Sharp Blue: Enemies at the gate


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Over at the Eleven Day Empire, James writes:

European governments put themselves into a position of vassalage by allowing the United States to defend them for half a century, relinquishing the very role that they now claim to want.

This is a sentiment that seems to often be expressed recently, but I think it's pretty unfair. In terms of ground forces, the United States was a junior partner in the defence of Europe. For example, here is a comparison of the relative size of the armies of the US and Western Europe immediately before Gorbachev came to power in the USSR:

 EuropeUnited States

In terms of naval and air power, things were also quite similar:

 EuropeUnited States
Airforce personnel550,000745,000
Combat aircraft4,0005,900
Naval personnel390,000763,000

Even today, the Europeans are manifestly willing to spend serious money on their militaries. The defence spending of the European NATO states is about half that of the US: in 2001, the US spent $310.5 billion against $138.4 for the Europeans, and that's after Bush's attempt to massively increase US defence spending. Some of this difference is because the US economy is larger than that of Europe. In terms of GDP, the US spent 2.9% on the military in 2001, compared with 2.6% in France and 2.4% in the UK. There are even two European states that spent a higher percentage of GDP on the military than the US: Turkey (5.0%) and Greece (4.8%). The US has about 100,000 military personnel in Europe (down from around 200,000 during the later stages of the Cold War), which is smaller than the British army. Also, let's not forget that the British and French can field over 600 strategic and tactical nuclear warheads, which is plenty enough to ruin even a superpower's day.

Given all of this, an obvious question is "why isn't Europe projecting force beyond its borders?" Part of the answer is cultural - Europe has twice in living memory been utterly devastated by warfare and so pacifist sentiments are common here, especially in Germany. More important than this, though, is specialisation. Remember that in the days of the Cold War, the major global security issue wasn't how to stop rogue states acquiring nuclear arms or how to effect regime change in Middle Eastern countries, but how to stop the Red Army flooding its 50,000 tanks across the north European plains. This was clearly not a trivial matter, and NATO's solution was to carefully work out battle plans which assigned highly sepcialised roles to each of the European members. For many European states, this role was defending part of the border between the two Germanies. In this situation, it's natural that the European militaries would develop tactical rather than strategic assets. There's no need to spend vast amounts of money on sealift or strategic airlift capabilities when the enemy is at the gates. The United States, in contrast, was specialised in a strategic role: it would confront the USSR in many theatres and would have the naval forces to control the oceans and the strategic airpower to attack the industrial heartlands of the Soviet Union. (This is the main reason that the United States' defence spending is higher than that of Europe - strategic forces are expensive.) And it's clear that in the post-Cold War world these strategic capabilities are much more flexible and useful than the ability to defend a patch of central Europe against a deluge of armoured divisions.

Let's take a look in more detail at the situation of the United Kingdom (because that's the case with which I'm most familiar). Britain played a key part in the defence of Germany - the British Army of the Rhine was one of the largest and best equipped military forces in the world - but also had three other assigned roles: to secure the airfields in Norway, to conduct amphibious operations on the coast of Turkey, and to defend the North Atlantic against Soviet submarines. To fulfil these duties, the UK needed a substantial navy with aircraft/helicopter carriers (intended for anti-submarine operations but which could also support landings), a number of assault and landing support ships, and a substantial number of marines. It's pretty much luck that's enabled the British military to rapidly adapt itself for force projection beyond the borders of Europe rather than any grand design. Even so, although the United Kingdom certainly has the military capabilities to fight almost any other nation and win, it finds it hard to use those forces without the strategic support of the United States. An obvious example is the heroic efforts required to transport and supply the taskforce that expelled Argentina from the Falkland Islands. And essentially all the other European militaries found themselves in much worse positions after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Of course, the Cold War ended a long time ago. However, the development and deployment time for new military capabilities is long even on that timescale. It will take at least another decade for European militaries to retool themselves enough to enable a more active role in world affairs. Even Britain isn't really ready for it yet: the British military has no real strategic airlift capability and current projects aimed at acquiring one are mired in problems; its new US-style aircraft carriers won't arrive till after 2010; HMS Ocean, the first of a new breed of helicopter carriers designed for flexible global troop deployments only became operational in 1999; HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, the new landing support ships that can put ashore heavy armour, are not yet fully operational; the Bay-class Auxiliary Landing Ships are still being built; and most importantly, Britain won't have a proper air superiority fighter until the Eurofighter Typhoon reaches squadrons in a few years (the current Tornado F.3s are long-range patrol aircraft kludged from tactical bombers designed for interdiction behind Soviet lines).

In ten to fifteen years, though, things will be very different, and then I expect the other European states to suddenly decide to play a much more active and positive role in the maintenance of global security. For the moment, though, expect Britain to stick with the US and France to continue trying to be a "diplomatic power".

Update (9/3/2003): Similar developments are afoot elsewhere in Europe too. France has ordered a second large aircraft carrier (it already has the carrier Charles de Gaulle), which is due to enter service in around 2015. The British and French carriers and support ships may be grouped into four European carrier battle groups. Italy is building a new 20,000 ton cruiser-carrier, the Andrea Doria, that's pretty comparable to the UK's current Harrier/helicopter carriers and will enter service in 2007. Thus in about a decade or fifteen years, Europe will have four full-size aircraft carriers and half a dozen or so VTOL carriers available rather than the current one large and five VTOL ones.

