BRUSSELS - Facing deep budget cuts, the U.S. will no longer be able to make up for the significant shortfalls that have plagued NATO's operations in Libya and Afghanistan, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Wednesday, exhorting allies to work together or risk losing the ability to take on such missions.
In a carefully calibrated speech just before the opening of a NATO defense ministers' meeting, Panetta praised the broad effort that has come together in Libya. But he said the allies must better share the security burden in order to survive global financial pressures that are slicing into defense spending.
Just three months into the job, Panetta stopped short of the blistering critique delivered by his predecessor, Robert Gates, in June, when Gates questioned the alliance's viability and bluntly warned that it faces a "dim, if not dismal, future."
But Panetta echoed many of the same frustrations.
"There are legitimate questions about whether, if present trends continue, NATO will again be able to sustain the kind of operations that we have seen in Libya and Afghanistan without the United States taking on even more of the burden," Panetta told the Brussels-based organization Carnegie Europe. "It would be a tragic outcome if the alliance shed the very capabilities that allowed it to successfully conduct these operations."
With the Pentagon facing $450 billion in budget cuts over the next 10 years, allies can't assume that the U.S. will be able to continue covering NATO's shortcomings, Panetta said. And with other countries facing similar pressures, he said the nations must coordinate cuts and pool their capabilities in order to continue.
"We cannot afford for countries to make decisions about force structure and force reductions in a vacuum, leaving neighbors and allies in the dark," Panetta said.
America's alliance with Europe emerged out of necessity in the Cold War era, but it has lost support and many, particularly in the United States, question its purpose.
But while Western nations are no longer faced with the threat of a Soviet invasion, escalating terrorist threats, possible cyberwarfare and rising nuclear worries about Iran have elevated fears and propelled the alliance into new and changing conflicts.
A political awakening rippling across the Middle East has touched off uprisings, including the one in Libya. And while the U.S. took a larger role early on in the conflict to protect Libyan citizens, over time others stepped in.
Now, with ousted Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in hiding and the opposition forces banging at the door of one of his strongholds, NATO can finally point to fragile progress in the 6-month-old mission.
France and Britain have now flown a third of the overall sorties and attacked 40 percent of the targets, Panetta said. Smaller nations, such as Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Romania and Bulgaria, have contributed airstrikes and ships for the arms embargo.
The battle, however, has reinforced the need to involve non-NATO allies to spread the burden. To face the growing threats, Panetta said, NATO must address some of the problems that have dogged the Libya and Afghanistan military campaigns.
In Libya, he said, there has been a big shortage of intelligence and surveillance capabilities, including drones and experts who can interpret data and translate it into targeting lists.
The U.S. has had to shift drones from other critical regions in order to meet the needs of the Libya mission.
In addition, Panetta pointed to shortages of ammunition and supplies as well as refueling tankers all gaps the U.S. had to fill.
And he repeated well-worn complaints that allies have failed to provide needed trainers and money to the war in Afghanistan. While the war is being run under NATO's flag, the U.S. has carried the bulk of the load deploying nearly 100,000 troops there during the difficult years of the surge in order to tamp down Taliban violence.
The allies, meanwhile, have struggled to maintain a force of about 40,000.
"We are at a critical moment for our defense partnership," Panetta warned, stressing the need for other nations to share the burden. "While these warnings have been acknowledged, growing fiscal pressures on both sides of the Atlantic, I fear, have eroded the political will to do something about them."
Looking ahead to the planned NATO summit in Chicago in May, Panetta said the allies must pool their resources and hammer out multinational solutions to face the next generation of threats.
"I am convinced that we do not have to choose between fiscal security and national security," he said. "But achieving that goal will test the very future of leadership throughout NATO."