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US Military Outpaces Its NATO Peers

Biggest threat to alliance may be gap between armed forces of Europe and US.

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Although there have long been disparities in capabilities, the extent of the gap first became apparent in the 1991 Gulf War, when the allies were shown to be deficient in a wide range of areas. These included transport, logistics, and advanced technologies used to track troops and enhance the accuracy of warheads.

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The NATO-led peace operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina has further highlighted the gap. US logistics, communications, intelligence, and surveillance capabilities have been key factors in the success of the 30,000-strong coalition of troops from the alliance and 20 other nations.

Experts cite a number of reasons for the breadth of the disparities.

The US and its NATO partners have all been cutting military budgets, with the latter's combined spending at about 70 percent of the Pentagon's annual $250 billion.

But the US has been more aggressive in trying to harness revolutionary innovations in software, communications, sensor, and materials technologies to compensate for its manpower and equipment reductions. The Pentagon's fiscal 1996 research and development budget of $33.6 billion was three times the combined research and development spending of the European allies.

The Pentagon strategy of being able to fight two near-simultaneous wars in Asia and the Middle East is being hampered by huge cuts in American overseas deployments. As a result, the Pentagon is building up its ability to rapidly mount operations far from US mainland.

European governments must also contend with political priorities and pressures that have played havoc with some of their most innovative programs, such as the Eurofighter 2000, a combat jet program that began in 1983 but has yet to go into production.

A more critical issue, experts say, is the European allies' failure to pursue the kind of wholesale restructuring of their defense industries that has been taking place in the US since the end of the cold war.

The huge American defense-industry mergers have concentrated in a few mammoth firms individual units that can bring a range of specialties - engineering, electronics, software design - to a single project. That produces efficiencies and innovation.

European firms, however, have yet to undergo such transformations. Furthermore, they still restrict most of their sales to their own militaries. The result is a lack of competition, resources, and innovation.

"The ability of European countries to be engaged in high technology, to be able to have defense industries that carry on in the technological base and in jobs, is going to be a critical part of maintaining the strength of the alliance," asserts Ambassador Hunter.

Reaching across borders

Robin Niblett, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that to boost innovation, European defense firms must begin cross-border mergers that unite wide ranges of capabilities. Furthermore, they must expand their markets.

"This divergence is really blasting open on a strategic level. It's not just the case of a few technologies not blasting off," says Mr. Niblett. "You are left with a bunch of separate [European] armed forces with separate requirements and different visions of what they need. In the meantime, the US keeps marching on."