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America's key allies slash their budgets

Will Europe still be a key US military partner?

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg German Military Defense Budget
GGerman Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg greets German Bundeswehr soldiers training for ISAF deployment in Afghanistan on Aug. 24, 2010, at Grafenwoehr, Germany. Zu Guttenberg announced the day before plans to restructure the German armed forces by ending compulsory military service and reducing the number of troops by one third. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

BERLIN, Germany — In the stuffy world of German politics, Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is a streak of dynamism.

The 38-year-old, rock ‘n’ roll-loving aristocrat, who wears glasses and slicked-back hair befitting a Wall Street trader, defied his own conservative party this week to push through Germany’s most dramatic defense reform in decades: ending conscription and starting to reshape the Bundeswehr as a professional, flexible, sleek military force.

But such a bold step from a young modernizer is, European defense analysts say, a rare bright spot at a gloomy time for the continent’s armed forces.

Germany is planning deep defense cuts over the next three years, as are Britain, France and Italy. Now these European heavyweights, who are the biggest contributors after the United States to the Afghanistan mission, are wondering how they can maintain strong and capable military forces in the decades to come.

The question is a pressing one for the United States, as the outcome will determine what kind of ally Europe makes in the future.

“The Americans are going to be complaining about the lack of European support for a long time to come,” said Giles Merritt, director of the Brussels-based think tank Security & Defence Agenda. “The technological gap between the Europeans and Americans is widening all the time. The Americans are going to find us useful as fetchers and carriers.”

Even before the cuts, the money spent by the 27 European Union nations relative to the size of their forces illustrates how far they have fallen behind the U.S. The EU countries together spend $270 billion a year and have 1.8 million personnel. The U.S. spends more than twice as much — $660 billion — to maintain and equip a smaller force of 1.4 million personnel.

In recent months, Germany has announced it will slash 8 billion euros ($10.9 billion, or about 6 percent of its budget) from defense between 2011 and 2014. France will make savings of 3.5 billion euros in 2011 to 2013. Italy is planning to cut 10 percent over the next few years.

Most disconcertingly for the U.S., its staunch ally Britain will cut at least 10 percent, and as much as 20 percent, from its 37 billion pound ($58.5 billion) annual defense budget — a fact that is reportedly worrying U.S. officials from Defense Secretary Robert Gates on down.

European defense ministers met last week in the Belgian town of Ghent — incidentally the same town in which the U.S. and Britain signed a treaty ending the War of 1812 — to discuss how they might get more bang for their shrinking euros by cooperating more closely.

The hope among observers is that defense ministers can use the budget cuts as an opportunity to overhaul their forces — as zu Guttenberg is doing with conscription — particularly by collaborating more closely with one another to end current waste and duplication.

Merritt, who attended the Ghent meeting, said the prospects in the short term don’t look too promising.