|Gates warned that NATO faces a 'dismal' future without a stronger commitment from European members [AFP]
Robert Gates, the US defence secretary who is set to retire at the end of this month, has blasted European allies for risking "collective military irrelevance" unless NATO members bear more of the burden and boost military spending in operations such as Libya and Afghanistan.
Speaking in Brussels in his final policy speech as Pentagon chief, Gates said: "The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country.
"Yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference."
Gates said alliance-led operations in Afghanistan and Libya were "serious" examples of shortcomings in the allies' military capabilities and political will.
Despite more than two million troops in uniform, not including the US military, NATO has struggled, at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25,000 to 40,000 troops, not just in boots on the ground, but in crucial support assets such as helicopters, transport aircraft, maintenance, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and much more, Gates said, addressing NATO's Security and Defence Agenda assembly in the Belgian capital.
Similar shortcomings were sighted in NATO's operation in Libya, where "less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission" despite "every alliance member [having] voted" for it, he added.
"Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can't. The military capabilities simply aren't there."
He warned of "a real possibility for a dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance".
'Era of austerity'
Gates, a 67-year-old former CIA chief who has served four and a half years as defence secretary, lambasted "a lack of will, much of it from a lack of resources in an era of austerity" where the US is left to bridge the gaps.
Barack Obama, the US president, has faced budget pressure by some Republicans and Democrats who look to defence as a way to tackle the US deficit, running about $1.4 trillion this fiscal year that ends September 30.
Gates has long maintained that trimming the deficit at the cost of the US armed forces could endanger global stability, but said on Thursday that with a deep economic crisis in the US, defence spending would have to bear part of the burden of dramatic cuts.
"My hope is that the fact that the reality is changing in the United States will get the attention of European leaders to realise that the drift of the last 20 years can't continue, not if they want to have a strong transatlantic partnership," he said.
Total European defence spending has declined by nearly 15 per cent over the last 10 years while just five of 28 NATO allies - the US, UK, France, Greece and Albania - exceed the agreed-upon 2 per cent of gross domestic product spending on defence, Gates said.
"NATO defence spending has risen to more than 75 per cent - at a time when politically painful budget and benefit cuts are being considered at home," he added.
"The blunt reality," he continued, "is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US 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 - nations apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets."
Gates said that non-US allies' $300bn annual defence budget could buy significant capabilities if spent strategically, but ended up funding less than the sum of its parts.
"Too many allies have been unwilling to fundamentally change how they set priorities and allocate resources," he said.
Officials who attended two days of NATO meetings that preceded Gates' speech, told the Reuters news agency that Gates had singled out five nations to do more.
He asked Spain, Turkey and the Netherlands to fly strike missions in addition to the air operations they currently undertake and urged Germany and Poland, which are not contributing, to find ways to help, the officials said, according to Reuters.
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the former NATO secretary-general, also warned that the current imbalance between the US and its European allies was "not sustainable".
"Europe has a rather pale face as we speak," he said, criticising "totally unco-ordinated budget cuts" and urging his own nation, the Netherlands, to join strike missions in Libya.