WASHINGTON, Sept. 20 (UPI) -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will ask NATO next week to create a combat-ready quick reaction force that can respond to crises outside the alliance's territory, senior Pentagon and military officials said Friday.
Rumsfeld will make his proposal for a new Rapid Reaction Force, capable of deploying within a week, at Tuesday's NATO defense ministers' meeting in Warsaw, Poland.
The idea is already causing concern in Europe, where a separate effort is under way to create a standing force but for less combat-intensive operations such as peacekeeping.
"We don't see this in anyway as a competitor," a senior defense official told reporters Friday, saying forces could be trained for one and used for either effort.
A senior military official told United Press International the European Rapid Reaction force's emphasis on low-level operations makes it very different from Rumsfeld's proposal.
The military official said the plan envisions a full complement of military capabilities, from bombers and fighters, to a maritime element, to well-armed ground forces. The force would be made of components from NATO members, which would exercise together and rotate in and out of being "on call" -- most likely for a six-month period.
The NATO Rapid Reaction Force would be capable of conducting missions from non-combatant evacuation to initial entry operations in a "hot" war scenario. A defense official said the force envisioned could amount to about 20,000 people, with about 3,000 ground troops.
Critical to the effort is Europe's willingness to boost spending on defense and for each country to "specialize" in needed capabilities, such as secure communications, precision weapons, airlift and refueling. The trend in Europe is otherwise.
"One of the things I am concerned about is the countries' need to focus their resources and spend more money," the senior defense official said.
The official denied the proposal had anything to do with the possible U.S. war with Iraq.
"It will take years to develop these capabilities," the official said.
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 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 UPI.
Another said 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 so-called 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.
"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."
Britain 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 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.
Rumsfeld will meet separately with the Dutch, Polish and Italian defense ministers on Monday, as well as with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on Wednesday.
(With reporting by Gareth Harding in Brussels)