- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Pentagon’s budget reorganization could hobble the U.S.’ ability to contribute to NATO, following a trend in which other major alliance members have cut their contributions in recent years.

With NATO defense ministers — including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel — meeting in Brussels this week, analysts say military budget cuts across the West risk destabilizing the 28-nation alliance in the long term.

More immediate, the world is heading into an era in which NATO may simply be incapable of dominating multiple conflicts simultaneously, says Jorge Benitez, an analyst specializing in NATO at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

“The question is not whether NATO can participate in two conflicts at one time,” Mr. Benitez told The Washington Times. “The real question is can NATO win two or more conflicts at one time.”

Data collected by the Avascent Group, a strategy and management consulting firm that tracks global defense markets, show that total NATO funding from the top seven European contributors — the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain — has dropped by more than 10 percent since 2009.

International weapons purchases among the top seven in Europe have increased marginally in recent years. But amid Europe’s economic crisis, Western European nations have steadily cut military personnel costs, along with operations and maintenance expenses.

Europe’s top seven contributed $217 billion to NATO in 2009, but that figure fell to $195 billion by 2013. Personnel and maintenance costs account for roughly 75 percent of those figures.

It’s a situation that increases the instability NATO is experiencing, according to Christina Balis, who oversees European operations at the Avascent Group.

Ms. Balis told The Times that over the next two years, defense spending will continue to buckle under budget pressures because there is “no room to really increase the spending.” She added that Americans’ appetite “for continuously contributing as much as they do to NATO at all levels” is rapidly decreasing.

The U.S. has increased its NATO contribution from about 68 percent of the alliance’s alliance’s major equipment expenditures in 2007 to about 73 percent of those purchases in 2013, according the NATO secretary general’s 2013 annual report. Over the past decade, NATO’s spending has increased, mostly because the U.S. has provided more resources.

In addition, only the U.S., Britain, Estonia and Greece have met a NATO requirement of dedicating at least 2 percent of their GDP to defense, according to former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder.

“Recent trends in defense spending threaten NATO’s ability to confidently face a dangerous and unpredictable future,” Mr. Daalder said in a June 17 speech. “Most European Allies are hollowing out their militaries, jettisoning capabilities, and failing to spend their existing budgets wisely. As a result, the gap between American and European contributions to the Alliance is widening to an unsustainable level.”

In Brussels on Wednesday, Mr. Hagel said that European allies must start bearing more of the burden of modernizing NATO or risk the alliance becoming irrelevant, the Associated Press reported.

“America’s contributions in NATO remain starkly disproportionate, so adjustments in the U.S. defense budget cannot become an excuse for further cuts in European defense spending,” Mr. Hagel told defense ministers.

Still, some inside NATO say concerns about the alliance’s long-term viability are overblown. One NATO official who spoke on condition of anonymity argued that the current trend of defense spending decreases will not negatively impact the alliance’s framework.

The official noted that NATO is maintaining more than 50,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, 5,000 soldiers in Kosovo, a counter-piracy operation off the coast of Somalia, Patriot missile batteries to help protect Turkey from rocket attacks from Syria, and many other tasks.

“Of course, in these difficult economic times, we have to be realistic and all NATO allies have had to balance their budgetary priorities,” the official said. “But the crisis should not be an excuse for doing less.”

• Maggie Ybarra can be reached at mybarra@washingtontimes.com.

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