Panetta: NATO allies must address defense needs

"We cannot afford for countries to make decisions about force reductions in a vacuum," US defense secretary says of aircraft, drone shortage.

Leon Panetta 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Leon Panetta 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BRUSSELS - NATO allies must address a shortage of critical assets such as aerial refueling aircraft and surveillance drones despite tighter defense budgets on both sides of the Atlantic, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Wednesday.
Panetta, in his first speech in Europe since becoming Pentagon chief, prodded the North Atlantic treaty allies to hold defense spending at current levels and said at a minimum they should coordinate any cuts to "avoid surprises" that could endanger each other.
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"We cannot afford for countries to make decisions about force reductions in a vacuum, leaving neighbors and allies in the dark," he said in an address to Carnegie Europe, the Brussels branch of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank.
Panetta's remarks echoed those of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his last speech in Brussels before leaving office, when he bluntly warned NATO had become a two-tiered alliance divided between those who bear the burden and those who reap the benefits without sharing the costs.
But Panetta took a softer approach, balancing concern about the shortage of equipment and personnel and the low level of defense spending in some countries with praise for the alliance's accomplishments in Libya and Afghanistan and the need to cooperate in the future.
"We live in a world of growing danger and uncertainty," he said. "We cannot predict where the next crisis will occur but we know that we are stronger when we confront these threats together."
Panetta said the war in Libya, in which the alliance used air power to protect civilians from forces supporting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, illustrated "growing gaps that must be addressed," Panetta said, including shortfalls in capabilities.
"NATO had a significant shortage of well-trained targeting specialists, and the United States had to make up the difference," he said. "But nowhere were the gaps more obvious than in critical enabling capabilities - refueling tankers, the provision of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms such as Global Hawk and Predator drones."
"Without these capabilities, the Libya operation would have had a very difficult time getting off the ground or being sustained," he said.