NORFOLK - French General Jean-Paul Palomeros took over as one of NATO's top commanders Friday, facing the task of adapting the transatlantic alliance to new threats despite budget pressures.
Palomeros acknowledged he faced a daunting assignment at a ceremony in Norfolk, Virginia, home to one of NATO's three strategic commands, along with Brussels and Mons in Belgium.
"Secretary general, the challenges that you have just outlined are considerable," said Palomeros, referring to remarks by NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
By taking charge of allied transformation command, the former chief of staff of the French air force becomes the highest-ranking French officer in NATO.
Palomeros, 59, succeeds his compatriot and fellow airman General Stephane Abrial, whose 2009 nomination marked the return of France to NATO's integrated military command. Former French president Charles de Gaulle pulled France out of the structure in 1966.
Even as a formal ceremony honored the role of two senior French officers in NATO, Paris is taking a second look at the country's decision to return to the alliance's command.
French President Francois Hollande has asked ex-foreign minister Hubert Vedrine to review the country's renewed role in NATO's integrated military command and his findings are due by the end of October.
Palomeros, the second European to fill the position in Norfolk, said he would continue the work started by Abrial, who served in the post for three years.
Abrial has overseen one of the NATO secretary-general's top priorities, dubbed "smart defense," which seeks to pool resources and encourage alliance members to back joint projects.
The initiative has grown out of necessity, as alliance states face shrinking defense budgets that Abrial said makes it "more and more difficult" for countries to maintain key military capabilities.
The trend threatens to widen a gap between European countries facing deeper cuts in military budgets, and the United States, which already accounts for 75 percent of alliance defense spending.
The NATO-led air war in Libya last year exposed the disparity and the shortcomings of Europe's armed forces, including a lack of aerial refueling tankers, surveillance aircraft and precision-guided bombs.
The Europeans must also forge a new strategic vision as the United States shifts towards the Asia-Pacific, scaling back American forces in Europe.
Of 150 planned joint projects under the "smart defense" intitiative, 24 are already underway, but some governments have yet to embrace the idea in practice.
Palomeros, who will oversee 1,000 personnel -- half of them based in Norfolk -- will be working to transform the mindset of a number of countries reluctant to sacrifice a degree of sovereignty or favored treatment for their defense industries.
The French air force general also has the job of outlining NATO's future as a decade-long war in Afghanistan winds down, the most complex, costly and bloody mission the alliance has undertaken since its creation in 1949.
The alliance now needs to prepare for new types of "strategic threats after Afghanistan," Palomeros said.
The ceremony at Norfolk, attended by about 800 allied officers and troops, marked the end of Abrial's long career in the French military. A decorated fighter pilot and senior officer, Abrial commanded the 5th Fighter Squadron in the 1991 Gulf War and served as Air Force chief of staff.
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