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Nato facing dismal future: Gates

Nato - the cornerstone of US security policy for six decades - faces a "dim, if not dismal" future, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said.

In his final policy speech as Pentagon chief, Gates questioned the viability of Nato, saying its members' penny-pinching and lack of political will could hasten the end of US support.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was formed in 1949 as a US-led bulwark against Soviet aggression, but in the post-Cold War era it has struggled to find a purpose.

"Future US political leaders - those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me - may not consider the return on America's investment in Nato worth the cost," he told a European think tank in Brussels.

He said both of Nato's main military operations now - Afghanistan and Libya - point up weaknesses and failures within the alliance.

"The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress ... 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," he said.

Without naming names, he blasted allies who are "willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defence budgets".

The war in Afghanistan, which is being conducted under Nato auspices, is a prime example of US frustration at European inability to provide the required resources.

"Despite more than two million troops in uniform, not counting the US military, Nato has struggled, at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25,000 to 45,000 troops, not just in boots on the ground, but in crucial support assets such as helicopters, transport aircraft, maintenance, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and much more," Gates said.

Gates also noted the difficulty Nato has encountered in carrying out an air campaign in Libya, saying: "The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country, yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference."

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