NATO allies begin two days of talks Wednesday on the lessons drawn from six months of bombings in Libya and their goal of withdrawing combat troops from Afghanistan within three years.
While the air war continues in Libya, defense ministers will debate acute shortcomings they witnessed while carrying out the operation over the past six months.
Although alliance official say the campaign is nearly over, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday that “fighting has to end” on the ground before the air strikes can be called off.
Forces loyal to ousted leader Muammar Qaddafi are resisting the new regime's fighters in Sirte, east of Tripoli, and Bani Walid southeast of the capital.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen described the mission as “a great success” but acknowledged that it exposed Europe's need to invest in unmanned drones, intelligence assets and air-to-air refueling aircraft.
Rasmussen is pushing allies to avoid drastic reductions in their military capabilities by pooling and sharing assets.
In the lead-up to a NATO summit in Chicago in May, Rasmussen wants members to identify projects in which they can cooperate to make best use of resources at a time of severe economic austerity in which defense budgets have been particularly badly hit.
“Improving our capabilities is not only necessary ˗ it is vital,” he told a briefing on Monday, adding that Libya and Afghanistan had shown shortcomings among non-U.S. allies in key areas such as unmanned surveillance drones, intelligence gathering and air-to-air refueling .
“We must spend on priorities and spend together, by financing shared projects that make us all safer.”
Pressure is growing now that the United States, which spends far more on defense than its NATO allies combined, faces the prospect of having to cut its spending by as much as $1 trillion over 10 years.
So far, U.S. President Barack Obama and Congress have approved $350 billion in cuts to national security spending. If a Congressional “super committee” fails to reach a deficit deal by the year-end, automatic across-the-board cuts could take another $600 billion from that budget.
This has raised questions about the future of expensive cooperative projects, such as a U.S.-led missile defense initiative, and some in the U.S. Congress have argued for further cuts in the 79,000 U.S. military personnel in Europe.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, on his first trip to Europe since taking over the position this year, will explain some of the consequences in a speech on Wednesday before meeting his NATO counterparts.
“What you will hear from Panetta is the reality that the United States will have to start cutting its defense budget and will cut its defense budget,” a senior NATO diplomat said.
“That means 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.
“That is why it's so important that we begin a serious discussion about how we can meet our core requirements and field the capabilities we need by working more together. The United States is not going to be filling the gaps forever.”
In June, Panetta's predecessor Robert Gates fired a sharp parting shot at European allies saying future U.S. leaders might not consider U.S. investment in NATO worthwhile unless the decline in European defense capabilities was reversed.
“That is truer today that when Gates was here in June,” the NATO diplomat said.
Among the joint NATO projects the United States is particularly keen to see progress this week is Allied Ground Surveillance, a system that will employ drones to provide a picture of ground conditions from high altitude.
The project, to which 13 countries have committed, would be based around the Global Hawk RQ-4B drone produced by U.S. firm Northrop Grumman . However it has been under discussion for a decade and NATO states have yet to agree how to jointly fund its operation, maintenance and support.
With one conflict nearing an end, the ministers will also take stock of the unpopular war in Afghanistan, which marks 10 years on Friday amid plans for NATO to hand Afghan forces full control of security across the country by 2014.
The Taliban insurgency, showing they remain a force to be reckoned with, assaulted NATO headquarters and the U.S. embassy in Kabul last month.
Hopes for a negotiated peace were dealt a heavy blow when peace broker Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president, was assassinated in September by a turban bomber who was believed to be a Taliban envoy.
Another hotspot, Kosovo, will figure high on the agenda at the NATO talks after alliance peacekeepers clashed last week with protesters from the Serb community who put up roadblocks at a disputed border crossing.