Feb. 4 (Bloomberg) -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pledged to contribute a U.S.-based Army brigade to a quick- reaction NATO force, as he sought to reassure European allies amid cuts in American troops on the continent.
Panetta, speaking at the Munich Security Conference today, announced the offer for the NATO Response Force as consolation for a U.S. plan to withdraw two of four combat brigades from Europe in a bid to save almost $500 billion over the next decade. He also reconfirmed plans to rotate a task force of 300 to 1,000 troops to the continent for training and exercises.
The U.S. defense chief came to Munich from two days of meetings in Brussels at the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In both cities, he aimed to reassure European allies that the U.S. military shift to Asia won’t leave Europe adrift.
“Our military footprint in Europe will remain larger than in any other region in the world,” Panetta said in Munich today. “That’s not only because the peace and prosperity of Europe is critically important to the U.S., but because Europe remains our security partner of choice.”
He cited the joint diplomacy and military operations conducted for the Libya campaign last year, and the war in Afghanistan. The planned slicing of two brigades from 43,000 American Army personnel in Europe will still leave 37,000 behind. The total number of U.S. military personnel on the continent is about 80,000.
‘Vote of Confidence’
“The steps Europe can expect from the United States amount to a vote of confidence from Washington in the future of the Alliance, especially in a period of fiscal austerity,” Panetta said. “Let me now suggest the steps Europe must take in order to cast a similar vote of confidence.”
He went on to renew his and his predecessor Robert Gates’s appeal for European allies in NATO to refrain from injudicious defense budget cuts.
He urged more pooling and sharing of resources within NATO, touting the milestone this week that ended 19 years of debate in the alliance with an agreement for all members to pay toward operations and support for their first joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance system.
Panetta also pressed European nations to continue supporting Afghanistan’s security forces after the 50-nation U.S.-led coalition completes the transition of full security responsibility to the Afghans at the end of 2014. Panetta said this week he thinks the Afghans can take a lead role nationwide by the end of 2013, with advising and combat backup from the coalition.
Saudi Aid Sought
The U.S. is asking other nations in the coalition to provide a combined total of $1 billion a year after that point, and is prodding countries that don’t currently fight in Afghanistan and would benefit from security there, such as Saudi Arabia, to contribute as well.
In the meantime, the coalition, known as the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, is looking for ways to reduce the number of Afghan forces that might be needed in the long-term from the 350,000-strong goal planned currently, to save money.
“I know we face intense pressure to reduce that support given the budget constraints all ISAF nations are facing,” Panetta said.
--Editors: Leon Mangasarian, Dick Schumacher.
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