Bloomberg News

Gates Warns of NATO ‘Irrelevance’ Due to Europe Defense Cuts

June 10, 2011

(Updates with Gates quote in the ninth paragraph, ways to fix problem in the 13th.)

June 10 (Bloomberg) -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a parting shot to Europe before leaving office this month, said NATO risks “collective military irrelevance” unless U.S. allies contribute more to the alliance’s operations.

Military missions in Afghanistan and Libya exposed the failure of allies to make contributions and showed North Atlantic Treaty Organization weaknesses, Gates told a meeting organized by the Security and Defense Agenda group in Brussels today, in his last policy speech as defense secretary.

“There will be dwindling appetite and patience in the United States Congress -- and in the American body politic writ large -- 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.

Gates issued the warning as both continents struggle with the remains of the global recession and President Barack Obama seeks $400 billion in defense spending cuts over 12 years to reduce the deficit. While Gates and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen have cautioned European members not to reduce defense spending further, the implicit threat that the U.S. may withdraw support for the alliance marks a hardening of the U.S. position.

Rasmussen last year said European defense risked becoming a “paper tiger.”

The U.S. provides two-thirds of the almost 150,000 NATO-led troops in Afghanistan and sold allies more than $24 million of ammunition, spare parts and technical aid to help the Libya operation.

Farewell Tour

The U.S. defense chief chose the topic to wrap up an 11-day round-the-world farewell tour that took him to an Asia security forum in Singapore and American bases in Afghanistan before a round of NATO meetings in Brussels. The U.S. Senate this week held confirmation hearings for his nominated successor, Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta.

The security of Europe has been “the consuming interest of much of my professional life,” said Gates, who worked at the CIA and at the White House National Security Council during the Cold War before becoming director of the spy agency in the aftermath.

“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,” Gates said. “I’m in the awkward position for the first time in my career of being 20 years older than my president.”

U.S. NATO Share

The U.S. share of NATO defense spending has risen to more than 75 percent from 50 percent during the Cold War, he said.

Meanwhile, total European defense spending has dropped 15 percent since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the U.S., according to one estimate, Gates said. That’s even after European nations invoked NATO’s clause that calls for joint action in the case of an attack on any one member to topple the Taliban regime that had harbored al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Only five of the 28 NATO allies exceed the agreed standard of spending at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, Gates said, naming the U.S., the U.K, France, Greece and Albania.

Fix the Problem

He said Europeans could help fix the problem by protecting defense budgets from further cuts in the next round of austerity measures; by better allocating and coordinating existing resources; and by following through on commitments to the alliance and to each other.

Gates commended the Europeans for sticking with the fight in Afghanistan and doubling the number of their troops there during his 4 1/2 years in office. He also indicated a pending drawdown of forces starting next month will meet terms he outlined at NATO headquarters yesterday for “deliberate, organized and coordinated” steps.

“The vast majority of the surge forces that arrived over the past two years will remain through the summer fighting season,” Gates said, without giving details. “We will also reassign many troops from areas transferred to Afghan control into less-secure provinces and districts.”

European Troop Struggles

European members of NATO struggled to maintain their 25,000 to 45,000 troops in Afghanistan even with more than 2 million forces in uniform among them, Gates said. They also lagged in providing equipment such as helicopters, transport aircraft, maintenance and intelligence capability, he said.

He cited “serious capability gaps and other institutional shortcomings laid bare by the Libya operation,” which was spurred largely by European countries, including France and the U.K.

In addition to filling a shortage of basic ammunition for the European allies, the U.S. had to come through with targeting specialists for the NATO air operations center in Italy, Gates said.

“We have the spectacle of an air operations center designed to handle more than 300 sorties per day struggling to launch about 150,” he said.

Such weaknesses “have the potential to jeopardize the alliance’s ability to conduct an integrated, effective and sustained air-sea campaign,” Gates said.

Some countries have made the most of the assets they have, he said.

Praises Norway, Denmark

“In the Libya operation, Norway and Denmark, have provided 12 percent of allied strike aircraft yet have struck about one third of the targets,” Gates said. “Belgium and Canada are also making major contributions to the strike mission.”

The resulting “two-tiered alliance” of those members that pull their weight compared with others that don’t “is no longer a hypothetical worry. We are there today,” Gates said. “And it is unacceptable.”

Gates departed from Brussels today, making his last flight home from an overseas trip as defense secretary on a C-17 military transport aircraft because his usual converted Boeing 747, called the E4B, experienced a mechanical problem on the ground.

--Editors: Leon Mangasarian, Andrew Atkinson.

To contact the reporter on this story: Viola Gienger in Brussels at vgienger@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net


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