LONDON — U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called on NATO to become a more flexible fighting force that can tackle a broad range of conflicts and urged European allies to join the Pentagon’s shift to the Asia-Pacific region.

Giving what is likely his last major speech to the alliance as defense secretary, Panetta called for collaboration, particularly on cyber security projects, and said NATO should invest in intelligence and special operations forces. Panetta also urged investment in the Lockheed Martin F-35 joint strike fighter, a stealthy warplane a number of European allies intend to purchase.

“Going forward, we also must broaden the scope of our alliance security discussions beyond European and regional issues,” Panetta said at Kings College. “In particular, I strongly believe that Europe should join the United States in increasing and deepening defense engagement with the Asia-Pacific region.”

As budgets tighten across the alliance, Panetta said there is a “window of opportunity to fundamentally reorient” NATO for the future.

More from Panetta’s trip:

• Panetta Warns Soldiers Over Sequestration

• Panetta Reaffirms U.S. Commitment to F-35 in Italy

• DoD Looks to Expand Cyber, Maritime Partnerships in Europe

Countries need to embrace “cost-effective, innovative forms of defense cooperation,” he said.

Panetta touted NATO’s “Smart Defense” initiative, which calls for pooling resources and capabilities among alliance militaries.

With defense spending contracting on both sides of the Atlantic, Panetta said “no one nation” can confront terrorist networks, such as al-Qaida, alone.

While NATO has made “important progress” strengthening its computer networks, Panetta said it needs to do more to defense against cyber intrusions.

“The alliance needs to consider what its role should be in defending member nations from cyber attacks,” Panetta said. “We must begin to take the necessary steps to develop additional alliance cyber defense capabilities.”

Panetta urged NATO ministers to hold a session this year to discuss how the alliance can “bolster its defensive cyber operational capabilities.”

Panetta said the U.S. and U.K. are already working closely on these types of initiatives. During a meeting with Pedro Morenès, Spain’s defense minister, Panetta sought a deeper cyber security partnership with the Spanish military.

Panetta called on the alliance to broaden its partnerships with the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council and increase dialog with the African Union and Economic Community of West African States.

The Pentagon announced a new military strategy last year that calls for greater focus on the Asia-Pacific region. The plan was initially met with cries that the U.S. was abandoning its strongest allies in Europe.

Panetta — on his last leg of a trip that has included stops in Portugal, Spain and Italy – said DoD would continue keep its strong ties with Europe, despite scaling back its permanent presence in the region.

“[T]he United States and Europe should work together and ensure our efforts are coordinated through regular consultations between European and U.S. defense officials focused on Asia-Pacific security issues,” Panetta said. “The bottom line is that Europe should not fear our rebalance to Asia, Europe should join it.”

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