September 16, 2010 1:44 am

US fears scale of European defence cuts

The US is concerned at the scale of defence cuts in Britain and Germany, which Washington believes could hit the war in Afghanistan, according to a senior administration official.

The statement by Philip Gordon, the state department’s senior official for Europe, is one of the clearest indications of Washington’s worries about the UK’s proposed cuts of up to 20 per cent of its defence budget and Germany’s plans to cut its army by a third.

“Yes, we are concerned about potential defence cuts that would have an impact on our ability to execute missions like the mission in Afghanistan,” Mr Gordon said on Wednesday in response to a question about the British and German plans. Speaking at a meeting organised by the German Marshall Fund, the assistant secretary of state said while the US had “always” faced a challenge in convincing its Nato allies on defence spending, “the financial crisis will make that more difficult”.

Mr Gordon added: “We are all tightening our belts at the moment but it doesn’t make these goals any less important. We have to succeed in Afghanistan, we can’t ignore the international agenda.”

His remarks underline fears by US military leaders that European defence cuts will leave Washington carrying more of the burden in Afghanistan at a time when the US also has to deal with a yawning deficit.

Admiral Mike Mullen, the head of the US joint chiefs of staff, told the Financial Times in an interview this week it would be “very dangerous” for the US to undergo European style defence cuts and said the Pentagon had to find smaller scale savings as an alternative.

But many US officials have shied away from explicitly criticising the European plans in public, concentrating instead of making their case privately to their Nato allies.

The US intervention came in the midst of a battle in the UK between the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury, which has demanded cuts to the £37bn ($57bn) defence budget over the next four years of at least 10 per cent and up to 20 per cent.

Some defence analysts said such cuts could seriously hit Britain’s expeditionary capability – its ability to send forces to locations such as Afghanistan. The prospect of the closest military ally of the US downsizing its role has caused consternation in Washington, where officials have also been taken aback by the size of the German cuts, aimed at producing savings of €8.3bn ($10.7bn) by 2014.

While Robert Gates, US defence secretary, is seeking $100bn of savings over five years through reining in spending on bureaucratic overheads, contracting and procurement, he wants continued increases in overall spending, so as to funnel more money to troops in the field.

Mr Gordon disputed a suggestion that European countries were disengaging from Afghanistan and added that Washington hoped more would step up with providing trainers for the Afghan security forces before a Nato summit in Lisbon in November.

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