Cash-strapped NATO trying to make ends meet on defence
BRUSSELS EUROPEAN nations are likely to be put on the spot this week as NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels grapple with the need to preserve the alliance’s military might amid a global push to rein in government spending.
The United States, traditionally NATO’s paymaster, is planning drastic cuts to curb its yawning budget deficit and has told its European allies that they will have to start fending for themselves.
In Libya, countries like France and Britain stepped up and led NATO airstrikes once the US withdrew from the frontline - but the six-month war effort also revealed the extent to which European military capabilities were stretched.
“We had the right weapons to fight the war, but not enough,” one senior European diplomat acknowledged ahead of Wednesday and Thursday’s NATO discussions.
While France, Britain and others struggled to keep up the pace of air raids, the US supplied spy planes and in-flight refuelling jets - of which Europeans don’t have many - NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen pointed out on Monday.
“We can’t rely on just one ally to provide those means,” he said.
The last time NATO defence ministers met, in June, outgoing US secretary of defence Robert Gates railed against “the growing security burden” Europeans were putting on US shoulders by shrinking their defence budgets.
His successor Leon Panetta is likely to repeat the same message.
“I don’t think Panetta will deviate much from the message Gates gave us last time,” a senior Italian official predicted.
“The era in which Europe could rely on the US to do everything, that era, if it ever existed, is clearly coming to an end,” a senior US diplomat warned.
US pressure is prompting intra-European calls for greater burden-sharing, usually pointed at Germany, which controversially stayed out of the fight in Libya.
“Our wish is that when similar cases come up in the future, a greater number of European allies will have the capacity and the will to intervene,” France’s ambassador to NATO, Philippe Errera, said on Monday.
To make ends meet, Rasmussen is pushing for countries to pool and share military resources under the slogan of “smart defence” – and made it a major theme of next year’s NATO summit in Chicago.
Allies should cooperate “on acquiring military capabilities as well as ... running operations like training, logistics and maintenance of military equipment,” he explained.
But putting that vision into practice presents challenges.
US-inspired plans for a NATO missile defence system, which Rasmussen hailed as exemplary, are prompting Russian threats to boycott the Chicago meeting and place anti-missile systems on the alliance’s eastern front.
A common initiative on unmanned drone spy planes is also proving controversial.
Thirteen NATO countries - including the US, Germany and Italy - are ready to put up the cash to develop the project only if all other allies are ready to pay the operating costs once it is running.
France, which is developing its own drone technology, is opposed.
“You can expect a bit of posturing” at this week’s meeting, one European diplomat said.
Ministers were expected to also discuss NATO anti-piracy efforts off the coast of Somalia, which too are hampered by insufficient resources, as well as recent developments in Afghanistan and Kosovo.
“Transition is fully on track, and we will not allow insurgents to derail it,” Rasmussen said of the handover of responsibilities to Afghan forces, which the Taliban-led insurgency is challenging with highprofile attacks.
Over the last month, insurgents have targeted NATO headquarters and the US embassy in Kabul and killed former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was also chief negotiator with the Taliban.