US urges Europe to keep investing in defence

MUNICH, Germany - The United States will renew its commitment to Europe's security by contributing to a NATO force but Europeans must also invest in their own defence, the US defence chief said Saturday.

Leon Panetta sought to reassure Europe that Washington will not abandon its European allies even as the US military withdraws troops, cuts its budget and shifts its strategy to Asia and the Middle East.

"The peace and prosperity of Europe is critically important to the US," Panetta said in a speech at the Munich Security Conference.

"Europe remains our security partner of choice for military operations and diplomacy around the world - as we saw in Libya last year, and as we see in Afghanistan every day," he said.

"We are therefore deeply committed to strengthening transatlantic security partnerships and institutions, including NATO," he said at a round table discussion alongside US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

While the US military plans to withdraw two of its four army brigades stationed in Europe in 2014, Panetta announced that a US-based brigade will contribute to the NATO Response Force, a 13,000-strong unit created in 2002.

The US military will also rotate a battalion-sized task force to Germany to take part in exercises and training.

"In all, the steps Europe can expect from the United States amount to a vote of confidence from Washington in the future of the alliance, especially in a period of fiscal austerity," he said.

Calling on Europe to "cast a similar vote of confidence," he renewed pressure on allies to keep investing in defence and to pool resources as part of the "Smart Defence" initiative aimed at maintaining military capabilities.

"Approaches like Smart Defence help us spend together sensibly, but they cannot be an excuse to cut budgets further," he said.