Budget cuts worry NATO generalBRUSSELS NATO, already involved in operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, will not be able to complete the transformation of the cold-war alliance unless defense ministers battle hard to retain their current budgets, according to the alliance's top military chief.
General James Jones, commander of NATO who is also head of U.S. forces in Europe, made the blunt warning in an interview in which he also said one of his biggest worries was that the ambitious goals set by U.S.-led military alliance at the 2003 Prague summit meeting would not be matched by financial resources.
"I have always said that the definition of transformation is that you hold your budget lines," said Jones who was attending a closed NATO meeting in Brussels on the political and military challenges faced in transforming the alliance.
"It is difficult for me to see how one can sink budgets and do transformation at the same time. I accept the likelihood as slim that defense budgets would be increased. That being the case, the only way you get there is by at least holding your budgets. This is about how you resource and how you pay for your operations. But if you look at what has happened since Prague to various countries, we are going in the wrong direction."
Jones's warnings were made ahead of this week's informal meeting of the alliance's foreign ministers in Vilnius, Lithuania, where the issues of financing will be raised.
Ministers will also address the sensitive subject of how decisions are made and what issues can be discussed at the NATO level. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany said in February that NATO was no longer the forum for discussing trans-Atlantic relations because it had been unwilling to tackle issues such as Iraq and was still not prepared to discuss Iran or China.
Jones's warnings also reflect bitter experiences over the way NATO's military chiefs had to fight to obtain the resources vital for supporting its military missions, particularly in Afghanistan. Until recently, even though the 26-member alliance promised politically to support the mission, it failed to provide basic equipment such as field hospitals or helicopters.
These experiences, which damaged NATO's reputation as an organization that could operate efficiently "out of area" beyond its traditional base of Europe, have, however, precipitated a debate inside the alliance over how NATO should be financed as an organization and how its military operations should be funded.
NATO has a civilian budget of around €130 million, or $167 million, and a military budget of around € 780 million. The United States, Britain, Germany and France are the largest contributors to both segments, with payments ranging from 15 percent to over 23 percent into those budgets while Belgium, Turkey, Denmark, Poland and the Netherlands pay under 2.75 percent.
The civilian and military budgets, however, do not cover the cost of missions, which are financed under the principle that "costs lies where they fall." In reality, it means that any country that sends a soldier or equipment on a NATO mission is responsible for meeting those costs. The problem is that it is often the same countries that send troops abroad and at the same time maintain their high contributions to NATO's budget.
Jones and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the secretary general of NATO, said in Brussels it was unfair that some countries had to pick up the costs twice and called for institutional reform to deal with this issue. "You have to start from the basis of what everyone is paying now. Failure to do that would paralyze some of the things and some of the directions in which we wish to go," said Jones.
De Hoop Scheffer suggested that more countries could contribute to "common funding." Thirteen countries for example, are already involved in sharing the costs for NATO's airborne early warning system yet field hospitals and airfields are not commonly funded.
"If we want to make it easier for nations to contribute to our missions and operations, we also need to make better use of common funding, such as hospitals, airfields and ports. They are not just used by individual nations. They should be eligible for common funding," he said.