A Yawning Gap on Defense
We Should Care about Europe's Weapons

Richard Perle, the former senior defense official from the Reagan administration who now advises U.S. presidential hopeful George W. Bush, says that the European Union's European Security and Defense Identity (ESDI) "should be nominated to replace U.S.-Canadian relations as the most boring topic on the transatlantic circuit." Mr. Perle is half right. West Europeans have talked about a European pillar within NATO since the founding of the West European Union in 1954. Since the end of the Cold War, Europeans have talked increasingly of the need for the European Union to grow up to geo-strategic adulthood. Kosovo was a painful reminder that Europe is still the alliance's teen-ager. Observes German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, "the Kosovo war showed Europe is still not able to solve its own problems."

So at an Anglo-French summit last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac were hard at work, trying valiantly to improve the situation. The EU needs, as they put it, to "get real practical capability to back up the ideas and initiatives." Of this there is no dispute. The Kosovo war was the tale of two NATOs. The American NATO conducted 80 percent of the operation. The European NATO struggled to keep up. Even the proud French, who argue acerbically against American domination - and who together with the British provided more than half of the aircraft supplied by NATO's other 18 members - managed to fly a scant 8 percent of the sorties. The shortcomings of European aircraft were so severe that NATO planners felt compelled to curtail their missions to avoid unnecessary risks. This helps explain the gloom of NATO's new general secretary, George Robertson. "In Kosovo, we have come face to face with the European future," said Mr. Robertson at the time, "and it is frightening."

So is Europe finally going to muscle up and correct NATO's imbalance? The answer, apparently, is no, and here's where Mr. Perle is right.

In Kosovo, only the United States had enough sophisticated fighters and fighter-bombers to conduct an air campaign that sought to win the war without ground troops. And only the United States had the "stealth" F-117 fighters and B-2 bombers that proved so elusive for Yugoslavia's air defenses. "Most European planes," says Klaus Naumann, the recently retired senior NATO officer, "have to fly more or less over the targets, which is the most stupid thing you can do, since you expose yourself to the enemy air defense." What if NATO had chosen to send in ground troops? Again, only the United States would have had enough air transports to accomplish the job. In sum, without the United States, European military operations, even like the one in the tiny province of nearby Kosovo, remain simply unthinkable.

But the problem of European defense is not hard to understand. ESDI and the like remain a boring conversation so long as Europe concentrates on building institutions, rather than capabilities. Messrs. Blair, Chirac, and everyone else know this.

The United States currently spends 3.2 percent of its GDP on defense. The European allies average 2.1 percent. More important, perhaps, the United States currently dedicates $36 billion a year to the creation of advanced weapons and intelligence gathering systems. Therein lies the future. High precision weapons, low collateral damage, and the risk for allied forces kept to a minimum. In contrast, though, the Europeans spend a total of $10 billion on high-tech weaponry, a portion of which continues to be squandered in non-competitive national projects.

In the end, "defense budgets will have to rise," says Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy spokesman. And there's no sign of this in sight. On the contrary. Is anyone really waiting for a shaky Red-Green coalition in Berlin to spend less on health, education and the environment so that it can spend more on
high-tech weapons? NATO's European members currently spend some 12 times as much on social welfare as they do on defense.

Actually, NATO managed quite well in the past with America doing most of the heavy lifting - despite U.S. gripes and European resentment. The problem, though, is that the Cold War is now long over. The old gripes and resentments show signs of increasing on both sides of the Atlantic. The Europeans, led in part by the French, are being increasingly prickly about American hegemony. And the defense gap between the United States and Europe is growing, rhetoric notwithstanding. That is the interesting part of the conversation about ESDI that Americans and Europeans need to have. The sooner the better.

Jeffrey Gedmin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and executive director of the New Atlantic Initiative.

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