The New NATO: Schweik and his chums finally join club West

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The Good Soldier Schweik is joining Nato. The distinctly unmilitary character, the creation of the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek, has become an emblem of a certain rather cynical attitude to military life - not, perhaps, the best augury for a new member of the world's most successful military alliance.

In reality, the new members will bring a lot more to Nato than this. Since expansion first came on to the agenda, alliance officials have said that any country joining must contribute security to Nato, as well as benefiting from that which it provides. The choice of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic as the first three new recruits from East Europe is therefore entirely logical. Nato is welcoming three new members with formidable military traditions and expertise.

They bring armed forces of 400,000 to Nato and an area equivalent to Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have been working closely with Nato for some time, and the British Army has begun training in Poland. The Czechs provided chemical-warfare experts in the 1991 Gulf war and all three countries have since been working alongside Nato forces in Bosnia.

The biggest task will be to teach Polish, Hungarian and Czech officers the two official Nato languages - English and French. The main areas where more integration is necessary are air defence and air-traffic control, and the secure trunk communications systems necessary to enable Polish, Czech or Hungarian formations and units to receive orders from and report back to a higher Nato headquarters.

Most of the effort will go into ensuring the new members can satisfy the parliaments of the 16 present Nato members that civilian control of the military is sufficiently well established and that they can operate effectively with other Nato forces.

Poland will be the fifth-largest military power in Nato after the US, Britain, France and Germany and will have to take an appropriate share of senior Nato appointments.

The Poles, from Jan Sobieski's defeat of the Turkish armies before Vienna in 1683, through the Polish lancers' contribution to Napoleon's forces, to Marshal Josef Pilsudski's near-destruction of Soviet Russia in 1920, have maintained a reputation for daring manoeuvre which translated easily into war in the air, for which they also evinced remarkable aptitude.

Polish and Czech squadrons of the RAF scored exceptionally well against the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. The Poles also distinguished themselves as airborne soldiers, with a brigade parachuted into Arnhem. Polish codebreakers laid the ground for cracking the German Enigma codes, which gave Britain and the US a decisive advantage. As members of the Warsaw Pact, the Poles, al-though poorly equipped by the Soviet Union, produced a distinctive train of military thought, especially with the development of deep-penetration operational manoeuvre groups in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Hungarians have made their own distinctive contribution to military history. A hussar - a type of light cavalryman - is Hungarian in origin.

The Czechs, too, have a distinguished military history, particularly in armaments. The massive siege guns which cracked open the Belgian forts in 1914 were built by Skoda. Skoda later built extremely robust and powerful tanks, which benefited the Germans after they seized Czechoslovakia. And the Czechs produced a superb light machine-gun at their works at Brno, near the Slovak border. The British adopted it, and manufactured it at their small-arms establishment at Enfield as the Brno-Enfield - the Bren gun.