As Europe becomes a modest producer rather than a consumer of security and the US engages in a “strategic pivot” toward the Asia Pacific, the most overlooked security challenge facing the transatlantic community is benign neglect.

 A failure to maintain the institutions that have underwritten transatlantic security for over 60 years represents a silent risk to the human security of the nearly one billion people living in the transatlantic community and to the economic engine that comprises roughly half of the planet’s economic production and well over half its foreign direct investment. As austerity measures limit European governments’ ability to invest in defense and Pentagon budget cuts result in the removal of two of America’s four combat brigades remaining in Europe, neglect of assiduously constructed institutions like NATO risks fraying some of the ties that bind Europe and North America.

There is no getting around the difficult constraints facing security policy makers on both sides of the Atlantic – there are simply fewer resources to invest in defense than we have become accustomed to over the last decade. But a reduction in resources available does not have to mean a reduction in effectiveness. By pooling resources, allies can achieve greater economies of scale and leverage limited capital investment to produce higher returns on that investment. 

NATO Secretary General Rasmussen has articulated the broad outlines of “Smart Defense,” which include the idea of “spending better,” getting a higher return on investment, prioritizing, specializing, and “seeking multinational solutions.” The challenges to pooling defense resources are legion. Perhaps first among them, states must strike a difficult balance between maximizing efficiency and assuring sovereignty. Recent debates in France over the purchase of American Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for purposes of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) highlight this dilemma. The hackneyed model of the US doing the “cooking” and Europe doing the “washing up” is anathema to European states still interested in great power status – and UAVs have come to be seen as crucial tools for the “cooking” side of national security. 

Operation Unified Protector (OUP) over Libya demonstrated both strengths and weaknesses in the transatlantic security community and the functioning of NATO. The use of UAVs has been cited as both, depending on the point of view of the commentator. While European allies, primarily France and Britain, carried a tremendous burden over the duration of the mission, US assets played crucial roles in areas in which European allies did not have appropriate capabilities – for instance in providing ISR and strike capabilities via UAVs throughout the operation. 

A flurry of UAV activity in Europe since the end of OUP suggests that states like the United Kingdom and France find that a capability in this realm to be an important aspect of sovereignty. Some pooling in this area, however, seems to be necessary to maintain capabilities in the face of fiscal austerity. Institutions at both the EU level (such as the EU Satellite Center) and NATO provide the necessary framework for the pooling of ISR assets when necessary – the challenge is maintaining the level of capability that states deem necessary while limiting costs by pooling. The use of UAVs for ISR purposes represents an excellent opportunity to share resources in a way that does not threaten sovereignty: states can maintain possession of the asset while pooling the ISR product (pooling UAV strike capacity presents more of a challenge, of course).

Pooling of ISR capabilities is one way to mitigate the risk of “Smart Defense” becoming a pseudonym for “weak defense.”

Major Jordan Becker, a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Working Group, is an instructor of international relations at the United States Military Academy. These views are his own and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the United States Army, or the Department of Defense.