* U.S. to cut two Army brigades in Europe
* Defence budgets likely to continue decline
* Increasing U.S. discontentment over low European spending
By David Alexander and Sebastian Moffett
MUNICH, Feb 4 U.S. Defense Secretary Leon
Panetta reassured European allies on Saturday that Washington
remains committed to their security despite an austerity drive,
as NATO pushed for new ways for alliance members to maintain
capabilities at lower cost.
The declarations came amid declining defence budgets and
growing U.S. discontent over Europe's low spending and
diminishing capabilities, which add to the United States'
Panetta said the U.S. Army would still have about 37,000
soldiers in Europe even after it withdraws two of its four
combat brigades - about 7,000 soldiers - as part of efforts to
cut $487 billion from the defence budget over the next decade.
"Our military footprint in Europe will remain larger than in
any other region of the world," Panetta told a Munich security
"That's not only because the peace and prosperity of Europe
is critically important to the United States, but because Europe
remains our security partner of choice for military operations
and diplomacy around the world."
The conference, an annual gathering of foreign policy
experts, took place as many NATO members struggle with heavy
sovereign debt. That makes it unlikely that NATO - the U.S.,
Canada and 26 European nations - can maintain even its current
levels of military spending in coming years.
"The reality is that in aggregate NATO defence
spending is going to go down over the coming years," said
British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond.
"Everyone in the industrial sector has understood for years
that the challenge is constantly to deliver more output with
fewer inputs ... Now we have to challenge our militaries to
think in the same way."
NATO's main solution to that came last year, with a call for
"smart defence", meaning more efficient use of military budgets
and a more open market for defence equipment.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Saturday
proposed enhancing this with a "Connected Forces Initiative".
This would help NATO allies' more effectively use their
equipment and troops to work together.
"It's the ability to connect all our forces," he said.
"Common understanding. Common command and control arrangements.
Common standards. Common language. And common doctrine and
procedures. It concerns everything we do as an alliance."
Specifically, Rasmussen called for greater use of joint
training centres, such as those in Poland and Norway, and
encouraged the opening up of national facilities.
He also wanted increased exercises, with a strengthened NATO
Response Force (NRF) - a stand-alone military force available
for rapid deployment.
He gave the example of Denmark's use during NATO's Libya
operation of F-16 planes bought from the United States, which
were not capable of carrying French munitions. To fix the
problem, a universal ammunition adaptor is now being tested, he
said, "a bit like a plug adaptor for planes".
But there is widespread skepticism Europeans have the will
to improve their capabilities, either through common defence
projects or higher spending.
"If we look behind the slogan of smart defence, I
would say that at least 20 years ago all these ideas were on the
table," said Thomas Enders, CEO of Airbus. The aircraft
manufacturing unit of EADS makes military transporters
and refueling planes as well as passenger jets.
"So why is this time different? It could be austerity. But
... the NATO members, particularly the Europeans will not spend
more on defence for the foreseeable future, say 10 years."
Panetta pledged greater support for the NRF, saying the
United States would rotate U.S.-based soldiers to Europe for
training on a regular basis. He said one U.S.-based brigade
would act as Washington's contribution to the response force.
"The NRF was designed to be an agile, rapidly deployable,
multi-national force that can respond to crises when and where
necessary," he said. "The United States has endorsed the NRF but
has not made a tangible contribution due to the demands of the
wars - until now."
The United States has about 80,000 military personnel in
Europe when Air Force, Navy and other troops are included. There
are 28 U.S. military bases - 16 Army, eight Air Force and four
But U.S. lawmakers have been critical of Europe for low
levels of defence spending. They have pressed for the withdrawal
of American forces, saying it was time for the continent to
shoulder more of the expense of defending itself.
In June, outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned
that Europe's declining defence capabilities presaged a "dim, if
not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance".
Last month, President Barack Obama announced a new strategy
aimed a cutting defence spending over the next decade and
shifting the United States' focus to the Asia-Pacific.