Nato chiefs support US plan for rapid reaction force

Nato ministers fell into line yesterday with American plans to transform the alliance by creating a 20,000-strong rapid reaction force able to strike quickly at terrorist targets and rogue states.

Defence ministers from the 19-nation alliance gave their broad backing to the idea after a warning from the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, that Nato could disappear altogether if it did not adapt.

"If Nato does not have a force that is quick and agile, which can deploy in days or weeks, instead of months or years, then it will not have much to offer the world in the 21st century," Mr Rumsfeld told the informal meeting in Warsaw.

The force, to include rapidly mobile air and sea forces, could be operational within two years if it is approved at a summit in Prague in November. But diplomats believe that deploying such a unit, particularly for controversial pre-emptive action, will be extremely difficult in Nato, which acts by consensus among all its members.

Opening the two-day meeting, the Nato secretary general, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, said the alliance had to act quickly to refocus its military muscle so it could "root out and destroy" terrorist threats.

Meanwhile Germany's Defence Minister, Peter Struck, said Germany and the Netherlands were ready to take command of the international security force in the Afghan capital, Kabul, when Turkey's mandate ran out at the end of the year.