By Arnold Lewis and Michael Durao
June 22nd, 2011
NATO operations in Libya over the past few months have exposed glaring flaws in the alliance’s readiness and ability to wage war, a fact recognized not only by American Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, but even by its own members in recent weeks.  Admiral Mark Stanhope of the Royal Navy has warned that due to defense budget cuts and ongoing participation in the war in Afghanistan, Britain may not be able to maintain its commitment to NATO in Libya.  According to Admiral Pierre-Francois Forissier, the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle will be taken out of service for the entirety of 2012 if it continues its operations off the coast of Libya through the end of 2011.  The Norwegians, initially among the strongest proponents of military intervention in Libya, have determined that they cannot sustain air operations beyond August 1st; their small contingent of deployed F-16s cannot keep up with the high logistical demands of continued operations.  In addition, stockpiles of munitions have been running low for many European nations enforcing the no-fly zone and supporting the advance of the National Liberation Army.  However, these are only symptoms of a larger, institutional problem plaguing the European defense sector and militaries.

Of NATO’s twenty-eight member nations, only five spend over two percent of their GDPs on defense; in total, NATO members’ defense spending amounts to $275 billion, but the conflict in Libya demonstrates that this is nowhere near enough to conduct extended combat operations within their own sphere of influence just a few hundred miles away - and much less globally - without immense materiel, logistical, and direct action support from the United States.  Although NATO has numerous officers in staff billets, the alliance’s European members have failed to construct the necessary command, control, communications, and intelligence infrastructure necessary for a sustained aerial campaign, and one can expect any deployment of ground forces beyond special operations forces already present will be even more taxing on Europe’s underprepared militaries.  Simply put, NATO has become accustomed to freeloading off of American manpower and defense spending.  

There are, however, lessons to be learned from the Libyan conflict; NATO’s inability to conduct sustained air operations solidifies the degree to which the alliance’s militaries have decayed in the post-Cold War era, and the need for drastic restructuring and rearmament should Europe expect to remain geopolitically relevant into the 21st Century.

The most obvious lesson to take from Libya is that individual European states cannot effectively wage war outside of their own borders; few expeditionary combat forces and tiny weapons stockpiles mean assets must be shared to effectively deploy outside of Continental Europe.  Commonality is essential to this power projection; as it stands today, aside from small arms ammunition and some aerospace munitions, Europe’s largest militaries use almost purely domestic hardware, and attempts at common procurement have been hampered by multirole fetishization that leads to almost all partners pulling out from the project before completion.  Unlike the NFR-90/Horizon class frigate or Eurofighter programs, common weapons systems should be traditionally designed to fill niches rather than being jacks of all trades, just as current national defense acquisitions generally are.  Ironically enough, this is less of an issue for smaller European militaries that rely largely on American imports, but their small numbers and inability to integrate with NATO’s leading powers makes this point moot.

This inability to cooperate effectively - only due in part to hardware incompatibility - is another significant issue facing Europe.  The answer is not necessarily a combined European military, but the problem does call for stricter common operating procedures and adherence to them.  Mutually beneficial agreements such as last year’s Anglo-French defense pact are ideal, but do raise sovereignty issues; instead of taking that more extreme approach, merely standardizing training, procurement, and operational procedures would allow for far greater strategic and tactical coordination amongst NATO members.

Even greater than the threat of individually weak militaries neutering NATO’s power overall, though, is Europe’s chronic lack of will to take responsibility for defense of its own interests, relying on the US military’s costly global presence at the American taxpayer’s expense alone.  America’s disproportionately large investment in power projection capabilities cannot be sustained, and in this time of necessary austerity its overseas deployments are being cut back as isolationist sentiments pervade the political atmosphere domestically.  Clearly, Europe cannot rely on the US to maintain its 20th Century role as the vanguard of Western interests worldwide, and the unwillingness of Europe to pull its own weight in guarding its sphere of influence will only lead to abandonment by its non-Western allies in favor of the Chinese juggernaut.  Worse yet, should American political leaders turn to a fully isolationist stance as many paleoconservatives are advocating, such an outcome will be utterly unavoidable, and NATO member states must be prepared for such a contingency while they still have time.

If European nations can learn to effectively specialize and pool their military assets, conduct necessary restructuring of their armed forces, spare their intensely neglected defense budgets further cuts in these times of austerity, and finally realize that the US will not be solely responsible for Europe’s defense forever, they will finally bear a proportional and fair share of maintaining the global order that they’ve enjoyed for the past several decades, and be in a position to defend their own interests overseas in the event that America takes the irresponsible route.

Arnold Lewis is the Content Editor for ENGAGED Magazine and his interests currently lie with International Politics & Security. Currently, he resides in Boulder, Colorado.

Michael Durao is an Beowulf Associate who's analytical expertise is focused on aerospace platforms.  His particular concentration lies in the analysis of the capabilities and proliferation of Eastern air defense and air-to-air systems, defense acquisition reform, and the evolving paradigms of 21st Century warfighting.

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