By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO allies backed plans on Wednesday for two new military headquarters to help protect Europe in the event of a conflict with Russia, laying the ground for the U.S.-led alliance's biggest expansion in decades.
Hoping to add to its deterrent factor against Russia, NATO defence ministers agreed to create an Atlantic command and a logistics command to help respond more quickly to threats in Europe, officials said.
"This is vital for our transatlantic alliance," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference. "It is about how to move forces across the Atlantic and how to move forces across Europe."
Costs will not be discussed until 2018 but the two new regional bases have broad support and show NATO's focus on its traditional task of defending its territory after out-of-area campaigns in the Balkans, Libya and Afghanistan in recent years.
Germany is eager to host the logistics command, diplomats said, given its strategic location straddling central Europe, allowing for swift movement of equipment and personnel across borders in the event of a conflict.
Maritime nations such as Portugal, Spain, France and the United States could host the Atlantic command, diplomats said, stressing that no decision had yet been taken.
In a staggered response to Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, NATO has already put troops on rotation in the Baltic states and Poland, strengthened its presence in the Black Sea and sought to modernize its forces.
The Kremlin, which denies harbouring any aggressive intentions toward Europe, has condemned the moves as an attempt to encircle Russia.
NATO says Russia's war games in September, which massed tens of thousands of troops on the alliance's eastern flank, are another reason for it to be better prepared to deter Moscow.
Russia has increased its naval patrols in the Baltic Sea, the north Atlantic and the Arctic and deployed submarines, NATO officials say, although the size of its navy is smaller now than during the Cold War era.
"We want to pull NATO back to Europe, and we want to focus more on NATO's maritime role," Norway's Defence Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen said.
The new Atlantic Command would survey a vast area and have the task of making sea lanes safe for U.S. reinforcements to Europe, manned by experts in cyber warfare as well as conventional weapons.
The maritime area between Greenland, Iceland and Britain is a clear vulnerability for NATO in a conflict and that needs better surveillance in peacetime, diplomats said.
The decision is unlikely to revive a much larger Cold War-era Atlantic Command that was disbanded in 2002, but it would mean an expansion for NATO after years of cutbacks following the fall of the Soviet Union.
At the height of the Cold War, the number of personnel manning NATO's then 33 commands reached 22,000. There are just seven such commands today, with fewer than 7,000 people.
NATO countries also agreed on Wednesday to provide cyber weapons to top commanders for use in military operations and missions, officials said, potentially allowing the alliance to take on computer hackers for the first time.
The step follows NATO's decision last year to make cyber a domain of warfare along with land, sea and air, although until now commanders were limited to defensive tasks.
Under the agreement taken by NATO defence ministers, alliance commanders can now call on allies such as the United States and Britain to take down a hostile server or a website, although the details have yet to be formalised.
"It may be a more proportionate response," Stoltenberg said.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Gareth Jones)