While the European Union recently declared its 60,000-strong Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) operational, it also has a long list of shortcomings: air-to-air refueling; combat search and rescue; nuclear, biological, and chemical protection; special operations forces; theater missile defense; unmanned aerial vehicles; space-based assets; and (more seriously) strategic airlift.
Without it's own strategic lift capability, the RRF would be dependent of NATO to move anywhere. The first step was taken when seven European countries sealed a long-awaited $23.8 billion order for 180 Airbus military transport planes, although they aren't expected to enter service by 2010.
This move is meant to boost Europe's ability to deploy independently of NATO. The contract includes 60 A400M aircraft for Germany and 50 for France, as well as 27 for Spain, 25 for Britain, 10 for Turkey, seven for Belgium and one for Luxembourg. Italy and Portugal were originally involved but later pulled out, and Germany cut its order down from 73 in December.
The RRF was declared operational on May 19, more than three years after it was first announced and six months after the deadline expired, although the planners were acknowledging that shortcomings remain. Greek Defense Minister Ioannis Papantoniou admitted that "high risk may arise at the upper end of the spectrum of scale and intensity, in particular when conducting concurrent operations." This means that the RRF is not yet very rapid, is unable to engage in sizable operations (either with numbers or firepower) and cannot safely sustain more than one operation at a time. Papantoniou also admitted that the RRF still lacks 26 of the necessary 144 capabilities identified at the beginning of the defense project, but "thinks" most of them will be covered by the end of the year.
The RRF could soon be asked to face a much more serious test than its current ongoing observer mission in Macedonia. In mid-May, Kofi Annan has approached the EU about troops for a peacekeeping force in the eastern part of the Congo. However, the major stumbling block to RRF deployments may be finding a consensus, not suitable transport planes. The EU could send a small force for a short period of time, but added that the decision would take them "months, not days." - Adam Geibel