It was to have been a showpiece of cooperation and self-reliance: a French-designed spy satellite that would give the European allies their own eye-in-the-sky, reducing their need to pay for American intelligence.
But Germany's fiscal woes now appear to have grounded the nascent Franco-German project, Helios II, and with it one of the few European efforts to narrow the United States' massive lead in military might.
The US lead - in everything from basics like logistics and transport to cutting-edge sensor and information warfare technologies - is growing ever wider. As it does, so are concerns that American forces could leap so far ahead of their 15 NATO partners that they could have difficulties communicating, planning, and even fighting together in the coming decades.
Left unresolved, the capability gap could produce an alliance that is hamstrung by fiscal and strategic differences and even more dependent on US forces.
"There is a risk over time of a three-tiered alliance, with the US able to do everything, a few allies doing a range of these things, and some allies who are not going to be technologically in the same league," warns Robert Hunter, the US ambassador to NATO. "This is going to be one of the most important issues in preventing the hollowing out of the alliance."
Such concerns are being aggravated by NATO's decision in July to open its doors to the former Communist Eastern European states of Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Even as talks on their admission gather speed, doubts persist over whether they can rebuild armies equipped with outdated Soviet technologies into assets that can contribute to NATO's strength.
A noticeable gap
"There is a very big gap between [Eastern European] militaries and the US military. But at the same time, there is a very big gap between their militaries and the European allies in NATO," says a French military officer.
Expansion will also impose new burdens on NATO's current European members. Armies structured for almost 50 years to defend their homelands against a Soviet invasion will have to acquire the abilities to deploy rapidly to the alliance's easternmost borders and beyond.
For the US, the political, economic, and strategic implications of the "divergence" in NATO capabilities are profound.
Post-cold-war US defense policy calls for the European allies to do more for their own security, reflecting major cuts in US defense spending and the aversions of politicians and voters to new overseas military commitments. But the disparities in capabilities threaten to have just the opposite effect, with the Europeans becoming even more dependent on superior US military power as the alliance expands.
"The concern is that we are going to get stuck holding the bill," says a US defense official. "The other question is whether these guys [the European allies] can produce security and how will that help us?"
European officials respond that with both sides of the Atlantic now waking up to the problem, there should be enough time to redress it. "I think they are right to flag up concern, but once you've done that ... you ought to be able to come up solutions," says a British military official.
Although there have long been disparities in capabilities, the extent of the gap first became apparent in the 1991 Gulf War, when the allies were shown to be deficient in a wide range of areas. These included transport, logistics, and advanced technologies used to track troops and enhance the accuracy of warheads.
The NATO-led peace operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina has further highlighted the gap. US logistics, communications, intelligence, and surveillance capabilities have been key factors in the success of the 30,000-strong coalition of troops from the alliance and 20 other nations.
Experts cite a number of reasons for the breadth of the disparities.
The US and its NATO partners have all been cutting military budgets, with the latter's combined spending at about 70 percent of the Pentagon's annual $250 billion.
But the US has been more aggressive in trying to harness revolutionary innovations in software, communications, sensor, and materials technologies to compensate for its manpower and equipment reductions. The Pentagon's fiscal 1996 research and development budget of $33.6 billion was three times the combined research and development spending of the European allies.
The Pentagon strategy of being able to fight two near-simultaneous wars in Asia and the Middle East is being hampered by huge cuts in American overseas deployments. As a result, the Pentagon is building up its ability to rapidly mount operations far from US mainland.
European governments must also contend with political priorities and pressures that have played havoc with some of their most innovative programs, such as the Eurofighter 2000, a combat jet program that began in 1983 but has yet to go into production.
A more critical issue, experts say, is the European allies' failure to pursue the kind of wholesale restructuring of their defense industries that has been taking place in the US since the end of the cold war.
The huge American defense-industry mergers have concentrated in a few mammoth firms individual units that can bring a range of specialties - engineering, electronics, software design - to a single project. That produces efficiencies and innovation.
European firms, however, have yet to undergo such transformations. Furthermore, they still restrict most of their sales to their own militaries. The result is a lack of competition, resources, and innovation.
"The ability of European countries to be engaged in high technology, to be able to have defense industries that carry on in the technological base and in jobs, is going to be a critical part of maintaining the strength of the alliance," asserts Ambassador Hunter.
Reaching across borders
Robin Niblett, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that to boost innovation, European defense firms must begin cross-border mergers that unite wide ranges of capabilities. Furthermore, they must expand their markets.
"This divergence is really blasting open on a strategic level. It's not just the case of a few technologies not blasting off," says Mr. Niblett. "You are left with a bunch of separate [European] armed forces with separate requirements and different visions of what they need. In the meantime, the US keeps marching on."