March 20, 2012, Tuesday

Transatlantic defense in a period of austerity

At the upcoming Chicago NATO summit in May a serious discussion is set to take place over defense spending. The main question will be how allies will be able to match ambitions with capabilities until 2020 with the ongoing economic crisis forcing purse strings to be tightened.

US lawmakers have been critical of Europe for its low levels of defense spending, pressing for the withdrawal of US forces from Europe, saying it was time for Europe to shoulder more of the expense of defending itself. Last June, former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that Europe’s declining defense capabilities presaged a “dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance.”

This complaint is nothing new. For years the US has been grumbling that European allies do not pull their weight, something Europe has felt no guilt over, allowing the US to foot more than its fair share of the bill. European states spend too little and want to spend less, which has left a sour taste in the mouths of some in Washington. On average, European defense spending has fallen almost 2 percent annually for the past decade, despite the Afghanistan operation. Since the end of the Cold War, it has fallen by almost 20 percent, and in the last two years alone it was reduced by some $45 billion, with only France, the UK and Greece -- although Athens can ill afford it -- spending the agreed 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. Moreover, while a European Defense Agency was set up in 2004 in order to merge defense programs and combine spending on new military capabilities, several member states, including the UK and France, have failed to comply, as they consider their defense sectors as too strategic to be shared. Furthermore, austerity measures being implemented by most European governments could result in a further shrinking of defense budgets over the next five years or more. This will further erode European military capabilities.

Europe was also shaken by the recent announcement that US defense spending will be cut by $487 billion over the next 10 years. There will be a reduction from four to two US Army combat brigades permanently stationed in Europe. This means a loss of some 7,000 soldiers, with the total for the combat brigades left at some 37,000. While it will still be the largest US deployment in any region in the world and will remain capable of upholding the collective defense commitments to Europe against any likely threat, some European allies have still voiced concern that Europe may be forced to take on more military operations in the future without US support and have asked for assurances from Washington of its ongoing commitment to European security. This says a lot about the EU’s own European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP).

Paradoxically, while European NATO members still spend a sizable amount on defense -- over $296 billion in 2010, more than China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Brazil and Australia combined -- it is not spent wisely. Therefore, Europe needs to find ways to pool resources more effectively, share costs and provide capabilities at a functional level. These are the capabilities that are vital for carrying out operational missions such as intelligence assets, transport and logistics, etc., which need to be integrated more closely and, if requested by NATO or the EU, should be excluded from national veto. Hence it is therefore key to have far more coordination between members, become more flexible and avoid duplication as much as possible.

Clearly it is going to be a big challenge to sustain NATO capabilities in light of present realities. US President Barack Obama wants Europeans to draw a line under their shrinking defense budgets and spend what they have more efficiently, investing in the most critical military capabilities. In fact, at the November 2010 NATO Lisbon summit, members agreed to more efficient use of available defense resources through enhanced defense planning, multinational development of capabilities as well as carrying out reforms such as downsizing military commands. Moreover, last year NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen began a campaign for “Smart Defense” in order to get better value and effectiveness from available resources through multinational cooperation. This would seem to be the right way forward, although one cannot say there has been a massive amount of progress yet.

The Chicago summit offers an opportunity for NATO members to demonstrate that the transatlantic relationship remains intact, even in light of economic woes. However, to fly a plane it takes two wings, and the European allies need to accept much greater responsibility and “pay their way” to a higher degree. Therefore, European friends could help relieve the concerns of the US over shrinking military capabilities by making a clear and sustained commitment to NATO’s Smart Defense and other projects needed to realize a credible and effective NATO for 2020.

Previous articles of the columnist