Over the past decade, European countries have become increasingly involved in military operation – from Iraq to Afghanistan, from counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden to stabilisation missions in western Africa and the bombing campaign over Libya. However, rather than raising defence spending to pay for this increased operational involvement (as the US did, dramatically), European countries decided to pay for these added costs with funds originally allocated to buying and investing in new equipment.
So future European defence capabilities suffered a double whammy this past decade: not only did overall spending decline sharply, but an increasing amount of what remained went to pay for current operations rather than to invest in future capabilities. Not surprisingly, the US spends three times as much as Europe on equipment, four times as much per soldier, and seven times as much on defence research and development. In other words, the gap between European and American capabilities is big, and getting bigger.
Thirty months ago, in his farewell speech in Brussels after serving six years as US secretary of defence, Robert Gates warned Europeans of the “blunt reality … that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress, and in the American body politic writ large, to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources … to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.” Nothing in the past two-and-a-half years would suggest that this blunt reality has changed. If anything, American appetite and patience has continued to decline.
That is why, it is so unfortunate, even if not exactly surprising, that European leaders meeting to discuss defence issues for the first time in more than five years failed to address the real issue of spending more on their own security and defence. In choosing to turn a deaf ear to the real issue of defence resources, European leaders seem once again to assume that their security can be bought on the cheap or paid for by someone else. That may well prove to be a costly – and dangerous – assumption.