Criticisms made by US Defense Secretary, Robert M. Gates, whilst speaking to the Security and Defense Agenda in Brussels last Friday have painted NATO’s future as “dim if not dismal”. Gates was arguing that few of the 27 EU member-states are capable of carrying out “hard” NATO combat missions. Citing the inadequate performance in Libya as evidence of Europe’s inability to act independently in a sustained conflict, saying “the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country – yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.” He ended his speech by reiterating the need for European governments to pool defence resources, echoing statements made by NATO’s Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in April last year.
A report by the Centre for European Reform (CER) published in April this year reveals the financial gains to be made by sharing military facilities, training centres, and equipment. It argues countries are making cuts in their defence budgets as it becomes a needless expense to have nations purchase equipment individually: with less than 5 per cent of equipment currently shared between NATO allies and with less than 100,000 of Europe’s combined 1.6 million active servicemen, there is a huge surplus of basic equipment. It is this approach that has left governments with insufficient funds to purchase the necessary munitions to take part in NATO conflicts, as Gates notes, the allies sitting out of the Libyan conflict “do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t.” The report expands to suggest integrated military units, training schemes, defence budgets, and bulk equipment purchases would greatly enhance Europe’s military capabilities – mirroring the American’s savings made by an “economy of scale”: discounts from bulk buys and an infrastructure that supports the transport of equipment to areas in need of it.
These are far from new ideas: in 1999, writing also for the CER, Tim Garden and John Roper produced a document criticising the ineffectiveness of European forces in the Kosovo conflict, and the need for greater military integration. The two CER reports, twelve years apart, echo many of the same points: a need for closer communication between nations on planned purchases so as not to create an overlap in equipment, a shared military hub with vehicles jointly purchased and jointly maintained by the collective nations, and shared use of costly platforms such as aircraft carriers. It references the, then, planned joint procurement of Eurofighter jets – famous for their eight year delay caused by disagreements between the four investing nations. Yet, despite no continent wide integration policy and previous disappointments from joint ventures, Gates is wrong to suggest European forces are working as independent fragments. The last twenty years has seen steady, though small, moves towards integration: Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands have a shared aerial command; Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia share training facilities and radar stations; France and the UK have announced plans to share aircraft carriers and to train their soldiers to be bilingual; with numerous other examples cited in the CER reports. Gates is correct to criticise the lack of any macro-integration schemes but his speech ignores these micro coalitions that indicate a future of tighter alliances and shared responsibility for the military forces in Europe.