BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel cautioned NATO allies on Wednesday against using reductions in U.S. defense spending as an excuse to slash European military outlays.
Hagel arrived in Brussels two days after announcing U.S. plans to shrink America's Army to pre-World War Two levels and make other controversial cuts, in the face of shrinking budgets and the end of 13 years of land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Still, Hagel noted that the Pentagon's budget would protect investments in transatlantic security, including missile defense. Hagel said the U.S. military was still "prioritizing military capability and combat power" even as it slims down, and suggested Europe must do the same.
"America's contributions in NATO remains starkly disproportionate, so adjustments in the U.S. defense budget cannot become an excuse for further cuts in European defense spending," Hagel said in prepared remarks to a closed-door session of a defense ministers' meeting.
Austerity-hit EU countries have slashed spending after the financial crisis, scaling back on ships, tanks and fighter jets. The reductions in military strength are a concern of the United States, which is Europe's most important ally and which already contributes about three-quarters of NATO defense spending.
Hagel cited the need to increase NATO's air-to-air refueling capacity, after the 2011 Libya conflict demonstrated a shortage of tanker aircraft. He said Libya also exposed NATO shortcomings in other areas, including a lack of precision-guided munitions stocks.
"We saw these gaps once again among allied militaries in preparing potential U.S.-led responses to the Syrian regime's heinous use of chemical weapons," he said, referring to the U.S. threat last year to conducted limited military strikes on Syrian targets.
Hagel said if leaders of NATO-member nations believed in the value of the alliance, then they would make the case to their legislators and taxpayers.
"As European economies recover, leaders must make the case for renewed investment in military capability. The current path is not sustainable," Hagel said. "Our alliance can endure only as long as we are willing to fight for it, and invest in it."
(Reporting by Phil Stewart)