Oct. 5 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta drew on the achievements of NATO’s operation in Libya to call for a greater commitment to the alliance even in times of budget cuts, softening a message his predecessor, Robert Gates, delivered with a rhetorical bang just four months ago.
“With the fall of the Qaddafi regime, our nations saw an example of why NATO matters and why NATO remains indispensable in confronting the security challenges of today,” Panetta told an audience of the Carnegie Europe policy group in Brussels today. “We need to use this moment to make the case for the need to invest in this alliance, to ensure it remains relevant to the security challenges of the future.”
Gates roiled the normally calm confines of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during his last official visit to the Belgian capital in June by warning of the alliance’s “collective military irrelevance” unless U.S. allies contribute more in defense spending.
The substance of Panetta’s message echoed that of Gates, exhorting NATO allies to collaborate better, push along a joint purchase of unmanned aerial-surveillance aircraft and make “tough” decisions to preserve the most necessary “core” capabilities. Both continents are struggling with stumbling economies that are prompting defense cuts such as the at least $450 billion the Pentagon is carving out for the next 10 years.
Panetta’s comments, made before he met with his alliance counterparts at NATO headquarters in Brussels, probably will be received positively, said Ian Lesser, executive director of the Brussels office for the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“The Gates message last year was very controversial,” said Lesser, a former policy planner for the U.S. State Department. “It did start a debate, which the secretary intended, but it was very sharp-edged commentary. This had a different style.”
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the Libya mission exposed shortfalls in the alliance’s capabilities. Though European members and Canada took the lead, they needed U.S. intelligence, surveillance and other elements, he said.
“They provided most of the assets, but they had to rely on the United States to deploy critical enablers to get the job done,” Rasmussen told reporters today after the NATO meeting in Brussels. “More allies should make sure they obtain and maintain those kinds of critical capabilities. Once is not enough.”
Panetta cited an estimate that defense spending in Europe has “dropped almost 2 percent annually for a decade, at a time when many European nations have been conducting operations in Afghanistan, Libya, Kosovo and elsewhere.” So savings have been carved from modernization budgets, he said.
“Our nations are grappling with significant budget challenges, putting new pressure on defense spending that has already been in decline here on the continent,” Panetta said. “Recognizing the financial and political realities we face, however, we need at a minimum to coordinate additional cuts.”
The German Marshall Fund’s latest Transatlantic Trends survey found only 34 percent of the public in the European Union wanted to decrease defense spending and 46 percent wanted to keep it at current levels. The results were about the same for the American public, according to the survey released last month.
Alliance members should break an impasse over funding that has stalled a plan to purchase five Northrop Grumman Corp. Global Hawk drones, Panetta said. He called the Alliance Ground Surveillance program “a crucial symbol of alliance collaboration.”
“Unless it is implemented successfully, the drive for similar, cost-effective, multinational approaches to capability development would be seriously undermined,” he said.
The U.S. needs to make some decisions of its own to address the efficiency of the alliance, said Josef Janning, director of studies and a security and defense specialist at the European Policy Centre in Brussels. The Libya operation, which the Pentagon led initially and then handed off in significant part to the Europeans, indicates the U.S. may be willing to cede some of its weight to back more European integration, he said.
“The U.S., out of its own experience, very clearly knows that to have 25 air forces in Europe is simply ridiculous,” Janning said. “But with an alliance built on national contributions to a common purpose, you don’t get beyond that point.”
Panetta said NATO can spread the burden by collaborating more with non-member nations that are “exceptionally capable militarily,” as the alliance did in Libya and Afghanistan and against piracy off the coast of Somalia. He didn’t suggest any countries in particular.
In Afghanistan, the 28-member NATO leads the coalition and draws on troop contributions from more than 20 other nations. The Libya operation has relied in part on Qatar to fly patrols. Countries as distant as New Zealand and Japan have helped in the battle against piracy off Somalia.
“Non-NATO partners will be increasingly central to NATO’s future activities,” Panetta said.
NATO did manage to make “swift and decisive” decisions on the Libya operation once the United Nations sanctioned military action, saving thousands of civilians from potential slaughter while incurring no casualties and keeping civilian deaths or injuries to a minimum, Panetta said.
France and Britain flew a third of the missions in the campaign and handled 40 percent of target attacks, he said.
“Denmark, Norway and Belgium together destroyed as many targets as France,” even with their smaller militaries, he said. “Romania and Bulgaria deployed ships as part of the arms embargo.”
Still, the operation showed weaknesses.
“Nowhere were the gaps more obvious than in critical” capabilities such as refueling tankers, drones for collecting intelligence and conducting surveillance and reconnaissance, and in fielding the specialists needed to translate the information gleaned into targeting data, Panetta said.
Through Aug. 19, the U.S. had sold participating allies and partners about $222 million of ammunition, spare parts, fuel and technical assistance for the Libya operation, according to Pentagon figures.
In Afghanistan, the top U.S. and NATO commander, Marine General John Allen, still lacks trainers to help ensure that the Afghan security forces will be fit to take over as the coalition begins its drawdown this year.
“He also continues to seek contributions to the trust funds we have collectively established in recent years to sustain the Afghan National Security Forces,” Panetta said.
Panetta did pledge that the U.S. reduction of 33,000 members of its forces by next September wouldn’t harm partner nations by denying them the support troops they need.
“We must continue to send a strong signal to the people of Afghanistan, and the Taliban, that we are committed to the enduring, long-term relationship we have” with the Afghan people, he said.
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