Brussels – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates bluntly criticized NATO nations on Friday for what he said were shortages in military spending and political will, warning of “a dim if not dismal future” unless more member nations scaled up their participation in the alliance’s activities.
NATO has struggled for a generation to define its place in a post-cold war world, and its member nations have frequently quarreled about the scope of the alliance’s commitments and their individual responsibilities.
With little indication of any change in policy among the more reluctant member nations — notably Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Turkey — Mr. Gates’s harsh words seemed likely to increase pressure on an alliance already deeply strained by differences over sharing the burden in Libya and Afghanistan.
Perhaps most significantly, Mr. Gates issued a dire warning that the United States, the traditional leader and bankroller of the alliance, is exhausted by a decade of war and and its own mounting budget deficits, and simply may not see NATO as worth supporting any longer.
“The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. 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,” Mr. Gates said.
Mr. Gates complained of what he called a “two-tiered” membership structure, “between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership but don’t want to share the risks and the costs.” He added that some NATO partners are “apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.”
He criticized NATO nations for failing to meet their commitments in Afghanistan — or for imposing sweeping restrictions on those forces they do send — which he said hobbled the effort.
And despite NATO’s decision to take command of the air war in Libya, the alliance is running out of bombs after just 11 weeks, he said. The operation would fall apart without a continued large infusion of American support, Mr. Gates added, since other NATO nations have not invested in the weapons required to carry out lengthy combat operations.
While Mr. Gates made his case Friday in strong language, his complaints were not entirely new. Last year he warned of the dangers of the “demilitarization of Europe,” and there are long-standing American frustrations at the discrepancy of military capabilities and spending on the two sides of the Atlantic.
That theme has been echoed by NATO’s Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who has called on European allies to spend more on “smart defense” by pooling resources and cooperating more effectively.
“There is clearly a longstanding concern about the transatlantic gap in defense,” said Oana Lungescu, NATO spokesman when asked Friday about Mr. Gates’s comments. “There is a risk that European allies may fall further behind in terms of technological development because of low levels of defense spending.”
Mr. Gates has spent his final weeks before retirement speaking forthrightly on issues that ranged from preserving Pentagon spending to sustaining combat forces in Afghanistan. But his address on Friday to the Security and Defense Agenda, a Brussels policy center, was among the most pointed and challenging ever delivered by the former C.I.A. director who has served eight presidents of both political parties.
Despite signs of real progress in Afghanistan, the mission has been weakened by “the inability of many allies to meet agreed upon commitments,” Mr. Gates said. The war effort also has been hobbled by “national ‘caveats’ that tied the hands of allied commanders in sometimes infuriating ways,” he added.
The defense secretary was even harsher in his critique of NATO’s command of the Libya operation. After an initial bombing campaign run by the Americans, the alliance took over the air war and Mr. Gates warned that NATO may not be up to the task.
“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 U.S., once more, to make up the difference,” Mr. Gates said.
While the Libya war was unanimously endorsed by NATO nations, less than half are participating, and less than a third are carrying out strike missions.
“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,” Mr. Gates said. “The military capabilities simply aren’t there.”
The Libya operation has proven the alliance is desperately short of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, as well as aerial refueling planes — all are crucial to modern combat. The United States still is supplying the largest share of all of those to the NATO effort, even thought it pulled most of its strike aircraft out of the operation.
Mr. Gates said the problem has been lack of military investment on the part of too many NATO nations. “For all but a handful of allies, defense budgets — in absolute terms, as a share of economic output — have been chronically starved for adequate funding for a long time, with the shortfalls compounding on themselves each year,” he said.
Mr. Gates did offer a prescription. “Looking ahead, to avoid the very real possibility of collective military irrelevance, member nations must examine new approaches to boosting combat capabilities — in procurement, in training, in logistics, in sustainment,” he said.
Stephen Castle contributed reporting.