What was the point to Secretary Gates’ speech in Brussels on Friday? If it was simply to tell our European allies that they are not spending enough to maintain their own defense, that they are free riding and that they risk having the United States walk away from the Alliance, well we have been here before. Presidents, Secretaries of Defense and States and senior Congressional leaders from both parties have made this point with wearisome repetitiveness for some forty years. NATO and the European Union have formulated plan after plan to strengthen their militaries only to fail to meet the goals that our allies set for themselves. As Gates himself said “I am the latest in a string of U.S. defense secretaries who have urged allies privately and publicly, often with exasperation, to meet agreed-upon NATO benchmarks for defense spending.”
In fact, Europe spends a rather credible amount on defense, the equivalent of over $400 billion dollars. Our allies also have a large military establishment, nearly 2 million people under arms (some six million if reserves and paramilitaries are included). Yet, as the Secretary pointed out, when it comes to deploying military forces abroad, say to Afghanistan, Europe’s ability is woefully inadequate. “Despite more than 2 million troops in uniform – NOT counting the U.S. military – NATO has struggled, at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25- to 45,000 troops, not just in boots on the ground, but in crucial support assets such as helicopters, transport aircraft, maintenance, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and much more.”
The problem is that Europe spends its money badly. In particular, it fails to invest in critical enablers that allow it to have a usable, effective military. Secretary Gates noted the example in the Libyan campaign where the NATO targeting center had to be augmented by U.S. personnel. Even then, the most powerful military alliance in history struggles to conduct 150 strike sorties a day. In addition, some NATO countries participating in air operations over Libya are running out of munitions. “Many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren’t there.”
It is not that NATO does not spend enough; it is rather that the Alliance and European Union spends badly. It spends an inadequate amount on R&D and procurement and overspends on personnel, including nondeployable forces. Then there is duplication of effort and investment in obsolescent capabilities. Europe has deployed three different fourth generation fighters, the Rafale, Typhoon and Gripen, while the U.S. leapt ahead to fifth generation aircraft, the F-22 and F-35. The U.S. is buying over 100 P-8 antisubmarine warfare aircraft; Europe is buying none. The U.S. already has deployed a fleet of C-17 long-range cargo aircraft while Europe is struggling to buy the shorter range A400. The list goes on and on: missile defenses, JDAMs, Small Diameter Bomb, AMRAAM, Global Hawk UAVs and directed energy weapons. Add to that critical enablers, particularly intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance and you have what it takes to be a modern military.
In his speech, the Secretary pointed out that several countries were spending only modestly in their militaries but still managed to “punch above their weight” in Libya. It is interesting that the nations he mentioned had all invested in U.S. systems, notably F-16 and F/A-18 aircraft. “In the Libya operation, Norway and Denmark have provided 12 percent of allied strike aircraft yet have struck about one third of the targets. Belgium and Canada are also making major contributions to the strike mission. These countries have, with their constrained resources, found ways to do the training, buy the equipment, and field the platforms necessary to make a credible military contribution.”
We now have two clear case studies of the inadequacy of European defense investments, Afghanistan and Libya. For Secretary Gates the lesson is clear. NATO/European Union does not necessarily need to spend more – although that would be good. It needs to spend better. “The non-U.S. NATO members collectively spend more than $300 billion U.S. dollars on defense annually which, if allocated wisely and strategically, could buy a significant amount of usable military capability. Instead, the results are significantly less than the sum of the parts. This has both shortchanged current operations but also bodes ill for ensuring NATO has the key common alliance capabilities of the future.”
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