KRAKOW, Poland Britain said on Friday it hoped to get formal agreement on a proposal to create a small NATO rapid deployment force to defend mainland Europe and free up troops for Afghan duty at an alliance summit in April.
Defence Secretary John Hutton presented the proposal at a meeting of the 26 NATO defence ministers in the Polish city of Krakow. He said it was aimed at reassuring NATO's East European members and encouraging NATO states to commit more forces to Afghanistan.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told a news conference the proposal got a "positive reception from many around the table." He said it would be elaborated upon and expected it to be put to ministers for approval in June.
However, Hutton's spokeswoman said the details would be examined by NATO's Military Committee "with a view to a formal agreement in Strasbourg," referring to an April 3-4 NATO summit.
A NATO spokeswoman said alliance military chiefs would look at how the proposal fitted with the NATO Response Force (NRF), a rapid response force supposed to number 25,000 and able to be deployed in a variety of operations.
The NRF exists largely on paper as alliance members could not agree on what role it should play.
Hutton was quoted in Thursday's Financial Times as saying the proposal would help break deadlock in NATO over the NRF.
He said he hoped it would reassure NATO's newer, former communist Eastern European members, particular the Baltic states, which were alarmed by Russia's incursion into Georgia last year, and free up troops for Afghanistan.
"I hope it might make it easier for NATO to do more in Afghanistan, certain in the knowledge that there is a dedicated homeland security force that will have no other call on its priorities than European homeland security," Hutton was quoted as telling the paper.
After the Cold War ended, NATO moved away from a policy of maintaining large standing forces to defend alliance territory.
Britain says its proposed Allied Solidarity Force would have 1,500 troops ready for deployment and 1,500 in training.
NATO's European members are under pressure from the United States to boost commitments to the international operation in Afghanistan after President Barack Obama announced plans to boost U.S. troop numbers there by 17,000.
On Wednesday, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates called for a short-term deployment of troops from the NRF to assist security for Afghanistan's August 20 election. Germany argued the NRF should not be used for such roles.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)