BRUSSELS, Sept. 19 (UPI) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is expected to urge NATO allies to set up a rapid-reaction force capable of taking swift military action anywhere in the world.
If NATO defense ministers give the green light to Rumsfeld's proposals at a meeting Tuesday and Wednesday in Poland, the 19-member alliance could be transformed from a regional self-defense organization into an offensive military body with global reach.
NATO officials remained tight-lipped about the details of Rumsfeld's plans, but said there was a groundswell of support within the alliance for a more mobile military force capable of intervening in conflicts outside the North Atlantic area.
"We have to be able to move quickly, far away and in difficult terrain," one official told United Press International.
Another said that the days when NATO was faced with a static threat from the east were well and truly over.
The end of the Cold War triggered an intensive bout of soul searching within the world's most powerful military alliance. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet bloc, many commentators even questioned whether NATO had a future role to play in the security structure of Europe and America.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States have led the Brussels-based body to focus its attention on fighting terrorism, protecting civilian populations and preventing rogue regimes from procuring weapons of mass destruction.
Speaking on the anniversary of Sept. 11, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said: "Defeating terrorism is the first major challenge of the 21st century."
Robertson also threw his weight behind Rumsfeld's plans for a rapid-reaction force, saying, "To deter potential attackers and prevent terror being launched against us, they (the military) must be equipped and trained to mount complex operations over long distances, in difficult country and for prolonged periods."
The former British defense minister added: "You cannot defend cities now on national frontiers. It's no longer realistic to think in those terms anymore. So we need lighter, more rapidly deployable forces -- forces available at short notice."
The United Kingdom and Spain share Rumsfeld's and Robertson's vision. However, France and Belgium believe a NATO force could jeopardize the creation of a 60,000-strong EU rapid-reaction force that is to be put together next year.
NATO officials stressed that no formal decisions are expected at next week's meeting in Warsaw. However, the meeting is the last chance for defense ministers to reach agreement on a raft of thorny issues before a mid-November summit of NATO leaders in Prague.
In addition to redefining the alliance's strategic goals, the "Transformation Summit" -- as officials are billing the Prague meeting -- is due to accept a clutch of membership applications from the former Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe.