Nato's senior commander has asked for the power to order a new, 6,000-strong rapid reaction force into action before getting full backing from all 19 alliance nations.
General James Jones, Nato's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, said that the logic of creating a fast-moving, flexible force, designed to tackle threats such as terrorism, meant a rethink of the alliance's lengthy and cumbersome mechanisms.
"You need not only agile forces but also agile decision-making machinery," said General Jones, the American Marine general who is also commander of the United States' European Command.
The plans could create a two-tier Nato, permitting the alliance to go ahead with operations without the participation of some nations, such as Germany, that need time-consuming parliamentary approval before deploying troops.
But General Jones said that Nato member states would retain the right to veto missions, or could join in later if they wished.
The comments point to a revolutionary change at Nato, which operates by consensus but which has been criticised for trying to fight wars by committee. They also suggest that, post-Iraq, the US would like to construct coalitions of the willing within Nato, as it expands from 19 to 26 nations.
"I don't think anyone wants Nato, which is the ultimate coalition of the willing, to be by-passed by other coalitions of the willing", the general said.
But his ideas would give more flexibility to bypass political problems from governments, particularly in "Old Europe", where US-backed action is more controversial.
In October, the alliance launches the Nato Response Force (NRF), made up of about 6,000 troops backed by air and sea power, who must be ready for deployment within five days. General Jones said the construction of the force was the "instrument of change" for Nato in reforming its Cold War-era structures.
General Jones sees the alliance divided into two tiers: one group of those countries that will permit forces to be used quickly, and a second that require wider consultation and parliamentary approval. The outer group of more cautious nations would offer troops on a "lower readiness" and join operations later.
General Jones said that, given the NRF's remit, "you would want as few impediments [as possible] when the time comes and you have a real emergency". He added: "I think there is ... the logical need to examine our decision-making process to ensure that it is flexible enough to be able to be used. As you develop a force like this there will have to be some accommodations as to the rules of deploying that force."
But the principle of unanimous political agreement would be maintained, with every nation able to veto an operation. "You don't want to fall away from the principle of consensus," he added.
Doubts remain, however, whether there will be enough agreement within the alliance about what type of missions the NRF should be used for. Many diplomats doubt whether the doves, led by France and Germany, would agree to give any blessing to some of the projects envisaged by Pentagon hawks.
General Jones would not be drawn into the debate on whether it could take pre-emptive action but said that it should be "proactive".Reuse content