February 14, 2018 / 12:18 AM / 10 months ago

U.S. tells NATO allies spending plans still falling short

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump’s defense secretary told European allies on Wednesday to step up efforts to increase military budgets and warned that troop contributions to missions did not exempt them from broader spending goals, officials said.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis poses with Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak during a NATO defence at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium February 14, 2018. REUTERS/Virginia Mayo/Pool

Speaking two days after Trump proposed a 30 percent jump in U.S. military funding for Europe to deter Russia, U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis said allies should follow the example of the United States.

“He insisted NATO allies show the same kind of commitment,” said a NATO official present at the closed-door meeting of defense ministers at the alliance headquarters.

U.S. officials declined to comment on Mattis’ address. But diplomats said the remarks reminded Europe that he has not given up on the tough message he first brought to NATO a year ago, when he said allies needed to honor spending pledges or risk less military support from the United States.

Mattis joined defense ministers to discuss the individual plans that NATO countries have submitted for the first time to show how they will reach a target to spend 2 percent of economic output on defense every year by 2024.

Trump is set to review the plans at a NATO summit in July.

Fifteen of the 28 countries, excluding the United States, now have a strategy to meet a NATO benchmark first agreed in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, following 25 years of cuts to European defense budgets.

But Spain has said it will not meet the 2024 target. Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, Portugal, Norway and Denmark are also lagging. Hungary expects to meet the goal only by 2026.

France will increase its defense spending by more than a third between 2017 and 2025, but Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, is not expected to reach the 2 percent target by 2024.

NATO data shows that Britain, Greece, Romania and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania meet, or are close to, the 2 percent goal. France and Turkey are among those countries set to reach it soon.

Allies told the meeting that NATO goals needed to take into account countries such as Italy and Germany that are big contributors to NATO missions, such in Afghanistan, diplomats said.

“It isn’t just about dry figures,” Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen told reporters before the meeting. “It’s also about who is ultimately doing what.”

But Mattis was adamant that meeting the 2 percent annual target agreed at a summit in 2014 in Wales was paramount.

“He went back to that Wales pledge and made the point that cash, capabilities and commitments are not interchangeable. It’s not either-or,” the NATO official said.

FLOOR, OR CEILING?

The issue of low defense spending in Europe has long been an irritant in the United States, whose new national defense strategy centers on countering Russia after more than a decade of focusing on Islamist militants.

By current standards, Washington funds about 70 percent of NATO spending and military analysts say Europe is now vulnerable to a range of threats, including Russia’s military modernization, Islamist militancy and electronic warfare on computer networks.

One area of tension lies in the language of the NATO spending pledge of 2014. Allies committed to “move toward” 2 percent, but Trump now says 2 percent is the “bare minimum”.

Britain’s Defence Minister Gavin Williamson said he considered 2 percent as “a floor, not a ceiling.”

Slideshow (2 Images)

Some Europeans say focusing on the 2 percent figure is misleading as it does not take into account how money is spent.

Much of Belgian and British defense spending will be taken up by costly upgrades to fighter jet fleets, which military analysts say could come at the expense of other capabilities, such as sea patrols and infantry.

(This version of the story has been refiled to restore full name, title of Mattis in second paragraph)

Reporting by Robin Emmott, editing by Larry King

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