By David Alexander
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The North Atlantic alliance risks "collective military irrelevance" unless its European members boost their military spending and become "serious and capable partners in their own defense," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday.
Gates, in a tough final policy address before retiring at the end of the month, said NATO-led operations in Afghanistan and Libya had exposed significant shortcomings in military capabilities and political will among the allies.
Despite having more than two million troops in uniform, not including the U.S. military, NATO has struggled to sustain a deployment of 25,000 to 45,000 troops in Afghanistan, Gates said, "not just in boots on the ground, but in crucial support assets such as helicopters, transport aircraft, maintenance, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance."
"This has both shortchanged current operations but also bodes ill for ensuring NATO has the key common alliance capabilities of the future," he said. "Looking ahead, to avoid the very real possibility of collective military irrelevance, member nations must examine new approaches to boosting combat capabilities."
With the United States facing painful budget cuts at home as President Barack Obama grapples with a $1.4 trillion deficit, U.S. lawmakers may begin to question the 75 percent share that Washington pays in NATO defense spending, he said.
"The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress ... 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," Gates said.
Because of their failure to invest in their militaries, he added, some nations appear "willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets."
Gates's remarks, to the Security and Defense Agenda thinktank in Brussels, followed two days of NATO meetings, during which he noted that a few nations are carrying the bulk of the burden in Libya, and singled out five nations that he urged to do more to support the mission.
Officials familiar with the discussions said he asked Spain, Turkey and Netherlands to fly strike missions in addition to the air operations they currently undertake. He urged Germany and Poland, which are not contributing, to find ways to help, the officials said.
Gates said on Friday the $300 billion spent annually on defense by NATO allies excluding the United States could buy significant military capabilities if it were spent strategically, but instead it ends up funding less than the sum of its parts.
"Despite the pressing need to spend more on vital equipment and the right personnel to support ongoing missions -- needs that have been evident for the past two decades -- too many allies have been unwilling to fundamentally change how they set priorities and allocate resources," he said.
Gates said just five of the 28 allies -- the United States, Britain, France, Greece and Albania -- spend the agreed 2 percent of GDP on defense.
Some of the smaller NATO countries had managed to punch well above their weight because of the way they use their defense resources. For example, Norway and Denmark are providing 12 percent of the strike aircraft in Libya but have hit 30 percent of the targets.
But he said more effective coordination of spending would go only so far and the allies would need to step up their military investments eventually. "Ultimately, nations must be responsible for their fair share of the common defense," Gates said.
(editing by David Stamp)