Austerity Could Improve European Defense

Although America spends more on defense than Europe does, the problem is not that Europe’s defense capacity is too small.

Complaints of Europe “free riding” on American power are hardly new. The limits of the continent’s military capacity was most recently tested in Libya but Americans have complained for years that they’re investing far more in defense than Europe is in NATO. The era of austerity, they might fear, will only make Europe’s dependence on America worse. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In a farewell address as American defense secretary to Europe earlier this month, Robert Gates criticized NATO partners for their military ineptitude, warning that there is a “dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress” for continuing to make up for Europe’s lack of defense spending.

Politicians and public alike, Gates added, are increasingly resistant to spending “precious funds on behalf of nations [that] are apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.”

The continent’s dependence on American military support was laid bare in the ongoing Libya campaign when Britain and France could not destroy the country’s air defenses on their own while minor partners quickly ran out of bombs, forcing Norway to end its participation in the enforcement of a no-fly zone.

The mightiest military alliance in history is only eleven 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 US, once more, to make up the difference.

Gates was correct to point out that Europe’s defense budgets have suffered countless cutbacks since the end of the Cold War whereas the United States, after 9/11, more than doubled military spending, in part to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

At the start of last decade however, American defense spending was down $100 billion compared to 1989. In 2010, defense accounted for nearly 20 percent of federal spending or 4.7 percent of gross domestic product. This approximates 1980s levels of defense spending compared to the size of the overall economy. In may be argued then that the current American defense posture is far from normal and was necessitated, in part, by two major land wars, both of which should draw to a close during the first half of this decade.

European defense spending, by contrast, is at an historic low. Today Albania, France, Greece and the United Kingdom are the only members in NATO besides the United States to spend more than 2 percent of GDP on defense. The explicit American security guarantee that is embedded in NATO is part of the reason for the other allies to spend far less; the lack of a credible threat within Europe being another. Why have an army if there’s no one to invade you?

Despite low military spending levels, nearly all NATO allies are engaged in Afghanistan with upward of 35,000 non-American troops. Europeans do more training than fighting and different national mandates complicate their ability to deploy force but in Afghanistan, for the first time in the alliance’s history, NATO invoked Article 5 which compelled its members to come to America’s aid after the 2001 terrorist attacks against New York and Washington.

Europeans, in particular Britain and France, took the lead in the Libyan intervention, pushing for a United Nations Security Council resolution that authorized military action and launching airstrikes before the United States could commence their offensive. Since disabling the country’s air defenses, American armed forces have scaled down their involvement to such a minimum extent that according to the White House, they aren’t even engaged in “hostilities” in North Africa anymore.

Britain and France may have been able to impose a no-fly zone alone, if barely, but so far, attempts to coordinate defense policy between them have only been modestly successful. Differences in military capabilities and ethos become all the more pronounced — and problematic — if most pacifist countries like Germany were to be included. It wouldn’t even endorse the Security Council resolution that prompted the campaign in Libya.

The problem with Europe’s defense capacity is not that it’s too small — while spending half of what America does on defense, European countries have 2 compared to 1.5 million service members on active duty — but that it is uncoordinated. NATO can go to war as one thanks to uniform ranks, codes and procedures but Europe is still hesitant to effectively pull its resources as it would ask of nations, especially smaller ones, that they surrender their independent defense capacity.

Austerity may finally convince European countries to specialize. Britain, for instance, doesn’t have an aircraft carrier in service today but France does. Germany and the Netherlands have maintained a joint army corps since 1995. As the latter prepares to eliminate all of its tank units, German armor should come to play a bigger role. Dutch and German navies developed the De Zeven Provinciën or Sachsen class frigate together while France and Italy collaborate in the similar Horizon project. Eurocopter already provides helicopters for different European armed forces. Saab offers the JAS 39 Gripen as an alternative to Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

In the end, there is no reason to assume that Europe will fully shoulder its own defense responsibility as long as NATO exists. American defense contractors will probably continue to dominate the industry for several more decades, underlining Europe’s reliance on American hardware and technology. But budget cuts needn’t degrade the continent’s armed forces necessarily. Rather they could be an opportunity to boost Europe’s common defense potential.