Nato's civilian chief wants the alliance's 26 countries to intensify discussion this week on how they can better demonstrate solidarity in the field of defence spending, in order to avoid the military overstretch burdening many states.
As Nato defence ministers prepare for an informal meeting at Noordwijk in the Netherlands, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the alliance's secretary general, wants part of their discussion to focus on how member states can better support each other's forces in the field.
Many Nato members - especially the US, UK and France - are facing military overstretch because of the large number of current operations, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia and south Lebanon, which are draining resources.
Mr de Hoop Scheffer believes this intense level of activity means Nato members must now focus more closely on how to make better overall use of their financial resources.
According to a senior Nato official, the problem is partly the result of national defence budgets being too low. "But there is also the question of how we can better pool defence resources," he says.
Mr de Hoop Scheffer believes better co-ordination is critical. "You have situations, for example, where a country has spent lots of money to buy helicopters but cannot afford to send them to Afghanistan because it is too far away," said the Nato official.
"Other Nato countries can afford, for some time, to deploy their helicopters [in Afghanistan], but not forever. So the question arises whether other Nato countries, who haven't already paid to acquire these assets, can perhaps help pay for their use?"
The problem of overstretch is at the heart of the most immediate policy hurdle facing Nato: the need to ensure it can fill gaps that may soon open up in Isaf, Nato's 35,000-strong force in Afghanistan.
The Dutch centre-led government is prevaricating over whether to extend the mission of its troops in Afghanistan beyond 2008.
According to one Nato diplomat, Dutch defence ministry officials are expected to "work the room" in Noordwijk this week to get Nato allies to contribute to their mission in the restive province of Uruzgan.
Military overstretch has also plagued attempts to create a Nato Response Force, a high readiness, multinational force, capable of being deployed at short notice to trouble spots. The original idea was for the NRF to have 25,000 troops on standby, but member states are now looking at halving the figure to 12,500, with the framework in place to add more if necessary.
One other issue will also be high on the agenda at this week's meeting: the need for Nato to develop a "comprehensive approach" to its operations - especially in Afghanistan - which combine civil and military elements.
Many Nato members believe the international community must enhance civilian co-ordination in Afghanistan. This would mean, for example, better defining how to tackle the drugs problem, and boosting Afghan police and civil structures. One idea mooted by some member states is for the United Nations to appoint a civilian "international co-ordinator" - a job sometimes linked with former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer. ( FT )