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Echoes of Eurozone crisis at NATO meeting

Saturday - 5/19/2012, 9:34am  ET

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The NATO meeting in Chicago is a chance for alliance leaders to proclaim solidarity and promise success. But the two-day gathering that begins Sunday probably won't resolve the underlying anxiety about sharing the burdens of defense, a concern heightened by Europe's economic crisis and America's growing weariness at carrying the heaviest load.

Drastic budget cuts in some European countries are exasperating tensions over a yawning gap in military capabilities between the United States and other NATO members. From NATO's birth in 1949 at the dawn of the Cold War, the U.S. has provided the bulk of the military might. That arrangement, however, is fraying in an age of austerity and in the absence of a Soviet-like invasion threat to compel more military spending by the Europeans.

"NATO needs a new bargain," says Barry Pavel, director of the international security program at the Atlantic Council, a think tank. "The time when Europeans can expect the U.S. to dominate operations in Europe or nearby without U.S. vital interests are over."

Worry in Europe and the U.S. about fractures in the alliance are nearly as old as NATO itself. In recent years, a more ambitious military agenda, including a formal NATO fighting role in Afghanistan, has created deeper divisions.

For example, the Europeans largely have viewed Afghanistan as a humanitarian, not combat, mission, and that explains why Washington for years had trouble getting Europeans to provide more forces.

Also, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 caused a deep rift with important European partners, including France and Germany, which publicly opposed the war.

Even as the alliance has expanded its reach outside of Europe, declining defense spending on both sides of the Atlantic, but particularly in Europe, is crimping NATO's capabilities and trying the U.S. willingness to take on every European security issue.

A case in point is Libya. The operation last year to ground Moammar Gadhafi's air force by imposing a "no fly zone" over the country was carried out under a NATO flag. But the mission probably could not have succeeded without the American military, which provided most of the firepower, especially in the riskiest early stages.

Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, has said the Libya mission "only accentuated" the growing gap in capabilities between the U.S. and its European partners, who actually ran short of precision-guided munitions at one point.

Daalder said the U.S. provided 75 percent of all intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets and flew 75 percent of aerial refueling missions in the Libya operation. It also provided the bulk of the officers who coordinated the targeting.

As part of the solution to the Europeans' lack of aerial surveillance capabilities, NATO agreed in February to buy a fleet of five U.S.-made unmanned Global Hawk high-altitude surveillance aircraft for about $1 billion. The U.S. is on the hook for about 40 percent of the tab. The drones are to operate out of an air base in Italy. This deal was a breakthrough for NATO, ending a 19-year debate over how to pay for it.

Throughout the Cold War, a military and political partnership with Western Europe was fundamental to U.S. defense policy. But in the two decades since the demise of the Soviet Union, the security landscape has been reshaped. For a growing number of Americans, NATO is an abstract and obscure relic.

That causes many in Congress to question why the U.S. should continue to pay the lion's share of defense costs. The U.S. defense budget of nearly $700 billion accounts for nearly three-quarters of the total defense spending by NATO members. The combined military spending of all 26 European members is just above $220 billion.

NATO long has set of goal for each of its 28 members to spend at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, but the only members consistently doing that over the past two decades are the U.S., Britain, France, Turkey and Greece, according to NATO statistics.

The recent economic turmoil in Europe, punctuated by the threat of bank failures, is making the gap worse and leading to more urgent questions about burden sharing. In one tangible example, the Netherlands announced last year that it would eliminate 1 in 6 of its military personnel and liquidate its entire tank arsenal.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, recently complained that for every dollar the U.S. is spending on homeland missile defense it is spending four times that much on regional missile defenses such as the one being erected in Europe.

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