Even as NATO looks to welcome seven new members next year, top leaders are looking to cut back on the number of troops inside the alliance.

“NATO has to come to grips with the fact that it probably doesn’t need 2.3 million people in uniform,” Marine Gen. James L. Jones, NATO’s new supreme allied commander Europe, told reporters recently.

As much as Jones has made headlines advocating a major overhaul of U.S. forces overseas, he believes the alliance itself must transform.

By cutting forces and outmoded equipment, Jones said, he believes the nations within the alliance would be able to generate enough money to pay for new much-needed gear and technology upgrades.

In short, Jones said he wants for NATO what he wants for his U.S. forces in Europe — a more Marine Corps-like “expeditionary” force capable of picking up at a moment’s notice and moving into any worldwide hot spot.

Jones points to the “instantly usable” standing naval task force in the Mediterranean as a good example of where he wants to take the alliance.

“They are escorting ships through the Straits of Gibraltar. They are doing ship denial, ship-boarding operations throughout the Mediterranean, and really forcing major changes in terms of narco-terrorism and the transit in illegals,” he said.

Such useful or ready forces don’t come cheap.

NATO must be “disciplined enough to show that we are willing to shrink the force, get rid of all of the unnecessary structures that we have, and reapply the savings and economies from that process to start making it a higher tech force and to close the perceived gap that exists at the high-tech end of things that everybody likes to talk about, as we go around NATO bashing,” Jones said.

The NRF, as the new force has been dubbed for NATO Response Force, is the brainchild of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who introduced the idea at a gathering of NATO leaders last year in Warsaw, Poland.

“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,” Rumsfeld said.

In what sounds a lot like a blueprint from his own Marine Expeditionary Units, Jones said he intends to create the “most expeditionary piece of the NATO response force” by October.

The force, he said, will be 2,000- to 5,000-strong and integrate land, air and sea forces into a single task force.

Like the MEUs — which combine infantry, artillery, tanks, attack helicopters and jets, along with a host of logistics and support gear, all aboard a flotilla of go-anywhere Navy amphibious ships — the response force will be built around rotational units that join the task force for six months at a time.

Eventually, U.S. leaders hope the NATO Response Force will be composed of about 25,000 troops with land, sea and air capability, with the entire force deployable worldwide within 30 days.

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