U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned NATO countries the U.S. may not be able to sustain operations like those in Libya and Afghanistan as it tries to deal with its own budget problems.
Panetta arrived in Brussels to attend his first NATO ministerial conference as Secretary of Defense. He brought a careful but clear message: that the United States can may no longer be able to make up for gaps that its NATO allies have had in carrying out missions like those in Libya and Afghanistan.
Panetta said the two operations exposed gaps that the United States had to fill, especially in the area of intelligence and reconnaissance and midair refueling. He said the gaps have been exposed at a time when NATO nations are facing, cuts in their defense budgets, and the U.S. - facing more than 450 billion dollars in cuts - may no longer be in a position to offset the shortfalls.
"There are legitimate questions about whether, if present trends continue, NATO will again be able to sustain the kind of operations we have seen in Libya and Afghanistan without the United States taking on even more of a burden. It would be a tragic outcome if the alliance shed the very capabilities that allowed it to successfully conduct these operations," he said.
The alliance depends entirely on the United States for drones and other expensive capabilities.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said it is vital for allies to improve their capabilities to face future challenges and do so on a tighter budget.
He said that in this age of austerity, the allies will have to find ways to get more out of their defense budgets, by joining their resources and sharing the cost of projects.
In a separate development, the United States and Spain announced they have an agreement to base warships equipped with missile interceptors at a Spanish naval base on the country's southwest Atlantic coast. The move is part of anti-missile system that NATO is setting up to protect Europe against a potential nuclear threat from Iran.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero joined Secretary Panetta and the NATO chief in announcing the agreement at NATO headquarters late Wednesday.
The Spanish leader said Spain will receive this component of the system due to the country's geostrategic location as a gateway to the Mediterranean.
The Spanish government says four U.S. ships will be home-based at Spain's Rota naval base by 2013 and generate about 1,000 jobs.
Secretary Panetta said the announcement should send a very strong signal that the United States is still continuing to invest in the NATO alliance.