Saturday

3rd Dec 2016

US defence chief: Europe may no longer be worth defending

  • Bob Gates allowed himself to be 'blunt' with the Europeans (Photo: SDA)

Under pressure to cut its military spending, the US is losing patience with Europe's unwillingness to pay for its own defence, outgoing US defence minister Robert Gates said Friday (10 June) in an unusually 'blunt' speech in Brussels, casting doubt over the very survival of Nato.

On his last trip to Europe before retiring on 30 June, Gates - who has served as defence minister both in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations - allowed himself "to speak bluntly" during a conference organised by the Security and Defence Agenda, a Brussels-based think tank.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

Looking first at Afghanistan, he noted that the operation got bogged down in national caveats which hampered the range of actions European soldiers were allowed to do - a hint at Germany's restrictions on its troops to use lethal force, which meant that they could not be deployed in combat against the Taliban.

As for troop withdrawal, with the Netherlands suddenly pulling out after a government was forced to resign last year over the Afghan war, Gates said: "We cannot afford to have some troop-contributing nations to pull out their forces on their own timeline in a way that undermines the mission and increases risks to other allies. The way ahead in Afghanistan is 'in together, out together'."

Nato's flagship mission in Afghanistan has also "exposed significant shortcomings" in the military alliance - both concerning capabilities and "political will."

"Despite more than 2 million troops in uniform – not counting the US military – Nato has struggled, at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25,000 to 40,000 troops, not just in boots on the ground, but in crucial support assets such as helicopters, transport aircraft, maintenance, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and much more," Gates said.

When it comes to the more recent mission in Libya, similar shortcomings made it "painfully clear" that they can undermine the success of a campaign that has broad political support, no troops on the ground and is "a mission in Europe's neighbourhood deemed to be in Europe's vital interest."

"While every alliance member voted for the Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission. Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can't. The military capabilities simply aren't there."

He cited lack of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, which make even the most advanced European fighter jets useless. Italy's ambition to run the air campaign from a Naples-based headquarters in fact meant that "mainly US targeting specialists" had to be deployed there "to do the job."

"The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country – yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference."

With more security-consuming European allies than partners able to shoulder the burden in Nato, Gates questioned the very rationale of this alliance, born out of America's willingness to protect Western Europe against a potential Soviet invasion during the Cold War.

"Some two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the US share of Nato defence spending has now risen to more than 75 percent – at a time when politically painful budget and benefit cuts are being considered at home," Gates said.

Frustrated by years of trying to convince European allies to step up their defence spending and upgrade their military capabilities, Gates projected a "dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance": that the US simply stops footing the bill.

"The blunt reality is 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 or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defence."

"Indeed, if current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future US political leaders – those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me – may not consider the return on America's investment in Nato worth the cost," he warned.

Responding to this doomsday scenario, Nato spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said during a press briefing on Friday that this was in line with repeated calls from Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen to improve military spending and make "smart" defence cuts where necessary.

"There is clearly a long-standing concern about the transatlantic gap in defence spending, there is a risk that European allies may even fall behind in terms of technological development. We all know there is an economic and financial crisis going on and when all parts of budgets are being cut, defence budgets cannot be exempt," she said.

Interview

Polish government in bid to defund NGOs

Ruling Law and Justice has promised to overhaul the NGO sector. The move could strain relations with Norway, a major donor to Polish civic life.

Column / Brexit Briefing

Davis brings Brexit back to reality

Brexiteers will be shocked to hear the government is considering slaughtering the sacred cow, offering up contributions to the EU budget in exchange for market access.

News in Brief

  1. Talks on wholesale roaming rules to start
  2. Lead MEP Dieselgate committee: Italy and Slovakia will cooperate
  3. Transparency NGO sues EU commission on Turkey deal
  4. Pro-EU liberal wins UK by-election
  5. Finnish support for Nato drops, Russia-scepticism grows
  6. Cyprus talks to resume in January
  7. Documents from German NSA inquiry released
  8. Transport commissioner 'not aware' of legal action on emissions

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Gaming & Betting AssociationContinues to Grow its Membership and Welcomes its Newest Member Association
  2. ACCASupports the Women of Europe Awards, Celebrating the Women who are Building Europe
  3. European Heart NetworkWhat About our Kids? Protect Children From Unhealthy Food and Drink Marketing
  4. ECR GroupRestoring Trust and Confidence in the European Parliament
  5. UNICEFChild Rights Agencies Call on EU to put Refugee and Migrant Children First
  6. MIRAIA New Vision on Clean Tech: Balancing Energy Efficiency, Climate Change and Costs
  7. World VisionChildren Cannot Wait! 7 Priority Actions to Protect all Refugee and Migrant Children
  8. ANCI LazioRegio-Mob Project Delivers Analysis of Trasport and Mobility in Rome
  9. SDG Watch EuropeCivil Society Disappointed by the Commission's Plans for Sustainable Development Goals
  10. PLATO15 Fully-Funded PhD Positions Open – The Post-Crisis Legitimacy of the EU (PLATO)
  11. Access NowTell the EU Council: Protect our Rights to Privacy and Security
  12. ACCAThe Future of Audit Means Adaption to Today’s Global and Digital World

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Swedish EnterprisesNew Rules for EU Anti-dumping Measures
  2. European Jewish CongressTakes Part in Building Resilient Communities
  3. UNICEFUniversal Children’s Day: UNICEF Calls for Global Action on Child Rights Violations
  4. Counter BalanceThe EU Bank Cannot be a Key Player in Europe's Response to the Plight of Refugees
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsProvides Evidence of Human Rights Violations and International Crimes in Crimea
  6. Dialogue PlatformThe Failed Military Coup in Turkey & The Mass Purges
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Climate Solutions at COP22 in Marrakech
  8. Counter BalanceNGOs Call on Development Finance Institutions to Act Against Tax Avoidance
  9. European Free AllianceTrump Victory and Brexit Show Urgent Need of Improving Democracy
  10. Martens CentreOur Transatlantic 9-11: Europe After Trump
  11. Dialogue PlatformTimmermans Points to Gülen Movement as Coup Plotter But Lacks Proof
  12. APEALSteel for Packaging - The Model Material for a Circular Economy