Libya Highlights Europe’s Defence Weakness

The ability of we Europeans to provide for our own defence has been increasingly in doubt since the end of the cold war. I well remember George Robertson, when he was NATO Secretary General, contrasting the size of Europe’s military forces, running into millions, with the inability of European allies to provide just a few thousand troops for NATO operations.

The Libyan campaign has forced the issue into sharp focus. Last Friday’s speech by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the Security and Defence Agenda meeting in Brussels spelled out the harsh realities of a changing world and warned Europe of the consequences of neglecting its military capabilities.

Gates describes the present situation as “unacceptable” and cites the fact that just 11 weeks after the Libyan operation began – under NATO auspices – some European partners have run out of firepower and have had to ask the Americans for new bombs and rockets. According to him the Italian airbase for operations over Libya can only handle half the sorties for which it is equipped owing to lack of equipment.  It’s symptomatic of a wider failure.

Two major assumptions seem to lie behind Europe’s lack of defence capabilities: the first is the belief that the world has become more benign, and that in this kinder world we need no longer worry about our capacity for military action. The second is that if action is needed then we can always get the Americans to do the dirty work.

Each of the two assumptions is surely wrong. Of course we face different threats from those we faced in the cold war years, many of them unpredictable, but there are always dangers round the corner. For instance we tend to assume that the Arab spring is a surge towards democracy equivalent to Europe’s velvet revolutions. That is indeed an outcome devoutly to be wished, but it is by no means guaranteed. Every Arab country has its own version of the revolution. Just look at the mayhem in Syria, which could have major repercussions across the region.

The US Secretary of State touched on the changing politics which undermine the second assumption. The generation of US politicians whose experience was forged during the cold war has now moved on, to be replaced by political leaders with quite different priorities, impatient of European demands for American involvement and wholly preoccupied by a ballooning budget deficit.  It was striking how indignant some EU leaders were that President Obama refused to take the lead role in Libya. But as Obama has reasonably said, Libya is Europe’s problem.

It is the very unpredictability of international events which make it so difficult for governments to plan defence spending – and to justify it to voters, but as Robert Gates says, it is barmy to spend money on sophisticated fighter aircraft and not provide the armaments they need for active combat, or the electronic capabilities and intelligence resources to direct their operations.

A collapse of trust between allies could even threaten the demise of NATO. As the American global commitment diminishes so Europe has got to do more in both diplomatic and practical ways. The common European Security and Defence Policy should provide the framework and the common will to improve capabilities, but there’s little sign of it doing so. It should also be working much more closely with NATO. But who will provide the political leadership? Regrettably there is not much sign that either Cathy Ashton or national leaders are capable of that.