Brussels: NATO ministers backed reforms and cutbacks for alliance institutions on Thursday to save tens of millions of dollars a year, but the United States warned its partners against making excessive cuts in national defense.
Alliance defense ministers also approved a series of priority projects, including a plan to counter improvised explosive devices that are the biggest killers of NATO troops in Afghanistan and for ground surveillance systems.
But the emphasis was on cutbacks at talks in Brussels where they agreed on the need to cut the number of NATO headquarters to six from 11, and to reduce to three from 14 the number of agencies providing support in communications and other areas.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was pleased the allies had been able to agree to fund priority projects, but cautioned against cutting back too far at national level.
"None of our commitments will be meaningful if NATO is not funded sufficiently," he told the meeting.
"As nations deal with their economic problems, we must guard against the hollowing out of Alliance military capability by spending reductions that cut too far into muscle," he said, referring to national defense spending. Reducing the number of NATO agencies would cut their staffing to around 9,000 from 13,000, and streamlining the command structure should save tens of millions of dollars a year, NATO officials said.
Gates said savings should be reinvested to keep NATO "modern, strong, effective and relevant." He had also expressed concern on Wednesday that cuts in Europe, where governments have adopted austerity measures following the global economic crisis, could put more pressure on an increasingly stretched U.S. military.
Britain is expected to cut 10 percent from its 36.9-billion pound ($58.4 billion) budget, and experts at Germany`s defense ministry have listed potential savings of more than 9.3 billion euros ($13 billion).
British foreign minister William Hague defended government plans that are expected to be unveiled next week, saying: "We have inherited a defense budget massively overcommitted so any responsible government has to do something about that."
PREPARING FOR LISBON SUMMIT
The steps discussed in Brussels are expected to be endorsed at a November 19-20 summit in Lisbon, at which NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen wants allies to agree to invest 200 million euros to link their missile defense capabilities and interceptors which Washington plans to deploy in Europe.
Gates told the meeting that NATO`s collective defense commitment meant the 28-country alliance had to possess the capability to defend against ballistic missiles.
There is broad support for the plan, but France has said it wants to see more details and questioned whether it is the best investment.
French Defense Minister Herve Morin indicated the project would be approved in Lisbon, but compared it to the Maginot Line of fixed gun emplacements and fortifications that failed to prevent Germany`s invasion of France during World War Two.
"The best way to guard against an apocalypse is to be in a position to gain respect from having credible military capabilities," he told reporters. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said a missile defense system was needed, but Russia should be involved.
NATO has called on former Cold War foe Russia to cooperate but Moscow has remained cautious and has not yet responded to an invitation to join the Lisbon summit.
NATO leaders aim to agree a new mission statement for the coming decade at the Lisbon summit. It will confirm NATO`s core task of defending its territory and its commitment to collective defense, and also give a mandate for global operations such as the costly mission in Afghanistan.
It will underline the need to modernize national forces to deal with 21st-century security threats, including computer and missile attacks.