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After that conflict, U.S. defense officials pressed Europe to devote more budget dollars to defense, especially on so-called smart-bomb technologies essential to waging a modern air war.

The campaign failed, according to numbers that NATO released last month. Since 1999, most European countries have cut arms spending as a share of gross domestic product, while the U.S. share has grown sharply to more than 5 percent from 3.2 percent.

The Pentagon is spending a total of $708 billion this year on procurement, personnel and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

NATO’s European members invested 2.5 percent of GDP at the beginning of the 1990s. Today, the share stands at a relatively meager 1.7 percent.

In December, a report from the European Defense Agency showed another downward trend. As a share of government spending, European defense has fallen from 3.8 percent in 2006 to 3.31 percent in 2009.

At a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday, U.S. Adm. James Stavridis, NATO’s supreme allied commander, chided Europe for stingy defense budgets.

“The bad news is that many of our allies are not meeting the NATO standard of spending at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense,” said Adm. Stavridis, whose command took over the Libyan mission on Thursday after much debate among reluctant members.

“So I am worried,” he said. “And I believe that we here in the United States, because we pay a much higher percentage of our GDP for our defense, need to be emphatic with our European allies that they should spend at least the minimum NATO 2 percent.

“And at a military-to-military level, I carry that message often, emphatically and very directly, frankly, not only to military counterparts but also to political actors in each of the nations in the alliance.”

The results of the imbalance were clear from the first day of the Libyan campaign, as the U.S. military shouldered the task of firing cruise missiles to destroy Libyan air-defense targets so pilots face fewer risks.

“They don’t have the overall ‘throw weight,’ or bulk or capacity that the U.S. Air Force has got,” said Gen. Moseley. “It’s a good partnership and it’s a trusting relationship. I think it’s just a difference in scale.”

The real test for Europe will be when NATO starts to shift missions away from the United States and into the hands of European members.

“We are reducing the U.S. component of it measurably, and I think you’ll see our allies increasingly engaged,” said Adm. Stavridis.

The postgraduate school’s Mr. Russell is not optimistic about the overall future, saying Europe has made a conscious, long-term decision to bleed defense to fund popular social programs — and let the American military spend its money.

“They’re going to cease to be even something faintly resembling co-equal partners, and they’ll just be reduced to token-level forces,” he said.

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