Top Pentagon Official: European Governments to Spend More on Defense, U.S. to Take a Supporting Role

The future of U.S-Europe defense cooperation is taking shape, after a top Pentagon official has confirmed that the U.S will be expecting European militaries to bear more of the defense burden in future.

As reported by news outlet DefenceReport in January, with indications that American forces will act as a supporting — not lead — role in the new relationship, this is clearly designed to spur European governments into action on defense spending. It could also be a healthy re-balance of an increasingly lop-sided military alliance.

In a speech to assembled delegates at the annual conference of the European Defence Agency (EDA), Alexander Vershbow, the Department of Defense’s assistant secretary for international security affairs, discussed the future role of U.S forces in Europe.

The Pentagon official was clear to underline the Obama administration’s announcement of a “Pacific Pivot” in U.S defense policy — and the planned withdrawal of 7,000 permanently based U.S troops from Germany within the year — should be seen as a call for “recognition that we expect partners to bear more of the global security burden.”

However, the U.S does not intend to disengage entirely. Instead, the official foresees an increase in training and support functions by the remaining U.S forces in Europe. He even floated the idea of a combined U.S.-EU air-to-air refuelling tanker fleet — a military capability Europe lacks in any great number.

The point of this shift is to increase the deployability of European forces, so that they can be better prepared to operate alongside U.S troops in future operations in the style of Libya. “We want to focus on deployment in operations as the key metric of our engagement, not the number of U.S troops permanently on European soil,” Verschbow explained. 

Indeed, though left unspoken on the day, the official’s comments clearly intend to mirror those of ex-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who issued a stinging assessment of European military inadequacy during bombing operations over Libya in 2011.

However, Verschbow was clear that without an increase in allied defense capacity soon, the U.S will find it hard to continue justifying its expenditure in support of European allies. “NATO will only be able to sustain public support within the U.S. if the burdens are shared more evenly — the previous trends were not healthy.”

One does not need to look far to see which trends the official is referring too. Recent EDA figures have confirmed that at $263 billion a year, total European defense spending has never been lower. Today, the distribution of total spending between the U.S and European allies stands at 3-1. Unhealthy, indeed.

The obvious question is, can Europe match this challenge? Other speakers here at the EDA were confident that by pooling and sharing military resources, Europe can increase overall defense capacity. A round of military programs announced in late 2011 would support this claim.

Others were keen to point out that EU peacekeeping operations in the Balkans and counter-piracy off the coast of Somalia prove that Europe still has a valid security role alongside the U.S. Such support is worthy of praise, but many U.S officials may question its grand strategic influence.

Also, bolstering defense capabilities such as air-to-air refuelling or drones takes time. For now, the U.S seems content to lend a helping hand, and a little re-assurance, to their European allies. But with rising tension over Iran and the need for steep defense cuts in the coming years, U.S military planners are in need of truly capable allies to support their foreign policy.

Europe thus has its work cut out to transform itself once more into America’s premier defense partner, and the clock is ticking.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As reported by news outlet DefenceReport in January, with indications that American forces will act as a supporting — not lead — role in the new relationship, this is clearly designed to spur European governments into action on defense spending. It could also be a healthy re-balance of an increasingly lop-sided military alliance.