The seven-month bombing campaign in Libya is a "positive story" that showcased the commitment of the alliance's European members, who conducted most of the combat missions for the first time in the organization's history, NATO's top official said Friday.
Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also said the alliance's 28 members need to improve the way they spend money at a time of declining defense budgets, promoting his idea of "smart defense" under which nations pool resources to increase cost efficiency.
NATO warplanes have flown nearly 26,000 sorties, including about 9,500 strike missions, since the alliance began bombing forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi in Libya in March. They are credited with destroying the former strongman's military and paving the way for the victory of the former rebels.
But critics said the campaign also revealed deep rifts within the Western military alliance. Only eight of the 28 members participated _ led by the United States and France _ while the others stayed away, mostly out of concern for how the new mission would affect the alliance's commitment to Afghanistan.
Fogh Rasmussen denied there had been any rift, saying that NATO remained united throughout the campaign.
"All 28 allies have contributed to our operation in Libya, through our command structure and through the funding of certain activities," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"I think the Libya operation is a positive story about a strong European commitment to our alliance. The fact is that for the first time in the history of NATO, the European allies and Canada have provided the majority of assets."
Still, the war exposed shortages in those countries' capabilities in strategic transport, aerial surveillance, air refueling and unmanned drones, most of which had to be supplied by the United States.
Fogh Rasmussen acknowledged that the U.S. provided "unique and essential assets" to the campaign. "But that is actually the essence about being an alliance, that we help each other," he said.
In June, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Gates said that NATO could face "a dim if not dismal" future if Europeans continue to rely on the U.S. military in operations like the one in Libya.
Fogh Rasmussen urged member states to cooperate more closely and pool their resources to make up for such shortfalls, saying "we are trying to get more bang for the buck."
"For many individual allies it's too expensive to buy transport aircraft, or acquire expensive assets for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance," Fogh Rasmussen said. "But by pooling and sharing of resources, by helping each other, by cooperation, they can afford to acquire such capabilities."
Fogh Rasmussen also defended NATO's plan to set up a missile defense system at a time when government austerity measures were eating into defense budgets in the U.S. and most European members, saying some countries already have acquired offensive missiles that can hit NATO territory.
He said the threat was real because more than 30 countries have acquired missile technology or are aspiring to get it. "It would be too late to start development of a NATO missile defense system once potential adversaries had acquired the missile capability to attack our countries," he said.
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