Britain's secretary of defense warned Thursday that NATO needs to "do things differently" after last year's intervention in Libya laid bare how imbalanced support for the alliance is among its member nations – due in large part to Europe's financial crisis.
The plea by British Secretary of Defense Philip Hammond for European nations to take on more responsibility for security in their "own backyard" follows the sharp rebuke that the outgoing US Defense secretary, Bob Gates, delivered to NATO members in June, saying that the alliance faces “collective military irrelevance” after years of declining spending by most members.
“With the United States reflecting, in its strategic posture, the growing importance of the developing strategic challenge in the Pacific, the nations of Europe must find the political will to take on more responsibility for our own backyard, and fund the capabilities that allow us to do that," Mr. Hammond told a London conference on air power, organized by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank.
However, the pressure on the military budgets of a number of cash-strapped European states is not the only factor overshadowing moves to make NATO less reliant on US muscle. Question marks remain about the commitment to defense of the six-and-a-half-month-old Socialist government of France. France, along with Britain, accounts for half of Europe's defense budget and military capacity as well as two-thirds of its military research and development.
Benoit Gomis, a researcher at the London’s Chatham House think tank who is familiar with Franco-British defense and security cooperation, says that Britain and France are trying to respond to US calls for Europe to “pull its weight,” citing joint defense treaties signed by the two states in 2010 and, recently, a joint program to build drones.
But he adds: “Under the previous French government of Nicolas Sarkozy, it was clear that there was clear political push for both countries to continue with such initiatives.”
“Now, it’s less clear what Francois Hollande will do, although the French have said that they are keen to extend the defense partnership. There has been reassurance but it’s still unclear what that will look like in practice.”
Mr. Gomis stresses the importance of a French report on defense and security that is due to be published next year. Until then, French defense spending is in something of a holding pattern.
Lessons from Libya
Britain and France took the lead, at least initially, in the Libyan intervention. However, the operation also highlighted the dependence of the Europeans on the US when it came to targeting, intelligence, jamming, and air-to-air refueling.
In his June speech in Brussels ahead of his retirement, Secretary Gates warned Europeans not to take US support for granted and noted that, while all NATO members voted for the Libya mission, less than half participated.
At that time the mission was just 11 weeks old, and yet NATO – which Gates described as the "mightiest military alliance in history" – was beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US to do more.
Speaking at the conference, Hammond said Europeans should be prepared to shoulder not just the major burden in the Balkans and the Mediterranean, “but also [be] prepared, if necessary, to take a bigger role in relation to North Africa and the Middle East.”
"The bottom line is that Europe, as a whole, needs to do more, at a time when the reality is that, across the continent, aggregate defense expenditure is certain to fall in the short term and, at best, recover slowly in the medium term,” he added.
"So the challenge is stark: If we can't spend more, we must do things differently – maximizing the capability we can collectively squeeze out of the resources we have, increasing interoperability, closing capability gaps through joint working and greater specialization."
Debate over Trident
Domestically, Hammond is fresh from a political scrape this week that underlined the challenges of balancing defense spending in an era of austerity.
Tensions within the coalition government over the future of the country’s nuclear deterrent flared up Tuesday as Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, warned Hammond over "jumping the gun" when Hammond, during a visit to a Scottish naval base, announced a £350 million ($565 million) investment toward a new generation of British nuclear-armed Trident submarines.
Mr. Clegg and his party criticized Hammond for appearing to be committing to full renewal of the current deterrent without considering any alternatives – something which was explicitly called for in the coalition agreement that established the governing partnership of the Lib Dems and the larger Conservative party. The agreement set out plans for a Lib Dem-led government study into potentially cheaper alternatives, such as dropping bombs from an aircraft. The announcement by Hammond, a Conservative, seems to circumvent those plans.
“We need, as a country, to have a considered, facts-based debate about what kind of deterrent we need in the future, what kind of deterrent we can afford in the future,” said Clegg, who is also the deputy prime minister.
The government is due to make a final decision in 2016.