There are reports circulating in European newspapers that a number of major NATO countries including France, Italy and Germany plan to reduce their defense spending sharply in the next few years. The reasons for this are fairly prosaic: a combination of rising costs for entitlements and the continuing fallout from the global recession. In its recent austerity budget, the new British government announced defense spending would be reduced by seven percent over the next few years. While this does not sound like a big hit, the consequences will be dramatic. The British Navy will give up all carrier operations for at least a decade as its existing aircraft carriers are scrapped and the replacement ships are delayed. The size of the Army will be reduced to a level that will make division-size sustained expeditionary operations all but impossible.
These cuts are coming even as the threats to European security appear to be on the rise. Teheran continues on its path to a nuclear weapon. In addition, there are reports that Iran has benefitted from rocket engine technology acquired from North Korea to increase the range of its ballistic missile force. As a consequence, Berlin may soon be within reach of Iranian missiles. Russian President Medvedev recently threatened a new arms race if agreement could not be reached with the United States on limits to ballistic missile defenses. Afghanistan continues to require the presence of some 50,000 NATO troops. Al Qaeda is increasing operations in Yemen and Somali pirates are stepping up their predations of the sea lanes.
European leaders understand that the new round of cuts risks making Europe militarily irrelevant. Reacting to these reports, former French Defense Minister Herve Morin observed as follows, “Do Europeans want to be actors on the international stage, or do they want to be the actors in a play they are not writing? At the pace we’re going, Europe is progressively becoming a protectorate, and in 50 years we will become the game in a balancing act between the new powers and will be under a Sino-American dominion.”
What can the United States do? First, it needs to go forward with proposals to reform its export control and technology transfer. Europe needs U.S. military technology in a number of areas including fighter aircraft (most notably the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter), unmanned aerial vehicles, advanced sensors, cyber defense, soldier equipment and communications. The United States, in turn, needs both a Europe that is strong militarily and the export earnings that could result from expanded sales of military hardware.
Second, the United States needs to move forward aggressively on NATO’s new commitment to deploy a continent-wide missile defense capability. This would involve ensuring that the planned phased adaptive architecture for European missile defense is deployed as soon as possible. It would also mean seeing the current U.S.-Italian-German MEADS missile defense system through to deployment.
Third, the U.S. should look at ways of enhancing existing European defense capabilities with selective assistance, particularly in such areas as ISR, precision strike and counter-terrorism. Even as its power projection capabilities appear to be withering, Europe still deploys significant capabilities for self defense. Ensuring that Europe can, at a minimum, defend itself against the full spectrum of threats will leave the United States better able to deploy its increasingly scarce military assets to other regions.
Finally, the Obama Administration needs to consider its plans for defense spending in light of the possibility that NATO allies will be cutting their defense capabilities. Pentagon leaders are reported to be expressing fears that the budget deal proposed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates which promised defense spending growth of one percent above inflation is breaking down in the face of continuing pressure to deal with mounting national debt.
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