Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, right, and his British counterpart,… (Jason Reed / Reuters )
Reporting from Brussels — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Wednesday urged more NATO allies to join the air campaign against Libya, arguing that it was putting a strain on the seven members of the 28-nation alliance that are carrying the burden in a conflict that shows few signs of ending soon, U.S. officials said.
In a sign of the growing strain that the 3-month-old operation is putting on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Gates took the unusual step of naming five alliance members with limited or no role in the operation that he said should provide strike aircraft to hit ground targets in Libya or other capabilities, according to a senior U.S. official.
Gates made the comments at a closed-door meeting of NATO ministers that endorsed continuing the air operation for another three months.
Though NATO officials hoped the meeting would send a message that the alliance is united and determined to continue the war until Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi gives up power, the signs of divisions within the alliance raised questions about its staying power if Kadafi continues to hold on, despite the increasing pounding that Tripoli and other cities have taken in recent weeks.
Gates, who is retiring at the end of the month, called on Germany and Poland, which have refused to participate in the Libya campaign, to contribute. He also urged Spain, Turkey and the Netherlands, which are participating but not in airstrikes, to step up their role, according to officials familiar with the discussion.
Calling the conflict a "war of attrition" and a "psychological war," the senior U.S. official said that "crews are getting tired" and that "the stress on aircraft is significant." With only a few alliance members participating, he said, "it doesn't mean they can't continue the operation; they will, but it's stressful."
Only France, Britain and five other Western members are conducting airstrikes against ground targets in Libya, and as operations continue the strain on their armed forces has grown severe, officials said. At the meeting, Norway's representative said his country was reviewing its role to see whether its air force could continue its current level of participation, the U.S. official said.
In addition, the official said, the air campaign is straining the military budgets of those conducting airstrikes because they had not planned for the cost of such a long campaign and have to replenish their munitions stockpiles.
Other countries involved in the air campaign include the United States, Canada, Italy, Denmark and Belgium.
"For some of them, it's the first time they are involved in an air and ground war, this is not something they do as a matter of course," said the U.S. official, who requested anonymity in discussing the meeting.
After leading the initial air assault on Libya in the first weeks, the United States scaled back its involvement and is now mostly providing aerial refueling, surveillance and other support functions, as well as several Predator drones, which are being used in airstrikes.
None of the countries named by Gates made a commitment to increase their participation or responded to his implied criticism, the U.S. official said. But Spain's representative noted that its parliament would have to approve any expansion of the nation's role, the official said.
On Tuesday, President Obama met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and at least publicly did not put pressure on her nation to participate in the air campaign. In comments at a joint news conference, Obama spoke instead of Germany's potential role in rebuilding Libya if Kadafi is driven from power.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters that the ministers at Wednesday's meeting had agreed that it was time for the United Nations to begin planning for how it will assist Libya once Kadafi leaves power.
"We see the United Nations playing the leading role in a post-Kadafi scenario," he said, adding that alliance would assist if requested by the U.N., but "I don't foresee NATO troops on the ground."
A daylight bombing raid Tuesday on Tripoli was launched after NATO received time-sensitive intelligence that the Kadafi regime had resumed using a large compound in the Libyan capital, according to a senior alliance officer.
The attacks targeting Kadafi's fortified Bab Azizia compound were carried out after "signals intelligence" — intercepted telephone, email and other types of communications — indicating that the facilities were being used for "command and control" of Kadafi's forces, the officer said.
The bombing has severely degraded Kadafi's air defenses, making daylight raids less risky than they were early in the campaign, though Libya still possesses mobile surface-to-air missiles capable of shooting down coalition aircraft, the officer said.
"There's always a risk but obviously reduced risk based on all the equipment we've destroyed," the officer said.