Slowdown and NATO’s peril

When NATO leaders meet next week in Lisbon, one topic is unlikely to be discussed: how to make the most of the dwindling funds available for defense spending.

By Judy Dempsey (Europe)

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Published: Sat 13 Nov 2010, 11:57 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:28 AM

The NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, will present his new strategic concept for the 28-member US-led military alliance. Much attention will be paid to improving relations with Russia, agreeing on a missile defense shield and responding to new threats.

But one of the biggest threats on NATO’s doorstep will most likely remain in the background: It is the growing reluctance by NATO’s European allies to face the consequences of the global financial crisis and introduce reforms in the defense sector.

Analysts say such reluctance could have devastating consequences for Europe’s defense and security. It could make the Europeans even more dependent on the United States at a time when the Obama administration, with its attention focused on Asia, wants Europe to assume more of the burden.

“My worry is that the more our allies cut their capabilities, the more people will look to the United States to cover whatever gaps are created,” said the US defense secretary, Robert M. Gates.

Europe’s finance ministers have used the global economic slowdown to slash spending across the board, with defense taking a hard blow. Total defense spending among NATO’s European members declined to 197 billion euros, or $272 billion, in 2009 from 228 billion euros in 2001, according to NATO. This is despite the war in Afghanistan and NATO and the European Union carrying out more missions.

Some analysts say the financial crisis could have been a big opportunity for Europe to revive its defense ambitions. Some countries have at least begun to search for a proper response to the financial crisis. Britain and France, two nuclear powers and Europe’s most important military countries, reached a landmark agreement by agreeing to share equipment and nuclear missile research centers. They also agreed to set up a joint force of about 9,000 soldiers with air and sea support that could take part in NATO, EU, UN or bilateral operations.

In Germany, Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, when told by his finance minister to find savings of 14 billion euros by 2013, used the cuts to introduce radical changes in the military. He is getting rid of conscription, reducing the armed forces, streamlining the command structure and closing underused barracks and bases.

Other countries are slashing their armed forces, with the result that aggregate spending per soldier has jumped to 91,000 euros in 2009 from 73,000 euros in 2001. Higher salaries may attract better-qualified recruits, which is Guttenberg’s aim.

That is all well and good, argues Guy Ben-Ari, project director of a report on European defense trends published this month by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. But cutting the size of the armies will not solve the money problems.

“Smaller budgets and reduced force structures can have negative impacts on military capabilities and missions,” Ben-Ari said. He sees the only solution in a much greater specialisation in Europe’s defense industry. But national interests, he added, stand in the way.

So when European countries do cooperate on a major defense project, like the A400M air transport carrier, governments defend their turfs - each insisting that certain components be manufactured back home in order to save jobs. As a result, there were problems with the design, delays with the production and ballooning costs. The Europeans have had similar problems with the Eurofighter jet, with Germany in particular questioning the spiraling costs and delays.

That is only the tip of the iceberg. Even though money for the defense sector is scarcer than ever, the Europeans insist on retaining 21 naval shipyards, compared with 3 for the United States, according to Homan.

It’s a similar story with weapons programmes. “EU countries have 89 different weapons programmes, while the US, whose budget is more than twice the size of the EU’s defense budgets combined, has only 27,” said Clara Marina O’Donnell, research fellow at the Center for European Reform in London. This fragmentation of Europe’s defense markets has proved expensive and inefficient. “It has also hampered the ability of European militaries to work together on international missions,” Ms. O’Donnell said. And Europe’s abysmal lack of investment has only exacerbated the situation. None of these trends are good news for the United States, NATO or the Europeans.

“Europe can’t assume that the Americans will always be around the corner,” said Ms. O’Donnell. “Maybe there is a silver lining to the financial crisis. Europe might face unprecedented pressure to change its behaviour. That is what Britain and France are doing.” But Europe, she acknowledged, has rarely missed an opportunity to disappoint.


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