In new NATO, a division of military labor

US attempts to create a new form of military alliance. Will it work against Iraq?

A Huey UH-1 helicopter swoops in above a boarded-up building and disgorges a team of Slovenian Special Forces troops, who slide down ropes and leap onto a small balcony.

The troops toss in a "flash-bang" grenade, which explodes with a blinding light and noise to disorient the enemy. Then they storm the building, rescuing a "hostage" within minutes.

In a viewing stand below, wearing a camouflaged Slovenian field jacket, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sizes up the demonstration with a word: "Excellent!"

Here in the foothills of the Alps, soldiers of this tiny European nation want to show the world they have the right stuff. Although few in number, their skill is a crucial ingredient in what Washington is promoting as a new kind of global military alliance - one that pools specialized forces across national borders.

The idea is to exploit "niche" capabilities to fill gaps in the resources of the broader alliance by drawing either from individual countries or from a consortium of nations. In essence, it is a military division of labor in which countries make valued - if narrow - contributions while gaining protection under an umbrella of collective defense.

For Slovenia and six other candidate nations, the specialized skills are a vehicle for gaining entry to NATO, which formally invited them to join last week. Some "niche" forces in high demand include special forces troops, mountain soldiers, engineers, peacekeepers, and explosive experts who dispose of ordinances left behind from conflicts.

Slovenia, a mountainous, former republic of Yugoslavia with 2 million people, is eager to prove its ability to contribute to global security. Recently, Slovenia dispatched military police and helicopter troops to Bosnia, demining teams to Afghanistan, and supplied 80 metric tons of inherited Yugoslav small arms and ammunition to the fledgling Afghan national Army. A Slovenian is also among the many foreign liaison officers stationed at US Central Command in Tampa, Fla., the headquarters for the Afghan campaign.

Pentagon officials say that the willingness of smaller nations to play a role - without developing full-scale, "360 degree" militaries of their own - has helped break down resistance to the "niche" idea among NATO members.

"Frankly, in years gone by, there had been some hesitation about this, that somehow specialization - real specialization - was something you shouldn't do in the alliance," says a senior Pentagon official. "I think we've turned the corner on that, and I think some of the new countries that are coming in, as well as some of the newer members of the alliance, helped us turn the corner."

Moreover, as nations such as Slovenia supply forces for the broader alliance, the benefits extend beyond pure military operations, advocates say. Slovenia and other aspiring NATO members gain guidance in streamlining and modernizing their armed forces to meet entry requirements.

Slovenia, for example, is transforming its large conscript force into a smaller but more professional armed force of 8,000 to 10,000, while gradually increasing its defense spending. NATO, in turn, can shape the contributions of candidate nations in negotiations before they join, to ensure they are compatible and strengthen the alliance.

"NATO helps us get the procedures, show what we know, and be part of the system," says Dr. Milan Jazbec, who handles international affairs for the Slovenian Ministry of Defense. "[Otherwise] how could [a] small country fit in these big issues?"

With membership now within reach, Slovenia's military intends to "put things in overdrive, to really master what we have learned so far," he says enthusiastically.

Washington is also encouraging the 19 current NATO members to pool resources in areas of shortage. In one initiative, a group of countries led by Germany is considering forming a consortium to lease planes such as C-17s to boost their short-term airlift capacity. Another plan under consideration is creating a small force of air-refueling planes, known as tankers, to sustain air operations.

A major effort also began this year to pool the skills of NATO countries in handling nuclear, biological, or chemical (NBC) attacks on alliance troops - an area of "critical deficiency" exposed during the 1991 Gulf War. "You saw loaded shells on the tarmac ready to go that were filled with anthrax and biotoxins ... for which we were not prepared," says a senior NATO official.

This month the first training exercises were held for 115 NATO troops from 19 countries that make up two prototype teams, one to respond to NBC attacks, and one to operate NBC sampling and detection laboratories. Over the coming year, NATO will decide how many of the seven-to 15-person teams they will create for deployment with NATO forces.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.