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Gates: NATO Needs to Share More of Alliance's Defense Costs

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks during a Security and Defense Agenda event at the Biblioteque Solvay in Brussels on Friday, June 10, 2011

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates cautioned NATO allies Friday that they need to share more of the burden in the more than 60-year-old transatlantic alliance. His comments came during his last policy speech before stepping down as defense secretary at the end of the month.

Gates had a dire warning for NATO allies - that the time for America covering more than 75% of the coalition's defense spending is over. “The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the United States' Congress - and in the American body politic writ large - to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense,” he said.

Speaking Friday in Brussels in what has been billed as his last policy speech before retiring June 30, Gates reminded the coalition of his past concerns that NATO would become a two-tiered alliance. “Between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership but don't want to share the risks and the costs. This is no longer a hypothetical worry. We are there today. And it is unacceptable,” Gates said.

Gates pointed to the ongoing operations in Libya as an example.

He said that even though all 28 NATO members voted for the mission against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, less than half have participated and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission.

He blamed this on dwindling resources. “Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they cannot. The military capabilities simply aren't there,” Gates said.

Gates quoted one estimate that total European defense spending has fallen by nearly 15% in the decade since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

He said this has affected Afghanistan - the first “hot” ground war in NATO history. “Despite more than two million troops in uniform - not counting the U.S. military - NATO has struggled, at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25,000 to 40,000 troops, not just in boots on the ground, but in crucial support assets,” he said.

He said NATO allies must take a united way out of Afghanistan and not operate on their own timelines determined by domestic financial pressures.

But as the U.S. military considers billions of dollars in spending cuts to ease Washington's own growing deficit, Gates warned that future U.S. politicians - not shaped during the Cold War like him - might not consider the return on America's investment in NATO worth the cost.