By Adrian Croft
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen will urge Europe on Thursday to step up its commitment to defense by buying more surveillance drones, transport and tanker aircraft and strengthening its fragmented defence industry.
Senior U.S. officials, and Rasmussen himself, have expressed growing concern that defence cuts pushed through by cash-strapped European governments have created a big gulf between U.S. and European military capabilities and risk weakening NATO.
The European Union has also launched a debate, set to culminate in a summit of European leaders in December, on how Europe can strengthen its arms industry and bolster a common defence policy.
In a speech to the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels on Thursday, Rasmussen will argue that a strong NATO needs "a strong Europe - with strong capabilities, strong defence industries, and strong political commitment," NATO officials said.
He is expected to urge European allies to strengthen their capabilities in key areas, saying they should acquire more surveillance drones, more large transport and air-to-air refueling aircraft and more upgraded ship radars so they can be integrated into NATO's planned missile defence system.
As the United States turns its strategic focus increasingly towards Asia, it is banking on Europe to take more military responsibility in its backyard. But during the 2011 Libya conflict, European states had to rely heavily on the United States for air-to-air refueling, intelligence and surveillance.
Rasmussen will also say that Europe needs a strong defence industrial base, arguing that the continent's defence industry remains too national and fragmented, NATO officials said.
He will welcome proposals put forward by the European Union's executive Commission in July to make the industry more efficient and competitive.
The Commission proposed helping Europe's defence industry cope with falling military budgets by funding research and aiding the development of new technologies with military uses.
British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond voiced skepticism over the Commission's proposals last week and said London would oppose any moves to enforce new rules on the region's defence industry that damaged British companies' competitiveness.
Drones are an area where Europe lags the United States and Israel. Three European aerospace companies - France's Dassault Aviation, EADS Cassidian and Italy's Finmeccanica Alenia Aermacchi - called on Europe in June to launch its own independent drone program to equip armies across the continent.
Many EU officials see the failed $45 billion merger between Franco-German EADS and Britain's BAE Systems, which collapsed last year in the face of political differences, as a missed opportunity to consolidate the European defence industry.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)