BRUSSELS – The head of NATO urged member countries Thursday to stop cutting their defense budgets in response to tough economic times, saying continued reductions will compromise the safety of all of the military alliance's 28 members.
"It is of course a matter of concern that we have seen and continue to see declining defense budgets all over the alliance," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on his way into a two-day meeting of NATO country defense ministers.
"My appeal to governments is, firstly, hold the line, stop the cuts," Fogh Rasmussen said. "Secondly, make more efficient use of the resources we do have, through more multinational cooperation. And thirdly, once the economies recover, start to increase defense capacities again."
The defense secretaries will consider ways for their countries to cooperate more effectively on defense procurement in order to get the most value for the money being spent. Fogh Rasumussen said that, in this time of austerity, it is essential for nations to get the best value for taxpayers' money — and working together is the best way to do that.
In addition, the ministers are expected to discuss the role NATO troops will play in Afghanistan once they withdraw from combat and focus instead on training, advising and assisting Afghan forces. But few firm decisions are expected at the meeting, which NATO officials have describes as mostly devoted to taking stock of developments.
Pentagon officials said that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who arrived at the meeting Thursday, will warn NATO allies that Washington's fiscal impasse will have repercussions abroad, as impending budget cuts force the military to scale back its training and presence overseas.
Many of his meetings with other defense ministers are likely to center on the plans to wind down the war in Afghanistan. But shadowing every conversation will be how the cutbacks will ripple across Europe.
U.S. officials have long urged that the burden of mutual defense be shared more equitably. A senior NATO official pointed out this week that the U.S. still spends 4.3 percent of its gross domestic product, while most European countries are dropping below 1.5 percent. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk about the discussions before the meeting had taken place.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said the across-the-board budget cuts slated to take effect next week will reduce U.S. military readiness and, as a result, diminish NATO's ability to respond to crises.
Little said the budget cuts will force reductions in training that could affect NATO, and the Navy has already announced that it will delay the deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman to the Persian Gulf because of fiscal restraints. He said that Panetta will discuss the impacts of the budget cuts with the defense ministers during the two-day meeting.
He said the Pentagon "also is talking about the prospect of not being able to send military units to the region on a rotational basis as planned. Little said he did not know what impact that may have on the plans to deploy small components of an Army brigade to various countries in Africa over the next year.
This is Panetta's fifth visit to Brussels for a NATO meeting — a trip he never intended to take. Expectations were that defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, would be confirmed by the Senate last week and he would travel to the meeting.
Hagel's nomination stalled, however, as it got caught up in senators' complaints about the attack in Benghazi, which left four Americans dead, including the ambassador.
Don Melvin can be reached at http://twitter.com/Don_Melvin