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NATO Defense Ministers Prepare to Meet - 2002-06-05

NATO defense ministers are meeting in Brussels Thursday and Friday as pressure from Washington builds for the alliance to boost its capabilities to fight terrorism. The West's premier security organization is also seeking ways to deal with challenges outside of its traditional Euro-Atlantic area of operation.

The defense ministers of the 19 nation alliance are gearing up for a summit in Prague next November that diplomats say will set out new goals for the organization. The meeting follows a landmark accord last month that gives Russia a role in NATO decisions about terrorist threats and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

The main item on the agenda for this week's meeting is the widening capabilities gap between the United States and its allies.

The United States has been pressing the allies to increase defense spending and acquire new capabilities to face new challenges to security. Even though budgets are tight, and no European politician facing an election wants to spend more on defense, U.S. officials say they think the allies will be ready at the Prague summit to commit to improving their military muscle.

The alternative, say diplomats at NATO headquarters, is for the alliance to become a two-tier alliance, with the United States providing smart bombs, logistics and intelligence, while others provide ground troops or simply sit on the sidelines.

American officials say it is urgent for Canada and the European allies to build up their capabilities in such areas as strategic airlift, precision-guided munitions, and secure communications.

Washington also wants the alliance to develop a strategy to protect troops and civilian populations from biological and chemical weapons. It is suggesting that some of the smaller allies, given the difficult budgetary climate, pool resources or specialize in individual capabilities to keep costs down.

All of these ideas have picked up support in Europe recently. Britain and Spain this week called for NATO to transform itself from a strictly collective defense alliance into a more flexible organization whose forces can be used wherever they are needed, raising the prospect of missions beyond the Euro-Atlantic area. That call is consistent with NATO Secretary-General George Robertson's insistence that the alliance must be able to deploy small, highly mobile units quickly into far-flung trouble-spots and sustain them there.

NATO is developing what a senior official describes as "a new military concept" that will define what role its armed forces should play in the war on terrorism. The official says NATO is also considering how to respond to attacks on non-member countries that are outside its area of operation.