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Europe's calculating defence

In national defence, Europe is still, or again, relying excessively on the military capabilities of the United States.

The prime focus of the Chicago NATO Summit ties in with its venue on the territory of NATO's most powerful Ally - the United States. What role will America play in Europe in the next 10-15 years and what will be their joint contribution in the global arena? A positive role requires that both parties agree to harness sufficient political will and resources for cooperation. While large numbers of NATO member states are slashing their defence expenditures, the most rigorous cost cutting efforts are concentrated in Europe. The U.S. basic expenditure level is adequate to allow some budget reductions without directly affecting the military capabilities of the United States and NATO, although admittedly it curbs the political will of U.S. politicians to invest in Europe's defence. People in Washington are asking themselves why they should invest in joint defence between the United States and Europe if the Europeans refuse to do so. To alleviate the situation, NATO Secretary General Rasmussen has tabled a package of 'smart defence' initiatives, which will be discussed in Chicago.

Washington has expressed its concerns both privately and publicly. Previous U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated in his valedictory speech, delivered at the SDA think-tank in Brussels, that during the Cold War U.S. defence investments made up roughly 50 percent of all NATO military spending. Let us not forget that back then it was imperative to pursue massive armament programmes, which could easily be pushed through Congress. Gates added: "But some two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. share of NATO defense spending has now risen to more than 75 percent - at a time when politically painful budget and benefit cuts are being considered at home." He warns us that this attitude could undermine NATO in the long term: "Indeed, if current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders - those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me - may not consider the return on America's investment in NATO worth the cost."1

Who will pay?

Gates's speech aroused widespread indignation in Europe at the time, but unfortunately the process of decline he described has only intensified. U.S. defence expenditure in 2011 made up a significant 4.85% of its GDP. In Europe, there are only two countries that invest more than two percent in defence: Great Britain and Greece (both are planning cuts). France, Poland, Turkey and Estonia hover around, or slightly below, the two percent mark. As a state that stuck to reasonable defence expenditures despite the dire economic situation, we are a role model for other Allies. While it is clear that Estonia alone cannot reverse the general trend, the fulfilment of our duties extends us the moral right to criticise Europe's overall defence expenditures (which I am exercising in this article).

National defence budgets in some European countries are shockingly small: around one percent in 2011 and significantly less than that in 2012. The defence expenditures of Europe as a whole also give serious cause for alarm (in 2011, the North American section of NATO invested 4.5% of their joint GDP in defence, while Europe's joint investment was 1.6%). Obviously, all this stems from economic difficulties, but increasingly also from the perception that future military op-erations will be less aggressive and will require fewer resources than past conflicts. In reality, human casualties and army deployment have occurred in conflict situations only in Afghanistan - in a war that no one wants to relive. Air wars in Kosovo and in Libya were completed without a single fatality on NATO's side; the same applied to the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. In addition, NATO personnel and equipment have not been damaged in the course of Operation Active Endeavour against terrorism or Operation Ocean Shield to combat piracy. The quite vague notion of the end of the Cold War provides the primary intellectual justification for new cuts. True, NATO's Strategic Concept reads as follows: "Today, the Euro-Atlantic area is at peace and the threat of a conventional attack against NATO territory is low." Still, it is added with foresight in the next paragraph that "the conventional threat cannot be ignored."2

It was already during the debates on the Strategic Concept that I highlighted the illusion-ary character of the absence of conventional threats. For a moment, let us leave aside big power confrontation and concentrate on potential scenarios of the actual operations that have been completed. If Milosevic had not surrendered, the need to deploy land forces would eventually have arisen. If the Northern Alliance had not been willing to fight the Taliban, NATO would have had to take on the task. Arguments like that justified the inclusion of some quite reasonable formulations in the text of the Strategic Concept, but sadly many European nations have refrained from upholding them. Let me state right away that the following countries are just examples; I do not wish to cast aspersions on any of them. During the Cold War, the Netherlands Corps defended a strategically crucial section - the upper part of the northern flank - including access to the Danish Straits of strategic significance. Today, the Dutch have decided to liquidate their entire armour capability. The Netherlands' two tank battalions, equipped with German Leopard 2s, are to be scrapped and the tanks sold. The Dutch will have no armour capability. The cutbacks will also reduce the number of fighter jets and minesweepers and will eliminate 12,000 of the armed forces' 59,000 personnel.3

NATO includes four military great powers, of which Great Britain has embarked on the most radical force slashing. Drastic cuts will be implemented in almost all branches of the armed forces; in heavy armour, around 40 percent of all tanks and heavy artillery will be reduced. British units intended to protect Europe will be withdrawn from Germany where 20,000 service personnel are currently stationed - the withdrawal will be complete by 2020.4

For years, there has been talk about a gap between the military capabilities of the United States and Europe, which is usually taken to mean modern technology, for example, precision-guided weaponry. Ultramodern weaponry renders warfare safer for NATO personnel and reduces civilian casualties. For example, Tomahawk missiles, launched from ships a couple of hundred kilometres away and guided by GPS, show an 85% accuracy rate. Today, aircraft are also equipped with precision-guided munitions which enabled the targeting only of Gaddafi soldiers in Libya, where the operation's key objective was to retain local support, and to do so with such surreal accuracy that there were almost no fully verified reports of civilian casualties afterwards. Warfare is expensive, but 'safe' for the United States - and Europe has serious difficulties in keeping up with it.

