One of the most common complaints made against the Bush administration's war policies is it's alleged "unilateralism," an unwillingness to bring in our allies or fight as a coalition. This view overlooks the participation of many countries alongside U.S. forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Granted, these are often small countries, with proportionally small contingents, but they are there, they share the risk, and sometimes they spill their blood as well.
The charge of "unilateralism" also overlooks U.S. military doctrine, which explicitly recognizes both the necessity and the inevitability of coalition warfare. The Department of Defense's top-level transformational document, Joint Vision 2020 (JV 2020) clearly considers "multinational operations" to be the norm for future conflicts:
Since our potential multinational partners will have varying levels of technology, a tailored approach to interoperability that accommodates a wide range of needs and capabilities is necessary. Our more technically advanced allies will have systems and equipment that are essentially compatible, enabling them to interface and share information in order to operate effectively with US forces at all levels. However, we must also be capable of operating with allies and coalition partners who may be technologically incompatible--especially at the tactical level. Additionally, many of our future partners will have significant specialized capabilities that may be integrated into a common operating scheme.
Even though, in many ways, multinational operations are more complex and difficult to organize and control than unilateral actions, the U.S. military has taken significant steps to address the interoperability requirement outlined in JV 2020, particularly with regard to "allies and coalition partners who may be technologically incompatible." U.S. commanders have also learned to handle the delicate political and diplomatic issues that are inevitable concomitant of multinational operations. So the charge of "unilateralism" on its face isn't really true.
Those who complain of the "unilateralism" actually refer to the failure of the Bush administration to more fully engage America's NATO allies and convince them to bear a greater share of the burden in fighting "the Global War on Terror." Leaving aside the support of the "Anglosphere" (mainly the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia), the contribution of our Western allies to the cause can best be described as niggardly. Germany and France, the two largest Western European powers, never contributed forces to a combat role in Iraq, and their presence in Afghanistan has been limited mainly to support units. True, Spain and Italy made small but useful contributions to the Coalition in Iraq, but when the going got tough, they got going, while most other Western European countries avoided deployment in Iraq.
In Afghanistan, on the other hand, the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) came under NATO control in August 2003. Today, ISAF consists of some 42,750 troops from 29 countries. However, these numbers are less impressive when examined in detail. First, the United States contributes 17,000 troops to ISAF, or 40 percent of the total force (this does not include 8000 more U.S. troops under U.S. control, mainly engaged in the training of the Afghan security forces). Of the remaining 25,750, 2,000 come from non-NATO countries, leaving the non-U.S. NATO contribution at just 22,750 men. Of these, the United Kingdom contributes 6,700 and Canada another 2500, meaning that the NATO states of continental Europe contribute 14,500 men. Of those, the bulk come from just six countries (France, Turkey, Poland, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany), who account for 10,700 troops. Of those, Germany has the largest contingent with just 3,434 troops (who are prohibited by German law from participating in offensive operations against the Taliban).
Moreover, the effectiveness of the troops that have been deployed has been hindered by operational restrictions imposed by various governments who fear the effects of even a handful of casualties on support for their participation in ISAF. Thus, many contingents limit themselves to reconstruction activities and only engage the enemy in self-defense, making little or no effort to defend the Afghan population from the depredations of al Qaeda and the Taliban. And, as is stated in the U.S. Field Manual FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency, elevating force protection over protection of the population is counterproductive and leads invariably to failure. It should be noted, however, that some of the smaller contingents from Eastern Europe (Poland, Bulgaria, Romania) have been extremely effective and are highly regarded by U.S. forces.
For many critics of U.S. "unilateralism," there is an implicit assumption that the lack of allied participation in ongoing military efforts is due mainly to U.S. policies and the unfavorable European response to them. This begs the question of whether our European allies would be able to do much more than they are doing now, let alone respond to any unforeseen contingencies in the future, even if they were inclined to do so. The answer, to those who have examined the present state of the European defense establishment, increasingly seems to be "no": European armed forces are neither structured, nor equipped, nor trained to play a meaningful role in the scenarios most likely to challenge the security of the civilized world in the coming decades.
How can this be, when Western Europe has an economy as large as that of the United States, and a combined military establishment of more than 1.7 million troops? Well, as shown in British defense analyst Julian Lindley-French's highly perceptive study for the Bertelsmann Foundation, this impressive force is largely hollow: "There are 1.7 million Europeans in uniform, but only 170,000 soldiers, of which 40-50,000 could be used for robust combat operations at any one time." Lindley-French notes that a large proportion of those 40-50,000 combat-ready troops are either incapable of overseas deployment or already committed to various missions (and thus unavailable for deployment elsewhere). The net deployable combat-effective force generated by Europe may be as low as 25-30,000 men, the majority of which are resident in the British and French military.
How and why did this situation develop? The answer is complex, but a major factor is money: Western Europe simply has not been spending adequate amounts on defense. This was true during the Cold War, when NATO countries seldom if ever met their "burden sharing" objective (a modest 3 percent of GDP on defense). Since the collapse of the USSR, Europe, like the United States, sought to reap a "peace dividend," and spending declined dramatically during the 1990s.
Furthermore, European defense spending did not increase after 9/11 (in most countries) but either remained flat or declined. Today, all of Europe (excluding Russia) has a GDP of $16.17 trillion and spends only about $314 billion on defense--1.93 percent of combined GDP. In contrast, the United States has a GDP of $13.16 trillion, and spends $534 billon--4.06 percent--on defense. The global average for defense spending is 2.0 percent of GDP. Clearly, Europe has not been spending as much as it should on defense, being in effect a "free rider" benefiting from the security provided by the U.S. forces whose activities it regularly criticizes.
