One of the eye-opening features of the three month old NATO air campaign in Libya is the hollowness of the world’s premier military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Let’s be honest, this is not a major conventional war against a capable adversary. The real challenge for NATO airpower is finding targets to hit. The Alliance publishes daily statistics of sorties flown and strike missions conducted. Of course, the vast majority of those strike missions are unsuccessful meaning that the aircraft went out armed and came back without having expended any ordinance.
Yet, without significant U.S. assistance, NATO would not have been able to initiate the air campaign and the Alliance’s air armada would be grounded today. The Libyan campaign began with several hundred cruise missile strikes on Libyan air defenses, most of which were conducted by U.S. ships and submarines. Ongoing patrols to suppress residual enemy air defenses are being conducted by U.S. Air Force F-16CJs and U.S. Navy EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft. According to a White House report, the U.S. is providing nearly 70 percent of NATO’s ISR capability. This is not just a matter of numbers of sensor platforms. The U.S. deploys a range of unique capabilities for which there is no NATO counterparts including the U-2, the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System ground surveillance aircraft, and the Navy’s P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. The U.S. provides nearly 70 percent of the NATO operation’s ISR capacity, according to the White House report. Without U.S. ISR assets, NATO would be conducting its air operations in the blind.
In a speech a few weeks ago to NATO leaders, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates directly took on the Alliance’s failure to invest wisely and strategically in capabilities any modern military needs to conduct operations. Speaking of the ongoing Libyan operation, Gates said:
“In particular, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets are lacking that would allow more allies to be involved and make an impact. The most advanced fighter aircraft are little use if allies do not have the means to identify, process, and strike targets as part of an integrated campaign. To run the air campaign, the NATO air operations center in Italy required a major augmentation of targeting specialists, mainly from the U.S., to do the job – a “just in time” infusion of personnel that may not always be available in future contingencies. We have the spectacle of an air operations center designed to handle more than 300 sorties a day struggling to launch about 150. Furthermore, the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country – yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.”
Advocates of cutting defense spending should ruminate on the current state of European defense before speaking so casually of reducing the defense budget by hundreds of billions of dollars. Only a handful of Alliance members other than the United States spend above the established minimum level which is 2 percent of GDP. Some of the other countries such as Belgium, Norway and Denmark have been able to, in Gates’ words, “punch above their weight” by focusing their limited resources on doing just a few missions. That is not an option for the United States. Europe is becoming militarily irrelevant. Cutting the defense budget risks doing the same thing to the United States.
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