BRUSSELS (AP) — In an unprecedented move, a French general will take over a key NATO command in Norfolk, Virginia, charged with transforming the Europe-centered Cold War alliance to tackle today’s global challenges, NATO said Wednesday.

Gen. Stephane Abrial of the French Air Force will take over from U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis as NATO’s commander in charge of military modernization, the alliance said in a statement.

The position has traditionally been held by a four-star U.S. general. Abrial’s appointment marks the first time in NATO’s 60-year history that a non-American officer has been appointed to fill the position.

“For NATO this is unprecedented,” alliance spokesman James Appathurai said. “It is a manifestation of the French return to the military structure, and also of France’s importance to NATO’s future because the (Norfolk) command will help shape the alliance in the 21st century.”

The Transformation Command in Norfolk is the only strategic command within the 28-nation alliance that is headquartered in North America.

Abrial is currently chief-of-staff of the French Air Force. He will take up his new duties on Sept. 9 at a ceremony in Norfolk, the statement said.

Abrial is the second French general to assume a top NATO command since France formally rejoined the alliance in April. Earlier this month, Gen. Philippe Stoltz took charge of NATO’s rapid reaction force headquarters in Lisbon, Portugal.

President Nicolas Sarkozy was promised the two commands in April at NATO’s 60th anniversary summit in Strasbourg, France, after Paris rejoined NATO’s military command, a decision-making body within the U.S.-dominated alliance.

France also has stressed that in return for bringing its military back to NATO’s integrated military command, it wants the U.S. to drop its objections to the European Union developing an independent defense role. Washington — backed by Britain and some other European nations — has long been wary of France’s military ambitions for the EU, seeing it as a threat to NATO unity.

In 1966, French President Charles de Gaulle abruptly pulled his country out of the NATO command and evicted all allied troops and bases, including its military headquarters, in an effort to assert France’s sovereignty over its own territory. Although France remained a NATO member, it stayed outside the alliance’s decision-making core.

NATO has two strategic commands, Allied Command Operations in Belgium, which oversees all military operations, and Allied Transformation Command in the United States, which conducts training, and develops and improves military capabilities for the Alliance.

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