European NATO members once again trimmed their defence spending on average in 2015, but less so than in previous years, the military alliance said Thursday amid enduring tensions with Russia.
Overall defence spending in NATO countries has been steadily declining for years. Even given that, European nations have often been accused of not paying their fair share.
But the trend is now starting to change, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said. He pointed to the fact that European countries in the alliance spent only 0.3 per cent less on defence in 2015 than the year before, when adjusted for inflation.
This compares to 1.3-per-cent drops in the two prior years and a decrease as high as 3.2 per cent in 2011.
Overall, defence spending by European NATO allies reached an estimated 253 billion dollars last year, down from 254 billion dollars in 2014.
"We have started to move in the right direction," Stoltenberg told journalists in Brussels, where the 28-country NATO is headquartered. "After many years of substantial reductions in defence spending, the cuts have now practically stopped among European allies and Canada."
However, not all large European countries are toeing the line. Britain, France and Italy all cut their defence spending last year, with Italy topping the list with a 12.4-per-cent decrease.
The US and Canada also curtailed their defence spending.
The US, nevertheless, still accounted for 72 per cent of total NATO defence expenditures last year. Washington has repeatedly expressed frustration about having to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden.
NATO countries have pledged to increase their military spending to 2 per cent of gross domestic product, but only five member states currently meet that target: Britain, Estonia, Greece, Poland and the United States.
"It's not enough to stop the cuts, we have to also start to increase [defence spending]," Stoltenberg said. "We all need to do more. Because, to the east and to the south, we face the biggest security challenges in a generation."
Relations between NATO and Russia have hit a post-Cold War low due to Moscow's actions in Ukraine. At the same time, the alliance is facing instability and conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East.
"Given the challenges to Euro-Atlantic security, it is essential that NATO members remain committed to investing in defence," Stoltenberg wrote in his 2015 annual report, released on Wednesday. "NATO cannot do more with less indefinitely."
The alliance needs to "invest more in modern equipment" and sustain its military presence in the east, in response to the perceived threat posed by Russia. This presence will be a key issue discussed at NATO's Warsaw summit in July, Stoltenberg said.
"We don't speak about moving back to the Cold War posture, with hundreds of thousands of troops based along the borders," he noted. "But we are talking about some increase in military presence and increase in the preparedness and readiness of our forces to deploy."
NATO has also been called upon to help with an international air campaign against the Islamic State extremist group in Syria and Iraq. The US has asked the alliance to provide surveillance planes that could act as flying command posts.
A decision has not yet been made, Stoltenberg said, noting that NATO defence ministers will discuss the issue at their next meeting in Brussels, on February 10-11.