New U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned NATO allies Wednesday that they should not rest on any laurels from the success of the ongoing military campaign in Libya, and that a cash-strapped America cannot always foot the bill when the alliance falls short.
The Libya operation that began in March revealed embarrassing gaps in European military abilities that were mostly filled by the United States, and shortfalls in such basic supplies as ammunition.
"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.
Panetta later had his first discussions at NATO headquarters since taking over the top Pentagon job over the summer. His message echoed the blunt parting words of his predecessor, Robert Gates: One nation can't do it all.
"It would be a tragic outcome if the alliance shed the very capabilities that allowed it to successfully conduct these operations," Panetta said.
His comments came as NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen left the door open for an extended mission in Libya, saying the civilian population must be protected until "no threat exists."
The NATO secretary-general readily acknowledged that the Libya mission showed NATO lacking in a number of critical capabilities, including surveillance drones and air refueling, and had to rely on the U.S. to fill the gaps.
"If we are to respond to the challenges of tomorrow just as effectively, more allies should make sure they obtain and maintain those kinds of critical capabilities," said Fogh Rasmussen. "One is not enough."
His remarks mirrored the key points in Panetta's speech. The allies, said Panetta, must work better together and pool their resources or risk losing the ability to take on such missions.
It's too soon to say whether the criticism will have much impact on many of the European nations who are also facing fiscal crises and, in many cases, see little benefit to getting more involved in these wars.
Panetta continued the U.S. drumbeat for more NATO contributions, and he made it clear that 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 do what NATO can't or won't on its own.
Just three months into the job, Panetta softened the edges of the blistering critique Gates delivered in June, while identifying many of the same frustrations. Gates questioned the alliance's very viability and bluntly warned that it faces a "dim, if not dismal, future."
"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.
And Fogh Rasmussen told reporters that "in principle" the ministers agreed that the nations have to focus more on multilateral cooperation, and that they should develop new projects that can be shared with others. That would include expensive equipment as well as efforts to cut costs for training, education, logistics, maintenance and other areas where they can make more efficient use of resources.
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.
Panetta said the missions in Libya and Afghanistan have highlighted serious shortfalls in the alliance.
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.
He did, however, praise the allies' effort in Libya, which has helped to drive former leader Moammar Gadhafi into hiding, and given new life to opposition forces now trying to establish a their own government. Specifically, he noted that a number of nations took over the bulk of the air strikes, including both NATO and non-NATO countries.
"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."