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NATO Says Europe Risks Becoming ‘Paper Tiger’ on Cuts

NATO Says Europe Risks Becoming ‘Paper Tiger’ on Cuts
British army soldiers patrol a road in Afghanistan. Deficit-wracked Britain plans to cut military spending by 8 percent by 2015. Photographer: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

NATO’s chief warned that crisis-driven cuts in European defense spending threaten to turn the continent into a “paper tiger” in military matters and saddle the U.S. with an excessive burden.

U.S. defense spending makes up 73 percent of the alliance total, up from 49 percent a decade ago, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.

“This is a clear message to my dear European colleagues,” Rasmussen told a youth forum before a summit of the 28 North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders in Lisbon today. “The Europeans should also invest a sufficient amount of money in defense. Otherwise the common European defense and security policy will just be a paper tiger, to speak bluntly.”

Deficit-wracked Britain, which went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan with the U.S., plans to cut military spending by 8 percent by 2015. It spent 2.7 percent of gross domestic product on defense in 2009, one of four European NATO allies to meet a 2 percent target. The Pentagon budget equaled 4 percent of GDP.

As European governments tighten their belts, Rasmussen called for more joint weapons purchases and sharing of military hardware, citing a U.K.-French plan to use each other’s aircraft carriers and nuclear-testing facilities.

“We have a very clear and positive response to the economic challenges,” Rasmussen told reporters after the first session of the summit. “The clear answer to that is to pool resources.”

French-British Cooperation

Britain and France field Europe’s most potent armies, representing 45 percent of the continent’s military budget, 55 percent of its battle-ready forces and 70 percent of its military research and technology.

“The Americans are very concerned about diverging military spending among NATO allies,” said Jan Techau, an analyst at the NATO Defense College in Rome. “The sense is that some European members may become free-riders and that the U.S will have to pick up the tab as the Europeans spend less.”

Rasmussen also urged more joint ventures modeled on a NATO timesharing program in which 12 countries operate three Boeing Co. C-17 military transport jets from an airbase in Hungary.

The trans-Atlantic defense spending gap is “a matter of concern,” said Rasmussen, who as Danish prime minister sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. “It may create difficulties at least in our trans-Atlantic cooperation. If Europe is lagging behind technologically, then the interoperability and practical military cooperation will be increasingly difficult.”

‘Critical Capabilities’

Rasmussen said the summit will produce a wish list of “critical capabilities” including helicopters that can withstand Afghanistan’s rugged conditions, wide-body transport planes, equipment to detect and neutralize roadside bombs, and battlefield medical units.

Defense spending in most European countries remains weighted to standing armies designed to counter a conventional Soviet attack during the Cold War. Europe had 2.1 million men under arms in 2009, compared with 1.4 million in the U.S.

Germany, for example, spent 1.4 percent of GDP on defense in 2009, and 53 percent of its military budget went on personnel. By contrast, the U.S. and Britain devoted 37 percent of their defense budgets to labor costs.

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