BRUSSELS — The United States urged NATO allies Thursday to invest in a missile shield and avoid deep cuts in military budgets at a rare meeting of foreign and defence ministers clouded by the war in Afghanistan.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Robert Gates made the plea, echoed by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, amid French reservations about the system.
“The studies have been done, the data are well-known and the affordability is clear,” Gates told alliance ministers. “It is time for a decision.”
The ministers gathered at NATO headquarters to discuss a new “strategic concept” that will shape the 28-nation alliance’s vision for the next decade to face new threats including missiles from “rogue” states and cyber assaults.
Gates has put the price tag to link NATO members into a common network at between 85 million and 100 million euros (120 million and 140 million dollars). Rasmussen has said it could be done for less than 200 million euros.
“The threat is clear, the capability is clear and the costs are manageable,” Rasmussen said.
French Defence Minister Herve Morin, however, expressed his “reservations” about the plan, saying Paris wanted more details about how much the system would cost and how it would work.
“A lot of technological and financial uncertainties remain,” he told reporters.
But he hinted that France would not block the missile shield plan when NATO leaders meet a summit in Lisbon on November 19-20.
France, a nuclear-armed power, was also at odds with Germany, which backs the missile shield plan but is also pushing for nuclear disarmament.
“We all agree that we need an anti-missile shield if we look at the threats of today and tomorrow,” German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg told reporters. “We are very close to an agreement.”
“But we also believe that (nuclear) disarmament can and must play an important role,” he said earlier.
Clinton said the draft strategic concept recognises the need for NATO “to remain a nuclear alliance as long as nuclear weapons exist” and at the same time highlights President Barack Obama’s goal of a nuclear-free world.
Clinton said the draft was “excellent” and that it “strikes the right balance in many areas — especially disarmament and deterrence, NATO’s relations with Russia, and the need to enhance NATO’s capacity for conducting civilian-military operations.”
While Gates acknowledged fiscal pressures on defence budgets across the alliance, he warned against cuts that could weaken NATO and even leave it crippled.
“But 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.
Afghanistan was not officially on the agenda but loomed large over the meeting. Five NATO soldiers were killed in separate bomb attacks in Afghanistan on Thursday, bringing to 586 the total number of troops killed this year.
Rasmussen and Gates told defence ministers they were “cautiously optimistic” about the mission in Afghanistan, NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said.
NATO leaders are expected to endorse at a summit in Lisbon next month plans to begin the handover of security responsibility to Afghan forces by July 2011.
They will also sign off on the strategic concept, replacing a document written in 1999, two years before the September 11 attacks on the United States that sparked the war in Afghanistan..
The 11-page mission statement, drafted by Rasmussen, has not been made public but it is expected to touch on 21st century threats including cyber attacks, missiles from “rogue” states, terrorism and Somali piracy.
The defence ministers gave “strong support” to a reform package to reduce the number of NATO headquarters and agencies as part of efforts to make the alliance leaner and more efficient, Romero said.