it is no security threat to Russia. But the Kremlin has not reversed its official policy of opposition to NATO enlargement.
That policy does not seem to faze PFP countries. "We wouldn't like and we won't ask for Russia's permission [to enter NATO]. But we'll discuss it with them. It's a decision for a sovereign Hungary," commented Gyrgy Keleti, Hungary's minister of defense.
While NATO officers praised their PFP partners for being quick learners, the NATO officers also say the Central Europeans are light years away from NATO members in the use of technology. This is particularly true in the air forces. Wanting to pull its weight, each Central European nation is looking to beef up its aging fleet.
Poland wants to buy 150 new aircraft worth $6 billion. Hungary hopes to add 30 planes for nearly $1 billion, while the Czechs want two-dozen fighters. Cynics suggest that NATO expansion is a tool for creating new markets for Western manufacturers. But all purchases have been delayed at least until NATO negotiations begin in 1997.
At the end of the military operations last week, a final nagging question remained unanswered. NATO members are obliged to come to each other's rescue. But if a skirmish were to break out between Romania and Hungary over Romania's 2-million-strong ethnic Hungarian community, for example, it is uncertain whether the American public would be willing to commit NATO troops to quell the conflict.
That is a political hot potato no one wants a bite of, particularly those who basked in the camaraderie among former adversaries at the joint exercises last week.
"Who gets a security guarantee and who doesn't, that's another question," says US Gen. George A. Joulwan, NATO's supreme allied commander.
"Let's take this one step at a time," General Joulwan told the Monitor. "We've demonstrated we can work together ... but first you must do the nitty-gritty groundwork to lay the foundation [for security guarantees]."