BRUSSELS — Rejecting charges of engaging in a Cold War-style arms race with Russia, the U.S. and its NATO allies approved military upgrades Wednesday that should help them come to the aid of a threatened alliance member faster, with better equipment and more firepower.
"We stand united in the way we are addressing the challenges we face," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
Meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and counterparts from Canada and NATO's European member nations ordered an increase in the strength of the alliance's Response Force, which was 13,000 at the start of 2015, to as many as 40,000.
They also added air, sea and special forces units to the force, which includes a highly mobile, multinational "spearhead" brigade of 5,000 ground troops the ministers ordered to be formed in February so NATO can reinforce any alliance member under threat within 48 hours.
Ministers also made it simpler and quicker for NATO generals and civilian officials to mobilize the force and bring it into action, Stoltenberg told a news conference. He said NATO will also develop more detailed advance plans to use in the case of crisis, and that a new joint logistics headquarters will be opened to help the NATO force deploy faster with the gear and supplies it needs.
Stoltenberg said the alliance revamp was in large part caused by Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, its alleged and continuing military incursion in eastern Ukraine, its ability to speedily mobilize large numbers of troops, and its escalating rhetoric about use of nuclear weapons. But the NATO chief said the alliance's sole goal is to protect itself — not to threaten Moscow.
"We do not seek confrontation. And we do not want a new arms race," he said. "We want to keep our nations safe. And faced with many challenges from many directions, we need to be prepared."
Russia too has been increasing its military capacities. Last week, it said it will add over 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles this year alone. In early December, it flexed its muscle by airlifting state-of-the art Iskander missiles, which can be fitted with nuclear or conventional warheads, to its westernmost Baltic territory of Kaliningrad.
They were later pulled back, but the deployment clearly served as a demonstration of the Russian military's readiness to quickly raise the ante in a crisis.
On Tuesday, Carter announced during a visit to Estonia that the U.S. will spread about 250 tanks, armored vehicles and other military equipment across a half-dozen of NATO's easternmost members that feel most at risk from Russia. Stoltenberg said the Pentagon chief also offered transport aircraft, air-to-air refueling capability, special forces and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to support NATO's Response Force — a high-end contribution Stoltenberg said "completes the picture of a truly trans-Atlantic effort to reinforce our collective defense."
Earlier, Carter told reporters traveling with him that the Obama administration still hopes to work with the Russians on issues such as the Iran nuclear talks, the fight against the Islamic State group and efforts to bring about peaceful regime change in Syria. But Carter said NATO must adapt its deterrence and response capabilities "in anticipation that Russia might not change under Vladimir Putin, or even thereafter."
In September, the U.S. announced a plan to spend up to $1 billion on various actions to reassure European NATO members. The funds are paying for increased U.S. troop rotations, more exercises, prepositioning of military equipment and upgrading of airfields and other infrastructure.
Since possessing an ultra-fast reaction force is pointless if NATO's 28 members can't quickly agree in an emergency on how to use it, defense ministers also decided on procedural changes to "speed up political and military decision-making," Stoltenberg said.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the alliance's supreme commander in Europe, will now have greater authority to put rapid-reaction forces on alert and assemble and prepare them for deployment, Stoltenberg said. But he said "political control" by civilian representatives of NATO's member nations, one of the alliance's guiding principles, will be maintained over the decision on whether to deploy troops or not.
The changes at NATO, which Stoltenberg called steps in its "far-reaching adaption" to a radically changed security environment that includes rampant Islamic extremism in the Middle East and North Africa and threats like cyberattacks, follow broad policy decisions taken by President Barack Obama and other alliance leaders in Wales last September, and come at about the midway point between that NATO summit and the next scheduled for July 2016 in Warsaw, Poland.
"Things over the last several years have gone at a dizzying pace, you might say," U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said this month in Brussels. "There has been more change than I can remember ever in a single two-year period, at least in the 34 years that I have been an observer on the defense scene."
Associated Press writer Lolita Baldor in Brussels contributed to this report.