WASHINGTON - NATO allies are confronting a sustained weakening of the military alliance as ailing economies are forcing nearly all members, including the United States, to accelerate cuts to their defense budgets at the same time.
The Pentagon’s recent decision to eliminate two of the Army’s four brigades in Europe is the latest blow to NATO’s military capabilities. It extends a year of grim announcements from members of the alliance that they can no longer afford their security commitments and that a long period of austerity is in the offing.
Obama administration officials warned last year that European members of NATO could no longer expect the United States to shoulder a disproportionate burden of maintaining the 28-member alliance, the bedrock of trans-Atlantic security and diplomacy since the end of World War II. The United States accounts for 75 percent of all NATO defense spending, up from 50 percent during the Cold War.
Instead of coming forward, however, European members of NATO are retreating.
Britain announced troop cuts this month that will shrink the size of its army by nearly one-fifth; it already has mothballed its only aircraft carrier.
Germany is trimming its armed forces by a similar amount and canceling orders for fighter jets, helicopters, and other weapons systems. Italy, which imposed deep defense cuts two years ago, is confronting another round that could include steep reductions in the number of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, a US-made plane, that it had planned to buy.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s secretary general, confirmed yesterday that the alliance will stick with its plan to hand over security to local forces in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. He was responding to France’s announcement last week that it would push NATO to speed up its timetable for handing over combat operations to the Afghan government.
It is unclear how much support the French proposal will have when it is presented on Thursday at a NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels. Britain and Germany have indicated they would stick to the 2014 schedule.
The NATO coalition in Afghanistan has been strained by corruption in the Afghan government and the fact that the Taliban remains unbeaten after more than a decade of war. But most of the military cutbacks in NATO have been a response to economic turmoil.
The Dutch government decided last year to ax 12,000 Defense Ministry jobs, including 30 percent of the military’s general staff. “All the countries have problems with budgets, and they have to make choices,’’ Hillen said.
US and NATO officials fret that the cutbacks will further erode military weaknesses that were exposed during last year’s air war in Libya. Several European countries quickly ran out of munitions and had to order them on an emergency basis from Washington. European militaries also lacked capability to refuel their planes or conduct adequate surveillance from the air.
“If there ever was a time in which the United States could always be counted on to fill the gaps that may emerge in European defense, that time is rapidly coming to an end,’’ Ivo Daalder, the US ambassador to NATO, told reporters in Washington last month.
At the same time, Europe’s austere economic outlook is leading to a “further weakening of the core ability to defend ourselves,’’ said Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s defense minister
Norway, an oil-producing country, is an exception to the trend; it is increasing its defense budget. But Europe’s overall economic woes are exacerbating existing tensions within NATO, Eide said in a recent speech at the Center for Security and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
Eide said resentment and opposition to the US-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan has reduced popular backing for NATO among many Western European countries.
“NATO was identified simply as the organization that takes away our sons and daughters and sends them to faraway places to do nation-building in the desert,’’ he said.
As part of a new military strategy released this month, the Obama administration said it would devote greater attention and resources to Asia while maintaining a robust presence in the Middle East. That has fed concern among European allies that they will get short shrift over the long term and lose their influence in Washington.
Pentagon officials said the two Army brigades they are eliminating in Europe - each has about 5,000 soldiers - would be replaced in part by US-based units that would rotate periodically to the continent to conduct joint training exercises.
The reductions are part of a larger effort to cut $487 billion in projected spending over the next decade.