WASHINGTON - Europe has demilitarized too much since the end of the Cold War and its underfunded defense budgets are undermining shared security goals, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Tuesday.
Gates, addressing a NATO seminar in Washington, said too few helicopters and cargo aircraft for the NATO mission in Afghanistan were "directly impacting operations." NATO also needed more aerial refueling tankers and surveillance aircraft.
"Despite the need to spend more on vital equipment for ongoing missions, the alliance has been unwilling to fundamentally change how it sets priorities and allocates resources," Gates said.
"We need to provide our troops in the field the resources they need and fund other urgent priorities, such as missile defense," Gates said.
The comments follow U.S. President Barack Obama's request earlier this month to Congress for a record $708 billion in U.S. defense spending for fiscal 2011, including a hike for the Afghan war effort.
The unwillingness of European countries to fund defense was part of a trend in which large parts of the public and the political class there "are averse to military force and the risks that go with it," Gates said.
"The demilitarization of Europe ... has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st," Gates said.
"Not only can real or perceived weakness be a temptation to miscalculation and aggression, but, on a more basic level, the resulting funding and capability shortfalls make it difficult to operate and fight together to confront shared threats."
The NATO's 2010 budget shortfall has already reached hundreds of millions of euros, even though the year is less than two months old. That, Gates said, was a "natural consequence of having underinvested in collective defense for more than a decade."
"Since the end of the Cold War, national defense budgets have fallen consistently -- even with unprecedented operations outside NATO's territory over the past five years," Gates said.
He said only five of 28 NATO allies met a defense spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product.
Despite Obama's record spending request, Pentagon officials expect the U.S. defense budget to come under pressure in coming years as the United States looks trim its deficit.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart, editing by Alan Elsner)