Europe: pulling its weight in the Gulf? Allies play tactical, political role, dividing up tasks with US Navy

Americans often complain that the allies don't help enough in sharing defense duties. In fact, the ``burden-sharing'' issue has been discussed by United States presidential candidates this election year. However, experts in Britain and France point out that West European navies are performing a high profile role in the waters of the Persian Gulf.

An impressive 32-ship European naval force is deployed in and around the Gulf, and recent violent encounters between the US and Iran have not caused them to leave. On the contrary, defense analysts on both sides of the Channel say the European determination to assist the 27-ship American naval force in the Gulf seems stronger than ever.

``The Gulf experience has been a big plus for Atlantic solidarity,'' says Dominique Moisi of the French Institute of Foreign Relations in Paris. ``The Europeans play a significant tactical and political role, dividing up the tasks with the Americans.''

Minesweeping is the key European military contribution. The European navies lack effective air cover and pack less firepower than does the US force. But the European forces include twice as many mine sweepers, and these vessels are more modern and effective than are their US counterparts. In addition, the Europeans protect their own commercial boats.

European patrols and mine-sweeping operations have been ``a major deterrence to Iranian attacks,'' says James McCoy of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in London. ``Nobody under escort by Western naval ships has been attacked.''

Too, the European presence provides diplomatic cover for the Reagan administration. It has helped convince the Congress and the world that the US is not acting alone and bullying small states in yet another far-off regional conflict, observers say.

``The Americans can go to the Arabs and to Congress, and say, `Look, we're not alone here,''' says Mr. Moisi. ``It's a sign that Europeans will do something to help the Americans.''

Beginning in January, the Gulf situation looked as if it was becoming calmer, and the Europeans began bringing home some of their mine sweepers. Britain, Italy, and Belgium have each brought home one vessel, and the Netherlands is considering a similar move. Naval observers say that there was little for them to do after completing major sweeping operations last December.

But European staying power is strong. IISS naval observers say the European mine-sweeping forces in the Gulf remain sufficient to deal with almost any new mine threat. In fact, Britain's ``Armilla Patrol'' has operated a protection service for British shipping in the Gulf since 1981.

A senior Royal Navy official boasts, ``We were there before the Americans.'' And Britain's commitments in the Gulf, said a senior British official Wednesday, were ``undiminished.'' ``Britain is not one to wilt when the going gets tough.''

A few weeks ago, France even ignored a US suggestion that it was time to lower the Western profile in the region by withdrawing some ships. While negotiating with Iran over French hostages held in Lebanon, the French wanted to make it clear to Tehran's leaders that Paris' overall pro-Iraqi policy in the Middle East would not change.

``This is a sign of our firmness,'' a French diplomat explained. ``As long as there is a risk in the region, the fleet should stay.''

After a US ship was damaged last week by an Iranian mine and the US retaliated by attacking two Iranian oil platforms, the Europeans reemphasized their solidarity in a communique issued in The Hague by the Western European Union, a loose European defense alliance.

The communique affirmed the right of free navigation in the Gulf and called for ``an immediate end to all mining and other hostile activities.'' It stressed that such activities require ships to act in self-defense.

Despite this agreement, some countries with commercial interests and heavy tanker traffic in the region remain aloof.

According to some observers, coordination among the various naval forces should be improved. Each country's Navy operates under its own command and only offers protection for tankers flying its own flag.

The French in particular, operate independently. The British, Dutch, and Belgians coordinate their operations. The French refuse to integrate their 13-ship fleet into any type of intra-European force.

``The Netherlands has been trying for closer cooperation,'' a senior Dutch diplomat said, ``but it's not been possible.''

French diplomats point out that they have different interests than the other Europeans and the Americans. France is a privileged ally of Iraq, its second largest arms seller after the Soviet Union. British commercial interests are stronger in Iran. The US has the largest geopolitical stakes in the region and sees long-term interests with both Iran and Iraq.

``The US has the will to be present in any case,'' one French diplomat explained, ``and we don't want to be implicated in all American actions.''

Bad memories of the multinational force in Lebanon a few years ago haunt the French. In that case, the US pulled out almost overnight, leaving French forces alone and exposed.

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