During one of his first public appearances since becoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey cited civil unrest in the Eurozone and US exposure to contracts involving partners in Europe as the main threats to America emanating from European economic instability.  While these issues merit attention, the Defense Department’s primary concern should be that America’s most capable, most likely coalition partners may not have the wherewithal to stand side by side with US troops in the next armed conflict, wherever it may occur.   

Vital to addressing this potential challenge is the need to redirect security cooperation resources—particularly for training and exercises— toward maintaining interoperability with those key partners. In Afghanistan today, the vast majority of the 40,000 non-US troops on the ground—over 37,600, or roughly 94 percent—come from America’s allies and partners in Europe.  The largest European contributors—Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Poland, Romania, Turkey, and Spain— are also NATO allies.  

The United States has relied on its European allies to shoulder their share of the collective defense burden in many military operations over the last two decades, including the war and ensuing peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, the NATO Training Mission in Iraq, the counter-terrorism operation Active Endeavor in the Mediterranean, the counter-piracy operation Ocean Shield off the Horn of Africa, and most recently Operation Unified Protector in Libya.  In each of these, America’s European allies provided significant operational contributions that prevented Washington from having to deploy more troops of its own. Former House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton was fond of highlighting the American success rate—which by his measure was near zero percent—over the last 40 years in predicting where the next armed conflict would occur. The only certainty, noted Skelton, was that there would undoubtedly be another conflict that would demand the application of skilled military force.  Unfortunately, and despite our collective exhaustion following the end of the war in Iraq and a decade of war in Afghanistan, this remains no less true today and into the future. Regardless where that next conflict occurs, odds are that the coalition soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen that take the airfield, patrol the shoreline, hit the beach, or fly close air support missions side by side with American counterparts will come from Europe, not Asia, Latin America, or Africa.  Certainly today there is Afghan war weariness in Europe, as there is in the United States, and Washington has frequently struggled to convince its allies to contribute sufficient forces to the fight there.  But the belief of some who argue that the respective strategic outlooks of Americans and Europeans have only diverged steadily since the end of the Cold War is simply inaccurate.  In fact, the available data point to a continuing convergence in transatlantic perspectives when it comes to security issues.  

The most recent Transatlantic Trends report released by the German Marshall Fund of the United States shows striking similarities in the percentages of the public on both sides of the Atlantic that view NATO as “essential” for their country’s security (62 percent), want to maintain or increase defense spending in their countries (63 percent), and are concerned about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons (75 percent).  Even on support for the use of force to prevent a nuclear Iran, Europeans and Americans differed by only seven percentage points (47 to 54). Just as European allies are America’s most likely future coalition partners, they are also the most capable.  Aside from Canada (a NATO founding member) or Australia (a NATO Contract Country and Iraq and Afghanistan coalition partner), Washington finds its most skilled potential coalition partners not in East Asia or South America, but in Europe.  However, as those same European allies cut their defense budgets in the name of broad fiscal discipline, there is great potential for the part of their budgets devoted to military training and operations to come under extraordinary pressure.  Certainly procurement and personnel budgets will face cuts as well—as press reports have already made clear.  But buying military hardware, and to a lesser degree maintaining a certain military personnel level, means jobs—and across most of Europe, as in America, slow jobs growth is a formidable political and economic challenge. The result is that budgetary resources for training, exercises, and current operations—critical building blocks of interoperability—are coming under increasingly unbearable pressure, jeopardizing the ability of America’s closest allies to work seamlessly alongside US troops from Day 1 of a conflict.  Without allies that can operate side-by-side with American troops in projecting force across time and distance, Washington risks the prospect of fighting the next conflict unilaterally.  Therefore, when conceptualizing how the European economic crisis might impact American security—and more importantly, what steps the United States can take in response—the Pentagon needs to focus more on how it will maintain interoperability with its most likely, most capable future coalition partners in an era of defense austerity.

Obviously, spending more money isn’t the answer; it simply isn’t possible.  What we can do though is more effectively spend what we have, particularly when it comes to theater security cooperation (TSC). American defense strategy is fairly clear about the need for allies that are full spectrum, or nearly so; that can project force across time and distance; and that are innovative and adaptive. The allies/partners that most closely fit the bill are the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands.  DoD ought to aim more of its TSC resources in their direction in terms of training, exercises, and unit exchanges. This is our best hedge against an uncertain international environment, even during an era when defense budgets are being cut on both sides of the Atlantic.

John R. Deni is a Research Professor of National Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute. The views expressed are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.