EU can no longer rely on U.S. as defense backup

BRUSSELS: European governments need to pool their military resources more rapidly if they are to maintain a strong defense footing, as the United States is no longer prepared to back Europe up, the head of the European Defense Agency said.

The conflict in Libya, where European forces were very reliant on U.S. air assets, underlined the need for Europe to have more of its own capabilities, while Europe’s financial crisis and defense budget cuts mean that resource pooling and sharing may be the only way to sustain adequate military forces.

“The message was sent from Washington: ‘We won’t do the job for you,’” Claude-France Arnould, chief executive of the EDA, an organization set up in 2005 to improve Europe’s defense capabilities, told Reuters.

“For many member states, it was a wake-up call. To use an English expression, we need more ‘bang for our buck.’”

Her agency is trying to come up with ways to save money through what is dubbed “pooling and sharing.” A group of European generals have spent the past few months touring the continent’s capitals to sound out governments on potential areas.

EU defense ministers met in Brussels Wednesday and are expected to approve “pooled” projects including in air transport, maritime logistics and pilot training.

The idea for pooling defense work was brought up at an EU conference in Ghent in October 2010, which discussed inefficiencies in European militaries. More than half the EU’s 194 billion euros ($258 billion) in defense spending went on personnel costs in 2010. The U.S. spent just over a fifth of its 498 billion euros on personnel, leaving it with far more to spend on weapons research and other priorities.

In addition, EU states have traditionally had their own armaments industries. The EU has 16 national naval shipyards, four main battle tanks and 23 types of armoured fighting vehicles, according to the EDA.

“If you compare the efficacy of the American budget and the European ... there is a huge discrepancy,” said Arnould. “There is a fragmented EU market,” she said, adding that progress was needed toward a single European market in defense equipment.

European defense cooperation has long been talked about, but defense is still overwhelmingly in the hands of nation states. France and Britain last year announced a bilateral arrangement including shared nuclear test facilities, sharing aircraft carriers and a joint expeditionary force.

But defense cooperation for the EU as a whole has never progressed significantly, with “national” companies such as Italy’s Finmeccanica, France’s Thales and Britain’s BAE Systems producing overlapping equipment and often competing with each other.

“European defense, like economic and monetary union,” wrote former EDA chief executive Nick Witney in a recent paper for the European Council on Foreign Relations, “has arrived at a place where Europe’s leaders must now decide whether they want to take it forward – or else watch it break up.”

In the conflict in Libya, the bombing campaign led by France and Britain depended on the U.S. for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and aerial refueling. Swedish Gen. Hakan Syren, chairman of the EU Military Committee, said last week that projects under consideration by the EDA included drones, air-to-air refueling and strategic airlift capability.

The urgency was reinforced by a speech in June by outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who warned that Europe’s declining defense capabilities presaged a “dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance.”

One problem for the pooling-and-sharing project is the fear that countries might lose their sovereignty. Governments are concerned they might not be able to use their forces when they want to – or be dragged into a war that they don’t want.

The solution is to only pool resources that are not sent to war – such as arms factories and exercise facilities. The Netherlands and Belgium, for example, have already pooled the maintenance and training for their navies, but still own their fleets separately. This means they no longer duplicate schools and repair docks, but they can each deploy the vessels where they want.

“Capabilities belong to governments,” with a few exceptions, said Arnould. “What we do is support member states in maintaining capabilities.” If pooling and sharing produces results, she said: “I think it can create a virtuous circle and create business and jobs.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 01, 2011, on page 10.




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