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Monday, 20 November, 2000, 14:11 GMT
Europe's new defence force
UK Soldier
UK, France and Germany are to provide most of the troops
BBC New Online's Tarik Kafala

European Union defence ministers are putting in place the building blocks for a new European rapid reaction force.

The move is being seen as Europe's first steps towards mounting its own military operations after decades of reliance on the United States and Nato.

Recent conflicts in the Balkans have increased pressure, mainly from Washington, on Europe to make greater independent defence provisions.

The aim is to have a total of 60,000 troops capable of being deployed at 60 days' notice, and sustained for a year, by the year 2003.

Chain of command

The European force, when it is constituted, will have a permanent headquarters in Brussels.

It will not be a standing army, but will be formed at short notice.

Javier Solana
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana to take leading role
The international chain of command is tortuous and many-layered. Javier Solana - the EU's foreign policy head and a former Nato Secretary-General - is expected to take a leading role in the command structure headed by the 15 EU heads of government.

The push for the new force was led by Britain and France. Observers say last year's war in Kosovo showed how heavily Europe relied on the US.

The force is being seen by some European governments as an insurance policy against what some are seeing as increasing American isolationism.

Britain, France and Germany are all expected to make significant contributions and many of the smaller countries may group together to provide say, a combat ready brigade.

Defence analysts point out that despite Europe's best intentions there remains a huge difference in US and European military capabilities - especially in heavy airlift, logistical support, electronic warfare and intelligence gathering.

Types of operation

European military planners have identified a range of possible military operations in which EU governments might wish to become involved, independently from Nato.

European force facts
60,000 troops
Designed for rapid deployment
Ready by 2003
Not a standing army
They range from small-scale rescue missions, through to conflict prevention and the full-scale separation of warring parties that might involve the whole 60,000-strong force.

BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus says that while the so-called "headline" goal is for a force of 60,000 with supporting air and naval assets, the catalogue of forces to be drawn up will be significantly larger, enabling planners to mix-and-match units for any given contingency.

British controversy

Britain is expected to contribute about 12,000 soldiers along with more than 70 combat aircraft and 18 warships.

Unlike the rest of Europe, the plans for a European force has proved highly controversial in Britain with some opposition parties warning of steps to create a European army.

The UK Government has stressed that the force us not a standing army, that it will spur an improvement in European capabilities and that it is not intended for fighting full-scale wars or contingencies where European security as a whole is threatened. This, London says, will remain the preserve of Nato.

See also:

20 Nov 00 | Europe
20 Nov 00 | UK Politics
06 Dec 99 | Europe
18 Oct 99 | Europewide Debate
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