However, the examples of the Netherlands and Great Britain have highlighted another emerging out-of-balance category of capabilities which in NATO parlance are referred to as 'high-end' or heavy armour capabilities, meant for land war, including territorial defence. Inevitably, this situation increases the U.S. role in defending Europe and places under question the broader defence doctrine of flexible response developed by U.S. Defence Secretary McNamara in the late 1960s. NATO has followed this doctrine to the present day, including, albeit without explicitly saying so, in the new Strategic Concept. NATO has to have at its disposal a sufficiently wide range of forces to retaliate against every attack in the most effective manner, thereby guaranteeing credible deterrence.

NATO is feverishly working to compensate for emerging capability gaps through joint action, which is why Rasmussen's smart defence initiatives got a strong positive reception in political circles. We are often faced with inevitable choices, for example, the smart defence project for air policing in the Baltic states is inevitable because the Baltic states cannot afford to buy the aircraft themselves. While initiatives, such as the joint Anglo-French project for the exploitation of the aircraft carrier de Gaulle, will help the Brits to survive the ten years which they will spend without their own aircraft carrier due to austerity measures.

It is more difficult to develop real joint capabilities, for example, the Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) with C-17 transport aircraft or the Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system with Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles. These initiatives are built on the notion that common efforts make it possible to enhance military capabilities economically. Still, the United States is the key participant in the initiatives, meaning that without its financial contribution these systems would not exist. But most importantly, the gaps that have appeared as a result of cost cutting can be filled with 'smart defence' only to the minimum extent, which is far from making a real difference. Even smart defence requires resources. It does not matter how smart your moves are, you still cannot produce something from nothing.

The United States continues to be indispensable

The perception that 'after all, the Cold War is over' puts Europe's capability of sharing an equal burden in major operations with U.S. conventional forces at serious risk. So, Europe's economising defence is not the 'smart defence' the NATO Secretary General aspires to, but rather a 'calculating defence'. The Europeans are implicitly counting on the United States as they calculate that NATO's total capabilities will not be reduced - only that the burden of costs will be re-allocated amongst its members. The United States can meet all the needs many times over. Let us not forget that U.S. military spending accounted for 41 percent of the world total in 2011, followed by China with 8.2 percent, Russia with 4.1 percent and the UK and France with 3.6 percent each.5 If we add the expenditures of other NATO member states to that of the United States, then their potential opponents are left with meagre resources. In addition, it should be kept in mind that the opponents do not form a united bloc like NATO, which is why their resources cannot be aggregated in a similar manner.

The U.S. defence budget totals around one trillion dollars. The country can go to war anywhere on this planet; it commands a total of 11 carrier battle groups. Non-NATO countries hold only five aircraft carriers between themselves - India, China, Russia, Brazil and Thailand each have one. Or another example: 100 Tomahawk missiles were launched during the first night of the operation in Libya - 90 by the United States, 10 by others. The average cost of one missile is 1.4 million dollars, so the United States must have blown up around 126 million dollars in a few hours. As stated earlier, the United States is also reducing its armed forces, but the cuts - even if they are large - are insignificant in their effect on global power relations.

When will Washington lose interest?

Europe's defence cuts will considerably increase the political role of the United States, which is why it is also in Estonia's interest to concentrate on this relationship as much as possible. The importance attached to the U.S. role by those who are actually dramatically slashing their defence budgets was demonstrated by the wave of anxiety that swept across Europe when the U.S. president began to shift his focus from the classic priorities of the United States to the Pacific region. President Barack Obama said in a speech to the Australian Parliament in November 2011: "As President, I have, therefore, made a deliberate and strategic decision - as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends."6 As proof of the new strategic focus, President Obama announced the establishment of a new military base in Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory, which is surely the only U.S. military base set up after the Cold War, with the exception of the temporary bases established during the operations in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Admittedly, U.S. officials have stressed in their explanations that this was not a re-orientation - the Pacific region had simply been neglected for too long (the United States also being a Pacific nation). U.S. forces in Europe continue to form the largest contingent of the United States outside its territory; the European Union is the biggest trade partner for the United States; we share the same values. But it is also a fact that since President Bush, the Americans have not sought a protege in Europe, but a partner who could contribute to military cooperation with the United States on an equal, or at least a meaningful, basis. Europe too harboured the same ambition, which was reflected in its desire to possess an independent defence capability for use in the framework of both NATO and the European Union. The reality today is that this grand plan is quietly falling through and the United States must increasingly take on the familiar role from the Cold War era of Europe's protector.


1 "The Security and Defense Agenda (Future of NATO)," a speech by Robert Gates delivered on June 10, 2011,

2 NATO Strategic Concept, adopted at the Lisbon Summit in 2010,

3 Matt Steinglass, "Dutch Tank Crews Take Aim at Cutbacks," Financial Times, April 29, 2011,

4 Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review, October 2010, HM Government,

5 "Recent Trends in Military Expenditure", SIPRI, 2011,

6 "Remarks by President Obama to the Australian Parliament," November 17, 2011,

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