NATO turns to equipment woes as defence ministers meet

Problems with transport equipment and with finding men for a long-awaited expeditionary force were set to top the agenda Friday as NATO defence ministers met in Brussels, reported dpa.

"We have to make sure that our forces are suitable to face current security challenges and ready to react to rising threats," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said as he opened the second day of the ministerial meeting.

"We are going to evaluate efforts aimed at improving strategic and tactical transport, notably on the issue of providing helicopters suited to the mission, address the setting-up of the NATO Response Force (NRF) and give a new impulse to the establishment of allied capacity allied for air-ground surveillance," he said.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO has been trying to re- structure its forces from a land army designed to fight in Europe to a flexible force capable of operating anywhere in the world.

But its efforts have been dogged with difficulties. The alliance's European members remain critically short of large transport aircraft able to carry their troops to distant operations, and of helicopters which can move those troops around the battlefield once they arrive.

A current European Union peacekeeping mission in Chad, for example, has had to rely on Russia and Ukraine for air transport. NATO defence ministers are set to meet their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts later on Friday.

On Thursday, the Netherlands, Slovenia and the United States signed up to a plan for NATO to buy three giant C-17 transport aircraft and station them in Hungary for alliance use.

By comparison, the US Air Force has close on 200 of the aircraft in service, but is reluctant to commit more to NATO missions.

The NRF, which was proposed by the US in 2002 as a powerful combined air, sea and land force capable of deploying round the world at short notice, also faces difficulties, with member states reluctant to commit the required number of troops to it.

However, NATO plans for the alliance as a body to buy an air-based ground-surveillance system are now thought to be nearing completion.

In 2006, NATO member states' armaments directors agreed to spend 500 million euros (773 billion dollars) on designing and developing the system, which is expected to come into operation in 2010.

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