United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates launched a stinging critique of European countries' inadequate contributions to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, even as he wound up a last tour abroad before his June 30 retirement.

Speaking to media in Brussels after the Shangri-La conference in Singapore, Mr. Gates said NATO faced a “dim, if not dismal” future and risked “collective military irrelevance”.

Warning that the U.S.' support for NATO operations may be reconsidered in light of the domestic economic situation, Mr. Gates said: “America's serious fiscal situation is now putting pressure on our defence budget, and we are in a process of assessing where the U.S. can or cannot accept more risk as a result of reducing the size of our military.”

Citing NATO engagement in both Afghanistan and Libya as examples of the U.S.' disproportionately large support relative to European members' contributions, Mr. Gates spoke of how the organisation had become a “two-tiered alliance between members who specialise in ‘soft' humanitarian, development, peacekeeping and... those conducting the ‘hard' combat missions.” This dichotomy was “unacceptable”, he added.

Mr. Gates admitted that in Afghanistan the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force comprised approximately 40,000 non-U.S. troops of whom more than 850 “have made the ultimate sacrifice”.

Yet, he pointed out the Afghanistan experience had exposed serious alliance shortcomings in military capabilities and in political will and “Despite more than two million troops in uniform — not counting the U.S. military — NATO has struggled, at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25,000 to 45,000 troops.”

In a sharply-worded criticism of European NATO-members' military capabilities in Libya, Mr. Gates said despite all the alliance member voting for the Libya mission, “less than half have participated, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission... Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can't.”

Highlighting the U.S.' frustration with prolonged military engagements where it had to take the lead, Mr. Gates also said the “blunt reality” was there would be “dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress and in the American body politic writ large to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defence.”

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