I miss the Cold War. Really, I do. It is far enough in the past now that one can look back wistfully at period from 1947 to 1991 and appreciate the simplicity of that conflict. The United States and her allies versus the Soviet Union and its (mostly captive) allies. Capitalism or Communism. Co-existence or conflict. Honestly, compared to the complexities of today’s geopolitical world, the Cold War seems like a pretty damn good time. Know who else probably misses the Cold War? Western European generals and defense ministers.
Gone are the heady days of plump (by European standards) defense budgets, capable forces and clarified missions. In its place is an era of austerity, ill-defined missions and threats, as well as indifference. The defense cuts have not been entirely unexpected given the current economic situation on the continent. That being said, the position that many European politicians and voters are taking towards their military forces is borderline reckless. Europe is voluntarily disarming itself.
The most striking example of European disarmament has been the drawdown of Britain’s Royal Navy. In spite of Great Britain’s historic position a major maritime power, over the years the Royal Navy has regularly fallen victim to budget slashing. The “Senior Service” has seen a broadening of its missions in recent years even as the surface fleet has been cut to one-third of its Cold War strength. The Royal Army and RAF are in similar shape. Britain’s strategic reach has been shortened and it’s questionable whether or not the UK will be able to support the US militarily, as it has for decades, in the future.
Other major European powers like France and Germany are in similar positions. Budget cuts are currently having, or will have, a profound effect on readiness and force structure in the future. Smaller countries on the continent are not immune to the budget crunch either. Belgium and the Netherlands have stricken off their inventories of main battle tanks and replaced them with wheeled AFVs in the case of Belgium and Infantry Fighting Vehicles for the Netherlands.
The United States has shouldered the bulk of NATO military spending since the creation of the alliance. That should come as no great surprise to anybody. What is a surprise, and something of a concern, though, is the fact that in 2001 the US financed 63 percent of NATO military expenditures. Today, the number is closer to 75 percent. The financial crisis has stymied Europe’s defense expenditures and reduced its military capabilities. The situation is reaching a critical point. There will be a point in the not too distant future when America’s European allies can no longer be counted on to be practical military partners.
NATO’s intervention in Libya, although successful, did reveal weaknesses in Europe’s military capabilities. The US provided a great amount of support and without it, Gaddafi might still be around. Tomahawk missiles fired by US Navy ships decimated Libyan air defense sites, command and control facilities and airfields. Ammunition, airborne tankers, drones, fighter aircraft and intelligence was also contributed to the initial phase of the Libyan expedition. Without that help, it is doubtful if the European forces involved could have gone it alone. The same is true in Mali where USAF assistance has been crucial to the French mission in Mali
As the United States pivots towards Asia, European nations to ponder potential threats and missions and structure its militaries to meet the needs of the future. The US is encouraging Europe to tend more to its defense needs, and rightfully so. The European sphere of influence does not end at the Bosphorus, or the Straits of Gibraltar. It is essential that Europe stand ready to defend her interests abroad. The US might not be very willing or able to help when the next crisis begins. And it will eventually.