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US warns it cannot prop up Nato

Budget cuts mean US will no longer be able to cover for the shortfalls that have plagued Nato's operations in Libya and Afghanistan, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has warned.

He exhorted allies to work together or risk losing the ability to take on such missions.

In a carefully calibrated speech just before the opening of a Nato defence ministers' meeting, Mr Panetta praised the broad effort that has come together in Libya. But he said the allies must better share the security burden in order to survive global financial pressures that are slicing into defence spending.

Just three months into the job, Mr Panetta stopped short of the blistering critique delivered by his predecessor, Robert Gates, in June, when Gates questioned the alliance's viability and bluntly warned that it faces a "dim, if not dismal, future."

But he echoed many of the same frustrations.

"There are legitimate questions about whether, if present trends continue, Nato will again be able to sustain the kind of operations that we have seen in Libya and Afghanistan without the United States taking on even more of the burden," he said.

"It would be a tragic outcome if the alliance shed the very capabilities that allowed it to successfully conduct these operations."

With the Pentagon facing 450 billion dollars in budget cuts over the next 10 years, allies cannot assume that the US will be able to continue covering Nato's shortcomings, Mr Panetta said. And with other countries facing similar pressures, he said the nations must co-ordinate cuts and pool their capabilities in order to continue.

"We cannot afford for countries to make decisions about force structure and force reductions in a vacuum, leaving neighbours and allies in the dark," he said.

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