As European countries continue to deeply cut their defense budgets, capabilities, and military force structure to fund their increasingly expensive and bloated welfare states, more and more of the defense burden is being borne exclusively by the US. Even formerly formidable secondary military partners like France and Britain are now gutting their militaries, and Britain is preparing to cut its armed forces even further.
Therefore, it is overdue to withdraw the US defense commitment to Europe, except that of nuclear deterrence (in other words, against all but the most catastrophic threats). The European Union, collectively, has a larger GDP and a far larger population than the US. European countries are theoretically capable of creating adequate militaries – they just don’t want to.
Unequal burden sharing, i.e. freeriding
The Europeans are essentially freeriding on the backs of American troops. Whereas during the Cold War NATO was a serious alliance of serious members with a serious mission, it is now an alliance of weak European states and Canada which expect the US to defend them. In other words, they expect something for nothing.
During the Cold War and the early 1990s, Europe and Canada accounted for roughly half of NATO defense spending and the US for another half, so the burden of defending Europe was equally shared. But since the Soviet Union’s fall, European countries have foolishly and wrongly concluded that there is no longer any threat to their security and have dramatically cut the budgets, force structure, capabilities, and weapon programs of their militaries.
In 1989, France and Britain were both spending over 4% of GDP and each of them had over 400 combat aircraft (Britain actually had almost 600). Today, that is down to only 271 in France and slightly over 200 in Britain. The UK spends just slightly over 2% of GDP on defense, while France spends just 1.76%.
Indeed, French Wikipedia openly notes the sharp decline of France’s combat aircraft fleet. The French Air Force had over 330 combat jets in 2006, but the “review” (read: propaganda pamphlet trying to justify deep defense cuts) ordered by President Sarkozy in 2008 cut that to 255 (300 for the entire French military, including 45 for the Navy). The most recent “review” ordered by President Hollande has cut that even further and deeply, to just 180 for the Air Force and 225 for the entire French military!
In addition, the French army’s fleet of tansk will be cut to just 200; the fleets of other ground vehicles, and of Army helicopters, will be cut as well. The entire French army will consist of just 7 brigades! Meanwhile, the Navy will lose 5 frigates through retirement without replacement, and it can forget about a 4th amphibious ship or a second aircraft carrier. The Air Force will see its tanker and airlifter fleets cut in addition to the fighter fleet.
And if that were not enough, FAF Chief of Staff Gen. Denis Mercier has recently announced that, due to insufficient funding, only a part of FAF pilots will receive full flight training, while many other pilots will receive only bare-bone basic flight training and will otherwise be unready for combat. That is, when war erupts, they will need many months to become proficient. This is deceptively called “tiered readiness” – an Orwellian newspeak for “at least half of the force being undertrained and unready for combat”.
In 1989, Spain spent 2% of GDP, and Germany over 3% of GDP, on defense. That is now down to less than 1.5% in Germany and less than 1% in Spain! Their combat aircraft fleets, and inventories of other military equipment such as ground combat vehicles and warships, have likewise declined sharply as well.
The Italian military has also cut its fighter and warship fleets and its order for F-35 aircraft. The same stories are being repeated throughout the continent.
European defense spending is not only meagre and shrinking, it’s also wasteful: European countries have many different types of tanks, IFVs, APCs, fighters, and other military platforms, when there’s usually just one or two in the entire US military.
And you know what’s funny about this? That the US, by extending its defense umbrella to Europe, has encouraged this.
Now, what exact shortcomings have these deep European defense cuts caused? Won’t Europe do just fine defending itself even after all offense cuts are implemented?
Answwer: No, Europe will be all but defenseless if they’re implemented. Because already the previous defense cuts have downgraded European military capabilities dramatically.
In 1999, during Operation Allied Force (the NATO bombing of Serbia), the US had to fly not only the vast majority of combat missions, but also all of the aerial refueling and airborne early warning missions. In Afghanistan, the US alone supplied the absolute majority of troops and the vast majority of equipment and funding while several NATO countries, such as Germany, completely banned their troops from participating in any combat.
The 2011 operation against Libya, Operation Odyssey Dawn, was even moreso an example of the joke that European militaries have become. The US once again flew the vast majority of combat and air refueling missions. Britain had cut its air force so badly that it could supply only 12 combat pilots and had to bring in instructors from its pilot schools to fly some missions. European countries also ran short on precision strike munitions – forcing the US, once again, to fill the gap.
Last year’s French mission in Libya, Operation Serval, revealed how badly weakened the French military had been even by the previous, pre-Hollande, defense cuts. France flew all of the combat missions, but could not supply enough ground troops to pacify the country (it sent only a little over 4,000) and lacked enough tanker and airlift aircraft to support its own troops – forcing the US, once again, to fill the gap.
And yet, the Hollande administration plans to cut the French Air Force (and the rest of the French military) even further, including its tanker, airlifter, and especially strike jet fleets – at a time when the FAF is STILL fighting in a country three times the size of France while still having to protect French airspace and provide nuclear deterrence.
But Paris can do so, because, as with other European countries, whatever it does, the US will come to its rescue. The Europeans have no incentive not to gut their militaries – if anything goes wrong, the US will ride to their rescue.
By extending such a guarantee, the US has encouraged security dependence on the US no different from the welfare dependence which European and American welfare states have acknowledged: behaving irresponsibly, knowing that whatever you do, the government will take care of you.
Why are there so many welfare dependents in the US and Europe? Because the US and European welfare states promise to provide for all of their citizens’ needs, from cradle to grave, regardless of their ability to provide for themselves and of their past behavior. You don’t have to be responsible. Whatever happens, the government will take care of you.
Similarly, the US has, for over 20 years, tolerated the continued gutting of European militaries by their own governments, which continues to this day. Europeans’ thinking is simple: “We can afford to cut our militaries deeply because even if we do, the US will come to our rescue. The US will defend us; we don’t have to defend ourselves.”
All that American politicians have in the past been willing to do has been to verbally criticize the Europeans for gutting their militaries. But they haven’t been willing to force the Europeans to face the consequences of their actions. It’s like warning a rules violator or an unruly child that you’re fed up with his behavior without actually imposing any consequences on him.
It’s time for US policymakers to finally force the Europeans to grow up, face military realities, and face the consequences of their actions. Enough is enough. The Europeans have been allowed to freeride on the backs of brave American troops for far too long.
It’s time – actually, it’s long past time – to withdraw America’s defense commitment (except the extended nuclear deterrent) to Europe. The US should continue to provide a nuclear umbrella to Europe, but otherwise, the countries of the Old Continent should be forced to fully provide for their own defense – from ground capabilities to missile defense. All US troops and assets not related to nuclear deterrence should be withdrawn to the US, and all US bases not related to that single mission should be closed (except the Landstuhl military hospital).
As CSIS defense analyst Clark Murdock says, “The Europeans will start providing for their own defense only if they feel the cold from a withdrawing US security blanket.”
As long as the US is willing to play Uncle Sucker, the Europeans will only be too happy to oblige.