BRUSSELS - NATO appears to be moving ahead with its enlargement into Eastern Europe as incoming member states - particularly Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia - push to come under the alliance's air-protection umbrella as soon as possible, diplomats say.
"The incoming member countries have virtually no air defenses, and they are keen to come under the NATO system," said an alliance official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Officials at NATO's Brussels headquarters are in "intense discussions" on the issue with the new members - including Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria - who may now join at a ceremony this spring. The seven newcomers were invited to join NATO at a summit in Prague in November 2002, following three other ex-communist states - Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic - that joined in 1999.
"Certainly, all countries concerned would like to have NATO air policing cover in place by the time of accession," said one Lithuanian diplomat, who added, "given the current state of discussions within the alliance, we hope for very rapid progress over the coming weeks and months."
"It is urgent that we find a solution so that these countries get this air cover which is fundamental," added the NATO official.
Apart from some 20 AWACS air surveillance aircraft, NATO itself does not possess any military hardware, relying on member states to provide resources - in this case fighter jets able to patrol skies over the alliance newcomers. The need was amply demonstrated during the 2002 Prague summit, when the Czech Republic had to call on U.S. aircraft to protect the airspace over the summit venue.
The problem is that with NATO member states already stretched with commitments in hotspots such as the Balkans to Iraq and Afghanistan, it is proving difficult to find air power to protect the relatively unthreatened newcomers.
In a recent interview with the French daily Le Figaro, NATO's chief commander in Europe, U.S. General James Jones, said the question of air defenses for the Baltic countries should be on the agenda for the June summit.
Lithuania, for example, has an air force of barely 800 people and depends heavily on its fellow Baltic states. In addition, it has no fighter jets, and was "strongly advised" by NATO "not to invest into combat aircraft," said the Lithuanian diplomat.
But this leaves it in a situation where, if the alliance cannot provide air protection it will be forced to strike bilateral deals or drop investments asked of it to meet NATO standards.
"The number of aircraft that is necessary is small... We do not expect to get this coverage for nothing and are ready to discuss all the conditions and modalities of this cooperation," said the Lithuanian diplomat.
"Political will would help us move forward on this issue," he added.