All but ignored amidst the whirlwind of bad news coming out of the United States is the reality that Europe is broke. European leaders met late last week and cobbled together its third bailout of Greece. No one believes that this will be the final bailout or Greece can avoid, in the end, default. On top of that, the markets are taking a new look at Spain, Italy and today even France and not liking what they see. Should one of those countries find themselves on the financial brink, it will take all of Europe’s (meaning mainly Germany’s) financial resources to keep the entire single currency project from falling into the wastebasket of history.
Even before the current debt crisis, Europe did not spend enough on defense. Only five members of the NATO alliance were spending more than the official NATO target of 2 percent of GDP on defense. The reality is that to maintain a modern military — pay the high costs of volunteer forces, modernize equipment, maintain stockpiles and conduct the necessary training — takes well over 3 percent of GDP. The United States — because of its global security interests and need for cutting-edge military capabilities such as the F-22 and F-35 fighters, Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aerial systems and nuclear powered aircraft carriers and attack submarines — must spend at least 4 percent of its GDP on defense.
The consequences of inadequate defense spending have become obvious as a result of NATO’s operations in Libya. The NATO alliance has discovered that it is woefully underequipped for combat even against Libya’s fifth rate military. The alliance — sans the United States — lacks a whole range of capabilities from air operations planners, to intelligence personnel, refueling aircraft, cruise missiles and sufficient air delivered munitions. The U.S. has had to provide its allies with critical assets such as the EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft, to give just one example, because the NATO air fleets have no equivalent capability.
The European debt crisis makes it all but certain that our allies will not be able to maintain even their current level of defense spending. As part of the austerity program designed to reduce Great Britain’s unsustainable budget deficits and public debt, the Cameron Government in the U.K. has decided on near-draconian defense cuts. The result will be a British military that is no longer capable of full spectrum operations. It is hard to believe that the rest of Europe will not be forced down a similar path. As a result, NATO will no longer be a full spectrum alliance.
In his last speech to the assembled NATO leadership, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called on the alliance to spend its scarce resources wisely and strategically. The importance of his call for action is underscored by the reality that the allies can ill-afford to continue the past policies in which defense budgets were used as jobs programs. But the reality is that even if it can find the path to wisdom and a strategic approach to defense spending, Europe’s financial and economic crises will result in additional cuts to defense budgets and further diminished military capabilities.
What does the European crisis mean for U.S. defense spending? Ironically, Europe’s problems make it all the more important that the U.S. maintains an adequate level of defense spending. Financial and demographic realities also make it unlikely that Asian allies such as Japan and South Korea will be able to increase their defense spending in the decades ahead. Bluntly put, the United States will no longer be able to count on its traditional allies to contribute significantly to our mutual defense or help secure U.S. vital interests abroad. If the Free World is going to deter rogue states such as North Korea and Iran or dissuade rising powers such as China and, possibly, Russia, from turning hegemonic, it will be up to the United States to carry the burden.
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