The Washington Times

The craggy wall of rock rises 120 meters above the curving bed of a gently babbling stream in the Carpathian mountains. The face is in places so steep as to incline past the vertical. Mainly, though, it is massive and it is high. If you drove by it on the narrow, unpaved road that runs parallel to the stream, especially in the light spring snow that is falling, you might think it beautiful scenery.

But not today. Today the rock wall is pure intimidation. This impression comes from watching through binoculars as the singularly unintimidated men of Romania’s 21 Mountain Hunters Battalion scale its many faces with alacrity and even grace.

The snow makes for treacherous climbing, especially for the second man up, when it has turned to ice. Indeed, the commander, Brig. Gen. Ion Bucaciuc, has had to call off one exercise because of iced-up rope lines at the wall’s highest heights. Nevertheless, the 40 participating Mountain Hunters offer plenty to see in this capabilities exercise, and it is impressive: from the free-climb up sheer rock, to the speedy traverses by zip wire high above, to the singular spectacle of two men carefully rappelling down the rock face transporting a “wounded” comrade suspended horizontally by rope from a pole between them, to a by-the-book ambush on a three-vehicle convoy, complete with a flash-bang simulated explosion.

Ordinarily, of course, one rappels facing the rock. For sheer vicarious thrills, nothing tops watching a couple soldier-alpinists race down a steep grade facing not the mountain but the enemy – that is, away from the rock, rifles in hand – hitting a ledge and firing off a few rounds, then resuming the near-vertical descent.

Romania is one of nine countries hoping to be invited to join NATO this fall at the alliance summit in Prague. Assuming they continue to work diligently on their to-do lists between now and then, the admission of five of them seems no longer to be controversial: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

That leaves open the question of a “southern dimension” to enlargement – specifically, the fate of Romania and Bulgaria. In early October, Bulgaria hosted a summit of aspirant countries in Sophia. Understandably, it was largely given over to discussions of the implications of the September 11 attacks, including declarations of solidarity from the aspirants as well as reassurances from the United States and NATO that the enlargement process as a whole remained on track. Last week, Romania played host to the same group in Bucharest, and this time the question of the southern dimension came to the forefront.

Purely in geographical terms, the case for enlargement to the south, linking Hungary to Greece and Turkey, makes a fair amount of sense, especially given the new terrorism-driven emphasis on Central Asia and the attendant need for as much stability in the Balkans as possible. One encouraging development is that longtime rivals Greece and Turkey have been working together in behalf of Romania and Bulgaria’s admission.

But geography is not enough. The real question is what a nation can contribute to the mutual self-defense of alliance members. True, American military power within the alliance is pre-eminent. But free riders are not welcome.

That’s where the capabilities exercise I watched in the mountainous gateway to Transylvania has some lessons to teach. What each aspirant member of the alliance ought to be doing (and current members as well, for that matter) is seeking its military “comparative advantage,” to apply a concept from economics. That is, each should figure out what it does best and then do it as well as it can.

In the Romanian case, that surely encompasses training and equipping crack mountain troops. This creates real capabilities, which in turn may be truly useful and perhaps even essential in contingencies that lie ahead – in the mountains of Afghanistan, for example. (In fact, Romania has already contributed a C-130 transport detachment to the effort there; it’s now based in Karachi.)

The aspirant nations have various military problems and issues before them. The problem in the south is actually armies that are too big, a hangover from the Warsaw Pact days. They need to be downsized, professionalized, modernized. The Baltics, on the other hand, had to start largely from scratch, since their experience was that of Soviet occupation.

The answers will be different in each case. The question, though, is what value-added each can bring. The Romanians offered a good example. Believe me, these are guys you want on your side the next time you’re coming down an unfriendly mountain.