BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Most European allies are "hollowing out" their armies as they slash defence spending, casting doubt on whether Europe can remain a viable military partner of the United States, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to NATO said on Monday.
Many Western European countries have slashed defence spending in response to austerity induced by the 2008 financial crisis and the United States now accounts for nearly three-quarters of total NATO defence spending, Ivo Daalder said.
"Most European allies are hollowing out their militaries, jettisoning capabilities, and failing to spend their existing budgets wisely," he said in a farewell speech, hosted by the think-tank Carnegie Europe.
"As a result, the gap between American and European contributions to the alliance is widening to an unsustainable level," he said. "The trends need to be reversed."
The concern in the United States was that "Europe is not investing enough in defence to remain a viable military partner", said Daalder, U.S. envoy to NATO since 2009.
"Today, Europe's ability to serve as America's partner of first resort is diminishing," Daalder said, noting that Europe was slashing defence budgets at the same time that emerging powers in Asia and elsewhere were spending heavily on defence.
He urged European countries to use savings from withdrawing their forces from Afghanistan over the next few years to invest in new military equipment and to "reinvest in NATO" once the economic situation improved.
Apart from the United States, only three of the 28 allies - Britain, Greece and Estonia - met NATO's goal of spending 2 percent of their economic output on defence, he said.
As former U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned two years ago, "the ability and willingness of the United States to fill the growing gaps left by European under-spending on defence is coming to an end," Daalder said.
However, Daalder also said that, despite the Obama administration's policy of focusing U.S. foreign policy more intensely on Asia, the United States was not abandoning NATO or planning to move away from Europe.
Two years ago, NATO played a critical role in toppling veteran Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The Western alliance imposed a no-fly zone and used air power to try to prevent his forces attacking civilian areas held by rebels.
Daalder said that if defence spending cuts continued at their current rate, he was not confident that NATO would be able to repeat such an operation in five or 10 years' time.
European air forces took the lead in air strikes on Libya, but Daalder said, even then, they depended heavily on the United States for aerial refuelling, precision targeting, surveillance and reconnaissance, revealing gaps in Europe's capabilities.
Western diplomats said last Friday Washington was considering a limited no-fly zone over parts of Syria, which is immersed in civil war, although Daalder said a no-fly zone was not currently on NATO's agenda.
European countries have tried to plug gaps in their defences and make stretched military budgets go further by working more closely together, but defence experts say savings so far are small compared to cuts in defence spending.
In the United States, defence has also been hit by automatic spending cuts.
(Editing by Alison Williams)