Panetta warns NATO of devastating cuts

US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta speaks during a press conference, after a meeting of NATO Defense Ministers at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, on October 5, 2011 (AFP Photo / Thierry Charlier)
So what if the United States’ contributions make up almost all of NATO’s budget? US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says that the alliance cannot depend on America to cover the cost of everything.

Speaking from Brussels today, Panetta warmed America’s allies in NATO that serious budget cuts coming to the Pentagon could cause the United States to be much less likely to pick up the bill of NATO operations if the other member nations can’t come through.

“As for the United States, many might assume that the United States defense budget is so large it can absorb and cover alliance shortcomings – but make no mistake about it, we are facing dramatic cuts with real implications for alliance capability,” Panetta said earlier today.

Last month, US President Barack Obama delivered a speech from the White House in which he told reporters, “We have to cut what we can’t afford to make way for what really matters.” Among those on the cutting block, said Obama, are the overinflated military budget. He is hoping that proposed cuts and a withdrawal in Afghanistan could leave the government with around $1 trillion to use towards his highly touted (but still un-passed) American Jobs Act.

Elsewhere, the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight (POGO) released a report last month in which they revealed that, compared with 20 years earlier, the US military is grossly top-heavy, employing far too many high-ranking officers at inflated salaries. “It is a burden for both taxpayers and military commanders. The cost of officers increases markedly with their rank, so taxpayers are overpaying whenever a general or flag officer is in a position that could be filled by a lower ranking officer,” POGO said while revealing their report to Congress last month.

Panetta warned today that the US military is facing around $450 billion in cuts over the next decade, something he calls “tough but manageable.” The United States’ current defense budget is nearly $700 billion, outnumbering the contributions from all of the 27 other NATO nations combined.

The secretary also added that if economic problems continue to plague the US government, the Department of Defense could be forced to take additional measures to keep the country afloat. If the deficit worsens, warns Panetta, the DoD “could face additional cuts in defense … (that) would be devastating to our national security and to yours as well.”

"We need to use this moment to make the case for the need to invest in this alliance to ensure it remains relevant to the security challenges of the future,” adds Panetta, who reminded allies that the immediate “hollowing-out” of troops in the aftermath of a major operation has had unfortunate circumstances.

"After World War One, after World War Two, after Korea, after Vietnam, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, we made the mistake of hollowing out our forces. That cannot happen again," says Panetta.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen echoes those sentiments, warning allies that "We must spend on priorities and spend together, by financing shared projects that make us all safer."

“We cannot count on one ally to provide these assets,” adds Rasmussen

A senior diplomat with NATO tells Reuters that expectations of America’s ongoing hemorrhaging of money for the alliance shouldn’t go much longer. Reports Reuters, the officer commented that the "time in which Europe could rely on the United States to do everything; that era, if it ever existed, now is clearly coming to a close.”

In the meantime, however, Panetta expects US-involved NATO operations to continue for the foreseeable future. "As long as there is fighting that continues in Libya, I suspect that the NATO mission will continue," Panetta said earlier this week.


Coincidentally , Panetta’s speech today came within hours of the release of a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, in which pollsters revealed that half of Americans believe that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been “not worth it,” and around one-third of a sampling of military veterans agree as well.