Portillo warns of war threat

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Nato must remain prepared to fight "high-intensity conflicts" that may be "short and sharp", and not necessarily distant from Western Europe, or with the low levels of casualties that characterised recent operations in the Gulf and Bosnia, Britain's Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, said yesterday.

Latest intelligence assessments list 53 potential crisis points, including the Balkans, Transcaucasia, Algeria, Libya and Iraq. Of those, 17 lay within 200 miles of Nato's borders. He also said it should in future be "the norm for Nato to consult Russia on changes in which it could have an interest".

Mr Portillo's speech to the Royal Institute for International Affairs in Brussels - entitled "European security, Nato and `hard' defence" - was designed to stress that although recent military operations have been distant and relatively free of casualties, they are not "reliable models for all likely future operations". "This is not the time for Nato to go soft, and certainly not to convert itself into an organisation mainly capable of peacekeeping operations", Mr Portillo said.

He focused on what he called "hard defence" - intense, though possibly brief operations in which there would be no time to learn. "There will be no opportunity for us to generate conscript reserves or to manufacture new weaponry ...We must plan on the basis that what you start with is all you'll get."

The speech - probably the most significant Mr Portillo has made on the character of future conflict and international security - was made in the context of imminent Nato expansion, and was designed to stress the importance of Nato as the link between a greater European defence identity and the US.

Outside Nato, 40 countries have modern offensive aircraft; 30 have modern submarine forces; 20 possess ballistic missiles and some Nato territory is within range of missiles fired from the Middle East.

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