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“What I’ve sketched out is the real possibility for a dim, if not dismal future for the trans-Atlantic alliance,” he said. “Such a future is possible, but not inevitable. The good news is that the members of NATO — individually and collectively — have it well within their means to halt and reverse these trends and instead produce a very different future.”

Gates has said he believes NATO will endure despite its flaws and failings. But his remarks Friday point to a degree of American impatience with traditional and newer European allies that in coming years could lead to a reordering of U.S. defense priorities in favor of Asia and the Pacific, where the rise of China is becoming a predominant concern.

To illustrate his concerns about Europe’s lack of appetite for defense, Gates noted the difficulty NATO has encountered in carrying out an air campaign in Libya.

“The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country, yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference,” he said.

His comment reflected U.S. frustration with the allies’ limited defense budgets.

“To avoid the very real possibility of collective military irrelevance, member nations must examine new approaches to boosting combat capabilities,” he said.

He applauded Norway and Denmark for providing a disproportionate share of the combat power in the Libya operation, given the size of their militaries. And he credited Belgium and Canada for making “major contributions” to the effort to degrade the military strength of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.

“These countries have, with their constrained resources, found ways to do the training, buy the equipment and field the platforms necessary to make a credible military contribution,” he said.

But they are exceptions, in Gates‘ view.

A NATO air operations center designed to handle more than 300 flights a day is struggling to launch about 150 a day against Libya, Gates said.

On a political level, the problem of alliance purpose in Libya is even more troubling, he said.

“While every alliance member voted for the Libya mission, less than half have participated, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission,” he said. “Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren’t there.”

Afghanistan is another example of NATO falling short despite a determined effort, Gates said.

He recalled the history of NATO’s involvement in the Afghan war — and the mistaken impression some allied governments held of what it would require of them.

“I suspect many allies assumed that the mission would be primarily peacekeeping, reconstruction and development assistance - more akin to the Balkans,” he said, referring to NATO peacekeeping efforts there since the late 1990s. “Instead, NATO found itself in a tough fight against a determined and resurgent Taliban returning in force from its sanctuaries in Pakistan.”

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