Bad as this is, the situation is worse than it appears, because of the fragmentation and duplication of European defense spending. While in the United States it is considered scandalous that the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines have duplicative research and development (R&D), procurement, and logistic systems, in Europe every country has its own national defense policy supporting redundant R&D, procurement, command, administrative, and logistic establishments. Thus, for example, though Europe spends only about half of what the U.S. does on procurement, and only about a quarter as much on R&D, each European dollar spent buys a lot less capability, as a result of which, the pace of force modernization is much slower than it should be.
This is not helped by Europe maintaining a large and aging force structure intended to fight the Warsaw Pact on the North German Plain. Germany, France, Italy--all have hundreds of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery pieces of very limited utility in an age of low-intensity expeditionary warfare. The problem, from a budgetary standpoint, is all those aging tanks and APCs have to be fueled and maintained, as a result of which operations and maintenance (O&M) budgets continue to rise each year, squeezing out money for force modernization.
The troops to man those tanks have to be paid, which also diverts money from modernization. Until the last decade, most European countries relied on low-paid conscript forces, so military pay was not a major problem. However, because conscription was so unpopular, it proved difficult to maintain absent the Soviet threat. Terms of service were reduced from two years, to eighteen months, to just one year--hardly enough time to master the intricacies of modern military hardware, let alone become tactically proficient with it. To improve professionalism, France, Germany and other countries are now shifting to volunteer forces, but volunteers need to be paid real wages with associated benefits, so even at reduced numbers, the cost of personnel will continue to rise.
The combination of rising personnel and O&M costs and flat military budgets means that modernization is continually delayed or stretched out, which in turn requires aging equipment to be maintained in service, which drives up O&M, which requires more delays in modernization. The term for this situation is "death spiral."
Unfortunately, Europe cannot spend its way out of the hole because the Maastricht Treaty (which established the single European currency) places limits on the rates of inflation and budget deficits that can be sustained by the signatories. And, with European competitiveness and economic growth practically flat, no relief can be expected through increased revenues. Defense must fight for remaining discretionary funds against ballooning social welfare programs needed to sustain a rapidly aging population.
There does not appear to be any popular demand for increased defense spending in Europe, nor have European governments demonstrated the political will to address the problem over the objections of the opposition. The relative impotence of European military forces was first demonstrated in the Balkans crises of the 1990s, in which the capabilities gap between Europe and the United States was revealed in the harsh light of operational reality. This led to a host of initiatives intended to fix the problem--the Conventional Capabilities Initiative, the NATO Capability Commitment, and most recently the NATO Response Force (NRF). All of these began with high aspirations but foundered when it came time to actually commit funds for defense modernization.
As a result, today's European forces simply do not have the means to deploy and sustain forces outside of Europe without substantial assistance from the United States including sealift, strategic and tactical airlift, and even tactical trucks. Many of the European contingents deployed to Iraq are almost totally dependent on the U.S. for logistic support, to the point that they represent a net drag on U.S. capabilities.
Given this fact, one really has to ask whether NATO has a future as anything other than a kaffee klatch for general officers. The current deployment in Afghanistan is seen as something of a test case, and if NATO fails the test, it will slowly fade into irrelevance.
That given, how can Europe fix its military forces?
There is a solution, albeit one that will be slow, painful, and require hard choices and political courage--both in short supply these days.
First, Europe must recognize that the days when every country could maintain "full spectrum" military capabilities is gone. It is neither necessary nor desirable for every country to have an air force, a navy, or (in some cases) an army. What purpose does it serve that Belgium has a squadron or two of F-16s (or Eurofighters, a plane that provides F-16 capabilities at F-22 prices)? Why does the Netherlands need four very expensive diesel electric submarines that can only operate in and around the North Sea? Why does Portugal need tanks? Given the cost of acquiring and operating advanced military hardware, the time has come to consider a rational division of labor among the countries of Europe, with some countries specializing, e.g., in tactical air force, others in naval warfare, others in mine countermeasures, etc. Making this work will require development of a single, integrated European defense policy, which in turn impinges on issues of national sovereignty--real countries have their own armies, navies, and air forces, and they do not cede control of these things to other countries or international organizations. Europe needs to decide if it wants to be a single entity or a federation of nation-states.
Second, Europe needs to examine its security interests against the spectrum of threats it is likely to face, and to restructure its forces accordingly. In the era of asymmetrical low-intensity warfare, that means a lot fewer tanks and fighters, a lot more special operations forces, light infantry, transport planes and combat engineers. It probably means much smaller military forces overall, which in turn ought to mean more funds for defense modernization. However, every reduction in force structure is likely to be accompanied by calls for a reduction in the defense budget to pay for social programs. So far, only Sweden has succeeded both in substantially reducing the size of its forces and maintaining its defense spending, allowing it to fund the transformation of the Swedish military. Other countries may not be able to resist the siren song of defense cuts.
If, however, European militaries can free up funds by force reductions and the cancellation of irrelevant big-ticket programs like Eurofighter and the next generation of tanks and APCs, it is likely to find that forces focused on 21st century threats are likely to be more affordable than the forces it now has. This then opens the door to meaningful military cooperation with the United States, perhaps on a division of labor basis in which European forces address a range of low-intensity contingencies such as stabilization, reconstruction, and humanitarian relief (that play both to European military experience and political sensitivities), while the United States remains in the background to address more complex situations such as counter-insurgency and major regional conflicts. To facilitate such cooperation, the United States and Europe must place greater emphasis on interoperability, rather than having Europe develop a mirror image of U.S. capabilities (this is also operationally and tactically desirable, since overlapping complementary capabilities present the enemy with a more complex problem to overcome),
However it is done, 'twer best done quickly, because the declining relevance of European military power is driving a wedge between the United States and Europe at a time when both face lethal challenges from a common external enemy.