The Times 1999-12-02  -  US angered by defence cut

BY MICHAEL EVANS, DEFENCE EDITOR

WASHINGTON took the first swipe at Europe over its rapidly developing security and defence ambitions yesterday, sharply criticising Germany for cutting military spending.

William Cohen, the US Defence Secretary, said that Germany's commitment to spend only 1.5 per cent of the country's gross domestic product on defence was not enough.

Mr Cohen, addressing senior German military commanders in Hamburg, is expected to take up the same theme when Nato defence ministers meet in Brussels today.

American anger over European defence spending has now become a highly contentious issue because of Europe's plan to develop a European Union rapid reaction force of between 50,000 and 60,000 troops. Washington has grave doubts that EU members will be prepared to spend the money needed to build such a force and make it an effective alternative to a Nato-led operation.

After the Anglo-French summit last week, when Tony Blair and President Chirac promised that the proposed EU force would be deployed only "where the alliance as a whole was not engaged", American concerns that it would undermine the alliance had been answered, according to senior British defence sources yesterday.

However, there remain serious doubts in Washington that Europe is prepared to develop the necessary military capabilities to make the force viable.

Mr Cohen said that Germany's decision to cut military spending, even though it was by a small amount, from 47.8 billion marks (£16 billion) to 47.7 billion marks next year sent the wrong message to the rest of the alliance, in particular the new Nato members, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. He told a conference of the German Armed Forces: "The decisions Germany makes in the next few months and years will have a profound and lasting impact on the [military] capabilities, not only of this nation, but of the alliance as a whole."

Rudolf Scharping, the German Defence Minister, who had opposed the cut in military spending, said that Germany could not tell its allies "we are too poor and too small" to spend more on defence.

A British Ministry of Defence official emphasised that the important issue was for European members to restructure their forces, some of which were still configured for the Cold War, into mobile and rapidly deployable units.

They also emphasised that the five-nation Eurocorps, in which Britain plays no role, should be converted into a proper headquarters formation, which could command a military operation in the same way that Nato's Allied Rapid Reaction Corps does today. It was this corps' headquarters, under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Jackson, that was put in charge of the Kosovo peacekeeping operation. At the Anglo-French summit, Mr Blair offered to contribute British military personnel for a Eurocorps headquarters.

In Hamburg, Mr Cohen praised Germany's increasing commitment to Nato operations in Bosnia and Kosovo but urged the Government to improve its rapid reaction capabilities and its airlift assets.

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