Nato and its former foes look for common ground

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THERE ARE few military units as individualistic as Italy's Folgore, the elite paratroopers who fought in Somalia. A unit is representing Italy in Poland for Co-operative Bridge '94, the first Nato exercise with the Eastern European countries under its Partnership for Peace (PFP) scheme. Their elegantly tailored uniforms, their habit of shouting out their unit's name when performing drill, the officers' silk scarves, all mark out this Tuscany-based regiment.

But as individual as they are, the smart new AR-70 Beretta rifles the Folgore carry can also use the magazines the Americans carry for their M-16s. That is 'interoperability', the jargon for the ability of Nato troops to fight together as part of an integrated military force.

Interoperability is what this PFP exercise is all about: finding out how Nato and former Warsaw Pact forces operate together. Platoons from Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and the Ukraine are working in companies with platoons from Britain, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United States.

In theory, this is to practise future joint peace-keeping under United Nations auspices. In practice, it is to prepare for the integration of some of these countries into Nato. The legacy of the now-defunct Warsaw Pact is huge differences in equipment, for a start, though that need not matter too much. Indeed, there are plenty of technical differences between troops and equipment from Nato countries.

No effort has ever been made in Nato to hammer out all the technical problems. After all, the American forces regularly encounter huge inter-service problems of their own. The model of integration is very different from the European Union; there are no harmonisation directives. The aim is that things should be able to plug together.

Language is the most obvious problem. English is the lingua franca on the exercise, though many officers from the East speak little, if any. 'And when somebody's in a combat situation, his main pre-occupation is communicating with his troops,' says Captain Mike Pemnick, a company commander from the US 1st Armoured Division. Differences in radios and communication procedures are also obstacles. But there are others: in structure, organisation and methods.

One of the main differences concerns the way authority is exercised. 'The level of responsibility within the Nato units goes a lot lower,' says Captain Mike Snape from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, who is an observer-controller. 'You can assume a junior soldier can take a lot more responsibility.' The non-commissioned officers in the US forces found they were billeted with the enlisted men, as NCOs have a different status in the former Warsaw Pact forces. And while officers were given mattresses, there were none for the soldiers.

On this exercise, the rationale is to work out the points of difficulty, not to do anything about them. Troops are shooting each others' weapons, for instance, and inspecting and using Polish hardware from the brand new helicopters to the fusty old MRDM armoured cars.

The troops from Europe and the US have instructions not to appear patronising or superior. 'Part of the goal is not to teach them the American way,' says Captain Pemnick. Eventually, ways will be found of bridging the gap.

European security over the next decade is likely to consist in putting together groups of soldiers from very different countries for specific pusposes, and what is happening in Poznan this week is a glimpse into the future.