REPORTING FROM BRUSSELS -- NATO allies need to purchase more aerial refueling aircraft and surveillance drones, despite looming cuts in defense spending on both sides of the Atlantic, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Wednesday.
Panetta, in his first address to NATO since taking office in July, said the war in Libya was nearing a "successful" end but “would have had a difficult time getting off the ground” had the U.S. not provided drones and aerial refueling tankers to the alliance early in the bombing campaign.
The Libyan war exposed "capability gaps" in the alliance that the U.S. was forced to fill, Panetta said, even though the Obama administration had made it clear from the start that European governments would have to take the lead, as U.S. forces were heavily engaged in Afghanistan.
"Unfortunately, these capability gaps are being exposed at precisely the time when every defense minister in NATO, including myself, is dealing with great fiscal challenges at home," Panetta said. "There are legitimate questions about whether, if present trends continue, NATO will again be able to sustain the kind of operations that we have seen in Libya and Afghanistan without the United States taking on even more of the burden."
The message -- that NATO members need to spend more on new weapons systems at a time when many are considering deep cuts in military expenditures -- is the same one that former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates delivered earlier this year on his final visit to NATO, though Panetta's remarks were in some respects more upbeat.
Gates’ blunt criticism offended some European allies, and Panetta may be hoping to smooth over the hurt feelings as he begins his tenure.
He is in Brussels for talks with other alliance defense chiefs that are expected to focus on Afghanistan and Libya, including the issue of when to halt the bombing campaign. Rebels now control most of Libya, though fighting continues in Surt and other cities controlled by forces loyal to former leader Moammar Kadafi.
Panetta praised the alliance for moving swiftly to confront Kadafi, singling out France, Britain, Canada and several other countries for taking the lead in attack missions. But he noted that the U.S. had to sell bombs, spare parts and other equipment to many allies only weeks into the bombing campaign. To find targets on the ground in Libya, the U.S. had to supply hundreds of personnel skilled in analyzing video and other intelligence, he said.
Panetta is being forced to cut the U.S. defense budget by more than $450 billion over the next decade, and the cuts could more than double under a budget deal signed by President Obama unless Congress identifies more than $1 trillion in other savings by the end of the year.
Noting similar pressure in other NATO countries, he said, "Ideally, we will be able to halt additional cuts in defense or at a minimum keep defense spending level. But the signs are not promising."
An alliance plan to buy five Global Hawk surveillance drones, is "at an impasse, due to disagreements over funding," Panetta said.
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, center, meets with German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere at NATO headquarters in Brussels Wednesday. Credit: Pool