There are two new French amphibious command ships, the Mistral and Tonnerre, entering service in 2005 and 2006. Each can deploy armoured forces of 450 troops, including sixty armoured vehicles, a squadron of tanks and a number of helicopters. Rotterdam-class Landing Platform Docks are starting to enter service. Each can put ashore 170 APCs or 33 tanks together with 600 marines. The Dutch Rotterdam entered service in 1997 and a second is due in 2007; Spain has just deployed two Rotterdams, the Galicia and Castillia. Five new Greek Chios-class Medium Tank Landing Ships have entered service in the last six years. They can carry 310 troops and fifty vehicles including twenty tanks each. Belgium is working on a helicopter landing ship comparable to HMS Ocean, as is Portugal. (Some of these ships replace ships dating back 30 to 60 years, others give European countries entirely new capabilities.)

The forces that can be deployed globally using this upgraded sealift capabilities will themselves be substantially more capable than today's forces too. The UK is beginning to deploy Apache Longbow attack helicopters to work with its tank forces and shipments of Tiger helicopter gunships to French and German forces will begin later this year. European armies are also starting to procure a sophisticated tactical and strategic data communications infrastructure and there are initiatives such as the UK's FIST aimed at greatly improving the capabilities of European infantry. At sea, European warships are about to receive substantial upgrades too. For example, the Royal Navy will receive its new Type 45 destroyers later this decade. This will provide enhancements of several orders of magnitude in fleet air defence. The new RN frigates might be trimaran designs based on the research vessel Triton. Sweden already has Visby-class stealth corvettes.

There are a number of new European air-superiority and strike fighters, including the Rafale, Typhoon and Gripen entering service now or in the near future. Britain is also involved in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme, which will equip its new carriers and maybe the French ones too. By the end of the decade, the fighters of the major European airforces will be in the best position relative to the US state of the art that they've been in for about thirty years. Europe doesn't have any strategic bombers or stealth strike aircraft, although work is to begin soon on a stealth technology demonstrator. I think these aircraft will continue to be a low priority for the European airforces until the other holes have been filled. There will soon be European variants of the Predator and Global Hawk UAVs in service too.

The European strategic airlift capability is currently in the weak to non-existent range. This gap is due to be partly filled by the Airbus A400M, which will be bought by the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Turkey and Belgium. This will give Europe a reasonable light airlift capability but still nothing comparable to the US's heavy airlift aircraft (the aircraft won't be able to carry tanks, for example). It's a substantial step beyond the Hercules though. The A400M is due to enter service in 2010.

In conclusion, I think that around 2010-2015 the European Union will be about to deploy globally forces generally comparable in quality to US forces and around a third as large in number. There will be some weaknesses - heavy strategic airlift, strategic bombing - but the situation will be very different to how it looks today. European forces outside Europe will be roughly one third British, one third French with the balance made up by the other states. Germany will remain under-represented. In the nearer term, European forces overseas will be dominated by the UK, even if they include substantial French contributions.

According to Robert Kagan ("Of Paradise and Power"), the disconnect betwen US and European approaches to serious diplomatic and security issues around the globe can be partially explained by the disparity in "tools" available for each to use. With a highly effective military with global power projection capability, the US is more likely to see a military solution as a perfectly viable option to intractable or threatenng situations. The EU, flush with money and "soft power", (ie, diplomatic, cultural, economic power) is much more likely to promote those solutions, since these are the primary tools available to it. Given Europe's (justifiable) aversion to military conflict of any sort (see History of the 20th Century) - most recently apparent during the EUs complete impotence when faced with the Kosovo crisis - will their new-found power projection capability make any difference? When can we expect to see Europe step up to the role they so dearly wish to play in the world? When will they "bear any burden, pay any price" in defense of freedom? Is the will still in their cultural genes or has pacifism permanantly overwritten it? Notwithstanding the fondest wishes of Americans, they (we) can't do it alone. We never could. Nor will we ever be able. The clash of cultures, so accurately predicted several years ago, is in full swing. Extremism vs Moderation. Tyranny vs Democracy. Intolerance vs Respect. There is war afoot in the world. It's being fought across the globe. Where is Europe? Where are the children of the Enlightenment? Why aren't they in the vanguard?

A very good analysis. Americans often forget the heavy armor and anti-tank weaponry developed by the other NATO forces to stop the Soviet thrust expected at the Fulda Gap.

The Tornado bomber, the Challenger, Leopard and Chieftain MBTs, etc., are all examples of that. The Royal Navy's focus on smaller ASW warships and carriers, as well as AA warships played a role as well, with their designs being for support roles with the USN. The French maintained larger carriers for longer, because they tried to be independent of NATO for a while.

But its clear than in a conventional war, in Central Europe, the NATO Nations could field respectable conventional armies. But specialization has led to an inability to project power worldwide.

The NATO Nations didn't develop strategic sealift or airlift capabilities, because they were not expected to fight outside of West Germany, or in a counter offensive across Eastern Europe in thrusts along existing road and rail lines.

The US needed such capability to project power in other parts of the world, as well as to provide troops and armor in a major confrontation with the Soviets.

While normally the US forces in NATO were small, they were meant to be backed by large numbers of Reserve and National Guard divisions to be airlifted and sealifted across the Atlantic and to come into play once the Soviet thrusts had been blunted by in country US and NATO forces. To defend these communication lines required more naval and air assets...and so forth.

It was disatisfaction with relying on US strategic arms alone that led both the UK and France to develop their own nuclear arsenals.

So yes, I think you're absolutely right about the weakness coming from specialization.

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