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Conference of European Armies (Heidelberg, Germany)
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Heidelberg, Germany, Thursday, October 25, 2007

Thank you, General McKiernan. General McKiernan and I went to the same college, though I confess I graduated some years earlier than he did.
 
I am pleased to be part of the 15th annual Conference of European Armies. As a former second lieutenant in the Air Force, I never dreamed I’d be standing before so many top army generals, much less at a conference on “Transforming Land Forces in the 21st Century.” And it is an honor to be here. 
 
The defense of this continent has been a consuming goal for me for most of my professional life – more than four decades, under multiple administrations of both American political parties. I’ve seen firsthand the powerful synergy that comes from free nations pulling together to defend our shared values and interests. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and since becoming Secretary of Defense, I have spent a good deal of time considering how the alliance must evolve in order to remain vital and relevant in a new era. 
 
To explore such questions, you have come together at what was once the geo-strategic crosshairs of the Cold War, just over 100 miles from the Fulda Gap. No troops crossed that gap. A collective posture of strength and resolve among allies of four decades prevented a violent showdown between NATO and the Warsaw pact from ever taking place.
 
One key test of wills took place in the 1970s, when the Soviet Union deployed SS-20 ballistic missiles in Europe. In response, the Alliance agreed to strengthen its conventional and nuclear capabilities. At the time, I was working on the National Security Council under President Carter. 
 
In December 1978, two colleagues and I had the good fortune to do advance planning for the NATO summit that would address these concerns. I say “good fortune” because the summit was being held on the French island of Guadeloupe, with its easy ocean breezes and mild Caribbean sun. When we arrived at the hotel, our French hosts were waiting for us at a small pavilion on the beach. We stepped onto the white sand feeling quite awkward in our neck-ties and suits – but that would become the least of my worries. It turned out the pavilion where we were conducting the planning meeting was located in the middle of a topless beach. Luckily, the Guadeloupe summit later went off without a problem. But, I must admit, my notes from that seaside meeting were quite incomplete due to nearby distractions. 
 
In all seriousness, the Guadeloupe summit addressed one of the most critical issues in NATO’s history: the decision to deploy cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe. This policy decision was politically difficult for many Allies, but it ultimately set the stage for deep reductions in nuclear arms and the end of the Cold War.
 
Those kinds of decisions required frank discussion, firm resolve, and bold action that transcended the differences among our nations.  Although NATO was originally created to oppose Soviet communism, its guiding principle was broad and deep and still holds true – to safeguard the freedom and security of all its members for generations to come.
 
In the next few minutes, before taking several questions, I would like to share some of my concerns about NATO’s current operations and capabilities. 
 
We meet at a time when the Alliance that never fired a shot in the Cold War now conducts six missions on three continents. NATO forces are deployed in Afghanistan – thousands of miles beyond Europe’s borders – and are engaged in significant ground combat for the first time. They are helping the Afghan people rebuild and secure their country so it will never again harbor terrorists plotting to attack the west or have a government that so ruthlessly and savagely oppresses its own people. The International Security Assistance Force has nearly 40,000 boots on the ground backed by almost 40 allied and partner nations.
 
Approximately one year ago, NATO assumed primary responsibility for security in Afghanistan, and it is worth taking stock of what has been accomplished:
 
·         Today the Alliance leads 25 Provincial Reconstruction Teams – digging wells, building schools, and paving roads;
·         Decisive military operations by some allies thwarted the Taliban’s “Spring Offensive”; and
·         The Afghan Army is 47,000-strong with representatives from every major ethnic group. It is growing steadily, but to reach the goal of 70,000 by the end of next year urgently demands more mentoring and liaison teams than we have now.
 
ISAF’s accomplishments are real and tangible to the citizens of Afghanistan. Someone once wrote that we must all “plant trees we will never get to sit under.” The NATO alliance will indeed reap a lasting bounty from its efforts in Afghanistan – if we can muster the resolve and will to get the job done. 
 
Said differently, our progress in Afghanistan is real but it is fragile. At this time, many allies are unwilling to share the risks, commit the resources, and follow through on collective commitments to this mission and to each other. As a result, we risk allowing what has been achieved in Afghanistan to slip away. 
 
Earlier today you attended a session addressing the issue of caveats. This is an important topic that warrants further mention, as it is symptomatic of a deeper challenge facing NATO. Imagine a game of chess in which one player enjoys full liberty of motion, while another may move rook, bishop, and queen only a single space in a single direction like a pawn. One player is clearly handicapped. Similarly, restrictions placed on what a given nation’s forces can do and where they can go put this Alliance at a sizable disadvantage. 
 
I recognize the need for political oversight of deployed ground forces and – as someone who has signed far too many condolence letters this year – I also understand the desire to avoid casualties. I also acknowledge the fact that the political and economic landscape for each of you in this room is different. Europe is far from monolithic. I recall former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s lament: one could not pick up a phone and call “Europe” when facing an international crisis. 
 
While there will be nuances particular to each country’s rules of engagement, the “strings” attached to one nation’s forces unfairly burden others, and have done real harm in Afghanistan. As you know – better than most people – brothers in arms achieve victory only when all march in step toward the sound of the guns. To that end, I’m asking for your help to make caveats in NATO operations – wherever they are – as benign as possible, and better yet, to convince your national leaders to lift restrictions on field commanders that impede their ability to succeed in critical missions. 
 
