BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered a sharp parting shot at European allies on Friday, saying NATO risks “collective military irrelevance” unless they bear more of the burden and boost military spending.
In a final policy address before retiring at the end of the month, Gates said NATO-led operations in Afghanistan and Libya had exposed significant shortcomings in military capabilities and political will among the allies.
“The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country — yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference,” he said.
With the United States facing painful budget cuts at home as President Barack Obama grapples with a $1.4 trillion deficit, he warned that U.S. lawmakers may begin to question the 75 percent share that Washington pays in NATO defense spending.
This meant there was “a real possibility for a dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance,” he said.
“The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling (U.S.) appetite and patience ... to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense,” Gates said.
“If current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders — those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me — may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”
Despite having more than 2 million troops in uniform, non-U.S. NATO states struggled to sustain 25,000 to 45,000 troops in Afghanistan, “not just in boots on the ground, but in crucial support assets such as helicopters, transport aircraft, maintenance, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.”
Gates said the air operations against the forces of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had further exposed limitations, with an air operations center designed to handle more than 300 sorties a day struggling to launch about 150 and the United States having to make up shortages of munitions.
Gates said the problems with defense investment boded ill for ensuring NATO had key, up-to-date common capabilities.
“To avoid the very real possibility of collective military irrelevance, member nations must examine new approaches.”
Gates said the United States was facing a deep economic crisis and defense would have to be included in dramatic spending cuts.
“Choices are going to be made more on what’s in the best interest of the United States going forward,” he said.
“My hope is that the fact that the reality is changing in the United States will get the attention of European leaders to realize that the drift of the last 20 years can’t continue, not if they want to have a strong transatlantic partnership.”
Gates’s remarks followed two days of NATO meetings at which he said too few nations were bearing the bulk of the burden in Libya, and singled out five that he urged to do more.
Officials said he asked Spain, Turkey and the Netherlands to fly strike missions in addition to the air operations they currently undertake. He urged Germany and Poland, which are not contributing, to find ways to help, the officials said.
Gates singled out Norway as a small country punching above its weight by joining air strikes in Libya, but Oslo said on Friday its mission would end on August 1 and it would reduce its contribution of six F-16 fighters to four on June 24.
“Our allies should understand that Norway’s small air force cannot sustain a great effort over a long period of time,” Defence Minister Grete Faremo said in a statement.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said alliance Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen shared Gates’s concerns.
“There is clearly a long-standing concern about the transatlantic gap in defense spending. There is a risk that European allies may fall even further behind in terms of technological developments,” she said.
Former NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warned the forum the current imbalance was “not sustainable.”
“Europe has a rather pale face as we speak,” he said, criticizing “totally uncoordinated budget cuts” and urging his own nation, the Netherlands, to join strike missions in Libya.
Gates said non-U.S. allies’ $300 billion annual defense budget could buy significant capabilities if spent strategically, but this was not happening.
“Too many allies have been unwilling to fundamentally change how they set priorities and allocate resources,” he said.
Gates said just five of the 28 allies — the United States, Britain, France, Greece and Albania — spend the 2 percent of GDP on defense required by NATO.
He said more effective coordination of spending would go only so far and allies eventually would need to step up their military investments. “Ultimately, nations must be responsible for their fair share of the common defense,” he said.
Obama has nominated outgoing CIA chief Leon Panetta to take over from Gates at the Pentagon.
Additional reporting by Gwladys Fouche in Oslo; Editing by Andrew Heavens