While all eyes have been focused on the enlargement of the European Union, NATO recently added seven new members with relatively little ceremony.

Confirmed during the Prague summit in November 2002, NATO's latest round of expansion was finalised on 29 March, when new members Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia delivered accession documents to US Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington DC.

The countries are already involved in an ongoing process to modernise and replace their largely Soviet-era defence equipment, and to transform their military services into professional units, with reduced reliance on conscription. This is no easy task, as the seven entry states had combined defence budgets of only around $3.6 billion in 2003; roughly equivalent to that of Poland, the largest of the three ex-Warsaw pact countries which joined NATO during its previous round of expansion in 1999. The new nations last year fielded combined active military forces totalling around 200,000 personnel, plus over 700,000 reservists.

The new nations are unlikely to pursue big-ticket procurements, such as the multi-billion dollar acquisition of replacement supersonic fighter aircraft as conducted by the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. Earlier NATO member states are providing limited air defence patrols for the new states, and Slovakia could receive similar cover from its neighbour the Czech Republic. Romania, which has the largest defence budget among the new states, has recently completed an Aerostar-developed modernisation programme to more than 100 MiG-21 Lancer fighters.

The new member states are, however, likely to follow their three most recent predecessors in acquiring improved capabilities in sectors such as air transport, to assist their ability to deploy forces overseas for exercises and peacekeeping operations.

NATO's most recent - and largest ever - expansion is unlikely to be its last, with a new generation of aspirants already lobbying for future membership. Albania, Croatia and Macedonia are among those nations already considered to be in the frame to join the alliance in the coming years.


Source: Flight International