From Douglas Barrie, AOL Defense: While the January 2012 strategic guidance – "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership" – cast "most European countries" as "producers of security rather than consumers of it," this was rather at odds with the concerns of former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. His parting assessment of the state of transatlantic defense relations in mid-2012 shortly before he stepped down was "there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress and in the American body politic writ large – to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of (European NATO) nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense. Nations apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets."
There is nothing new in US officials bemoaning the state of European defense expenditure. What is changing is Washington’s strategic outlook. . . .
Irrespective of the tenor of Gates comments and NATO’s "Smart Defense Initiative" there is little chance of Europe really addressing the capability gaps that remained manifest even in the successful intervention in Libya. That the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance program has been heralded as an exemplar of smart defense should perhaps be regarded as a caution against over optimism – the project has taken two decades to come to fruition. This is irrespective of the recognition of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability gap evident in many NATO nations.
The immediacy of economic woes on both sides of the the pond remains a more pressing concern. These continue to impact defense, with associated ramifications for the aerospace industry. The threat of sequestration and the implications for the Pentagon’s defense program continues to cast a long shadow in Washington. For Europe the travails of the common currency, and ensuing doubts over the grand political vision of a unified continent, are placing defense expenditure under relentless pressure. While the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 will provide some respite, the security environment presents numerous other challenges, ones that Europe is presently not equipped fully to deal with.
The pressures on the European defense aerospace industry could also act as a prompt for further industrial consolidation. There remains a possibility that some companies could choose to exit the defense aerospace sector completely. The near-term financial turmoil is also – unfortunately – completed by uncertainty as to a medium term developmental roadmap for the European sector. There is as yet no fully-funded research and development program – manned or unmanned — beyond the present generation of combat aircraft now in production. A Franco-British unmanned combat air vehicle project – an element of the Anglo-French Treaty – presently looks to provide the best hope as the kernel of a broader European effort. The project however, will require political will and strategic intent, the availability of which cannot be guaranteed.
Douglas Barrie is senior fellow for military aerospace at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies. He was London bureau for Aviation Week and, before that, Defense News.