BRUSSELS NATO states must reverse a steep decline in defense spending despite economic constraints if the alliance is to meet the security threats it faces, experts said on Monday.
In a recommendation for NATO's new 10-year strategic vision, experts led by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said only six of NATO's 26 European members were meeting their defense spending target of two percent of GDP.
In the coming decade, NATO would not only have to meet its main goal of collective defense of its 28 members, but deploy forces further afield and guard against unconventional threats such as terrorism and cyber attack, the experts said.
"If NATO is to fulfill these ... missions successfully, it must halt the precipitous decline in national defense spending, implement new reforms and efficiencies, and set priorities for future capabilities," the experts said.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen will use the recommendations from the experts to draft a new Strategic Concept, or mission statement, for approval by leaders of NATO states at a summit in Lisbon in November.
A NATO official said the six European countries currently meeting the NATO target included Greece, which has been hard hit by the debt crisis, its rival Turkey, and Britain, which, like Greece, is battling to reduce a massive budget deficit.
Albright acknowledged the economic constraints but added:
"We also talked about the necessity of fulfilling obligations that NATO membership brings, in terms of support for this alliance and the fact that it is an alliance in which there is shared responsibility," she told a news briefing.
GAP BETWEEN U.S., EUROPEAN SPENDING
The experts said the spending gap was especially pronounced between the United States and the rest of NATO and risked undermining alliance cohesion, which was particularly important to maintain in missions like Afghanistan, where nearly nine years of conflict have shown few results.
"It is a concern if we see a deepening of the gap," Rasmussen said, even though governments were faced with "huge economic challenges."
"I have met several leaders who have been forced to make deep cuts in defense budgets," he told reporters.
"(But) too deep cuts at the expense of future security may also have damaging economic implications ... a secure environment is also a prerequisite for high economic growth."
Rasmussen said a solution was for governments to spend more intelligently, by improving efficiencies, pooling resources and avoiding duplication by common funding of defense projects, something that Britain and France have explored.
The experts also said that in the coming decade, the alliance needed to deepen cooperation with partner countries, particularly old Cold War enemy Russia.
At the same time it needed to reassure former Soviet-bloc NATO members still worried about Moscow's intentions and back up its collective security commitments with contingency planning, military exercises, force readiness and logistics.
The experts also said defending against the threat of possible missile attack from Iran had become an essential NATO mission and this would be most effective if it involved all alliance members and cooperation with Russia.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)