For four hours on Thursday, the NATO alliance will show off its fledgling rapid reaction force in a brief flurry of exercises near Izmir, Turkey.

The idea of such a force — originally backed by the United States as a means of grappling with emergencies such as the Kosovo war — has split Americans who think NATO should command such a force and many Europeans who believe they are ready to run their own show.

The United States has attempted to keep the Europeans plugged into the alliance structure. But the European Union is also organizing its own emergency force, set to exist, at least on paper, by year’s end.

The first NATO Response Force demonstration, dubbed Allied Response 03, will feature about 1,100 troops from 13 nations and include mock evacuations and naval embargo drills simulating a U.N.-mandated intervention. All told, alliance members have loaned about 9,000 troops to the new response force. About 300 of them are Americans. But America is the only nation with troops currently attached to the reaction force that is not participating in Thursday’s demo.

On the surface, that sounds surprising, particularly given the import the United States has attached to the NATO vision.

However, a spokeswoman for the U.S. military in Europe said given the small number of troops attached to the group’s first six-month rotation, the American absence from the demonstration is understandable.

“The U.S. participation, overall, is quite small compared with the other nations,” said Capt. Sarah Kerwin, spokeswoman for the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany.

For example, Spain has assigned 2,200 troops to response duty compared with America’s 300, but Denmark has just 100, the Czech Republic has 80, and Poland has just 20. All are sending troops to the demo in Turkey.

For its part, the alliance wants attention focused on the overall effort.

“We as NATO don’t differentiate,” said Lt. Col. Hartmut Beilmann, a German air force officer and alliance spokesman. “We keep it very broad and general, not to point a finger at whatever nation isn’t participating in an exercise.”

One analyst said the American absence from the demonstration is strategic.

“The Response Force is basically built to increase the pressure on Europeans to transform their militaries in the way the Americans are transforming theirs,” said Otfried Nassauer, director of the Berlin Information-center for Transatlantic Security.

Nassauer said that the more Europeans are involved with the NATO emergency force, the fewer there are who are freed up for the EU-only counterpart.

“The nations will make all their contributions from one pool of forces,” Nassauer said. So making the NATO force nearly U.S.-free, he believed, would actually forward U.S. interests. And the supreme allied commander is always an American, regardless.

“The purpose is to get as many Europeans in the force as possible,” Nassauer said.

The composition is also not fixed. Nations and assets change every six months.

“The contributions will vary from one rotation to another,” said Lt. Col. Petter Lindqvist, spokesman for Allied Forces Northern Europe in Brunssum, Netherlands.

Though small and short, the demo is important, Lindqvist said.

“It’s actually the first time ever you will actually see NRF forces, NRF troops,” he said. The exercise, too, will only offer a taste of eventual capabilities. “The full operations capability will not be known until 2006.”

Though planned at a time when the Balkans and Caucasus region were the recent and current blazes, the new force is flexible in its reach. The upcoming demo’s scenario takes place in a theoretical flash point “outside of NATO’s area of responsibility.”

In addition to the 300 troops, America’s contribution to the first rotation includes a ship and an unspecified number of aircraft. One NATO official implied the complement was a Marine landing force, but a spokesman for the Marines was unaware of a specific role.

“We do not have any Marines that will be part of a response force as a dedicated force. However, we always stand by to augment,” said Master Sgt. Phil Mehringer of Marine Corps Forces Europe.

However the Americans are involved, the debate over what headquarters would best command Europe’s peacekeepers will likely continue. If Europe meets its deadline, its force will officially exist by the holiday season.

“The EU would like to see them as complementary, Washington would like to see them as being in competition,” Nassauer said. “The debate about Europe doing more about defense and sharing more in the burden is always characterized as a Catch-22 situation.”

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