The best route to improved European defence capabilities is to build on the patchwork of co-operation that already exists – with Germany at its centre.
At the Munich Security Conference, the discussions over defence burden sharing took a predictable course. In 2014 NATO members agreed to increase their defence budgets to at least two per cent of GDP, to be reached over the coming decade. The Trump administration has been vocal in criticizing Europe’s ‘free-riding’ in the alliance, and US representatives in Munich were determined to once again make this spending pledge a central issue.
Burden-sharing across the Atlantic has long been a topic driven by the US, dating back to the Cold War. From the US perspective, allies should spend more and develop better military capabilities in order to support the US on global missions. These days those missions would most likely be in the Middle East, given Trump’s repeated promises to defeat ISIS.
Europeans, on the other hand, traditionally see NATO as an alliance for the defence of Europe itself. And NATO’s European members have long realized that they could do much to improve their capabilities by deepening co-operation between them. So when the US would call for greater spending, Europeans typically responded by proposing a ‘European pillar’ of the alliance, under which European members would co-ordinate their development and procurement processes and build an independent mission capability.
For Americans, of course, this would create an unwelcome challenge to US strategic leadership. Talk of a ‘European pillar’ therefore became an effective way for Europe to silence US complaints about free-riding.
But with President Trump’s obsession with getting a good ‘deal’ for America, calls for greater European spending have reached a new level. Decision-makers in Washington may finally be willing to accept the emergence of a European pillar, as long as they can demonstrate success in getting Europe to pay their fair share. And for the first time, a more sizable European contribution to NATO could become necessary to sustain US commitment to the alliance.
Angela Merkel has already recognized this, and confirmed her intention to meet the two per cent target over time. But effective defence spending is far more complex than percentages of GDP.
In this fiscal year, Germany's defence budget will grow by about 8 per cent. This is a faster rate than in recent years but will still not see Germany hit the two per cent goal any time soon. To do so would require an additional investment of between 25 and 30 billion euros each year and it is highly questionable whether Germany could spend such sums effectively. For smaller countries, of course, this problem is even more acute.
On the European level, the parallel existence of separate national defence forces means that NATO’s European members – despite their supposed miserliness - have about 500,000 more active personnel than the United States. And despite years of seeking enhanced pooling and sharing of capabilities, there is a great deal of fragmentation, duplication and incompatibility between national systems. As the table [at top] shows, Europeans currently use 178 different systems in essential categories compared to just 30 in the US forces. (end of excerpt)
Click here for the full story, on the ECFR website.