I am also concerned that the Alliance is not transforming quickly enough to deal with the realities of the 21st century. The U.S. military knows firsthand that real and lasting change in any large organization is difficult, messy, and often slow – though we have made considerable headway in recent years in the way our forces are organized, trained, and equipped. Achieving fundamental change is altogether more difficult when it is done as a cooperative process among many nations and military establishments.
 
The alliance is evolving but must continue to shift from a reactive, static posture to a more proactive, expeditionary one. We must continue making institutional reforms, such as streamlining headquarters, expanding information sharing, and improving command and control. As our experiences in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan have shown, the type of military operations that will require NATO forces has dramatically changed in the 21st century. Even the most advanced weaponry is no substitute for “boots on the ground” helping to quell ethnic conflicts, fight terrorists, and rebuild communities. 
 
Doing all of these things requires a willingness to alter long standing and comfortable ways of operating. Building these new capabilities takes real political will, as does modernizing and transforming a military, which is never cheap and competes with other domestic priorities.
 
At the summit at Riga last November, we declared the NATO Response Force fully operational. Since then, we have reaffirmed the NRF’s twin roles: to catalyze transformation, and to be availablefor unforeseen needs – in ongoing operations as well as new crises. For the NRF to be successful, it will require full allied political support – both in terms of pledges to the force and agreement that the force just won’t sit on the shelves. Progress in these areas – and on other allied contributions – are factors that will help determine what future U.S. contributions will be. 
 
This leads me to the final topic I’d like to address before closing – indeed the one that underlies most of the challenges we face in this Alliance – and that is commitment.
 
This alliance is not a “paper membership” or a “talk shop.” It is a military alliance and one with serious real world obligations. Over the years, Europe and the Alliance have been characterized in various ways: “East” and “West,” the “free world” and “those behind the Iron Curtain,” even “new” and “old.” As I said earlier this year in Munich, my characterization of the membership of the Alliance is a practical one – a realist’s view, perhaps. Simply stated, there are those members who fulfill their commitments, and those who do not. 
 
In a broad sense, commitment implies a willingness to accept measured, calculated risks and to fulfill pledges. For example, a widely recognized benchmark is for Allies to spend 2 percent or more of GDP on defense. Yet currently, only 6 out of 26 NATO members have met that goal. We must live up to the pledges we agreed upon at Riga and reverse the slide in Allied defense spending. 
 
Something tells me those of you wearing your nation’s uniform have sought bigger defense budgets; at the same time, you likely know the difficulty of making that happen. One of my first duties when I became Secretary of Defense was to present the Department’s base budget and war requests for the next fiscal year. I’m here to tell you that you haven’t lived until you’ve gone before your nation’s elected representatives and asked for nearly $750 billion dollars from the taxpayers’ wallets for one year’s expenditures. That was, as they say, a rough day at the office. 
 
Many of you know General Jim Jones, former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Jim made a provocative and compelling point about a year and a half ago, when he said it was easy to sail NATO’s navies and fly NATO’s planes, but a challenge to deploy NATO’s armies.
 
As it stands today, non-U.S. NATO nations have more than 2 million men and women in uniform, yet we struggle to maintain 23,000 non-U.S. troops in Afghanistan. This is partly a function of how NATO militaries are organized, and partly a matter of resources – but it is mostly a matter of will and commitment. The same is true for equipment and other resources. Consider that earlier this year the U.S. extended its Aviation Bridging Force in Afghanistan in Kandahar because the mightiest and wealthiest military alliance in the history of the world was unable to produce 16 helicopters needed by the ISAF commander. Sixteen.
 
Meeting commitments means assuming some level of risk and asserting the political will necessary to deploy armed forces beyond one’s borders – fully manned and equipped, and without restrictions that undermine the mission. In Afghanistan, a handful of allies are paying the price and bearing the burdens of allies to create the secure environment necessary for economic development, building civic institutions, and establishing the rule of law. The failure to meet commitments puts the Afghan mission – and with it, the credibility of NATO – at real risk. If an alliance of the world’s greatest democracies cannot summon the will to get the job done in a mission that we agree is morally just and vital to our security, then our citizens may begin to question both the worth of the mission and the utility of the 60-year-old transatlantic security project itself.
 
In closing, I’m sure many in this room have watched the extraordinary trajectory of our trans-Atlantic partnership arc from detente in the 1970s to the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in the 1990s. Near-confrontations between the superpowers took place, and relations between the allies were not without stress and strain. But our partnership weathered these difficulties. We made decisions with sharp edges, guided always by our shared past and common values. At the Prague summit nearly five years ago, President Bush stated, “we are tied to Europe by the wars of liberty we have fought and won together. We are joined by broad ties of trade. And America is bound to Europe by the deepest convictions of our common culture – our belief in the dignity of every life, and our belief in the power of conscience to move history.”
 
And so we must continue building partnerships capable of flexing military might when and where needed – a prerequisite against an adaptable, transnational enemy. Alexander the great said, “Remember – upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all.” We triumphed in the Cold War because of our ability to surmount individual differences and unite against a common foe. The stakes today are just as high. 
 
Thank you.