U.S. Army Lt. Col. Carleton Lee receives the report of 40 countries participating in exercise Combined Endeavor

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Carleton Lee receives the report of 40 countries participating in exercise Combined Endeavor U.S. European Command

Pentagon’s Reliance on Europe Is ‘Wishful Thinking’

If the U.S. wants to count on Europe, the Pentagon needs more precise analysis of European forces. By Michael Shurkin and Christopher G. Pernin

The Pentagon’s latest four-year strategy guide, called the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR, is for the most part an admirably sober proposal for meeting current and anticipated defense requirements in light of growing fiscal austerity. The bottom line is that the U.S. military must do more with less, perhaps even a lot less.

One area where it lapses into a bit of wishful thinking, however, is with the expressed desire that the United States better coordinate with its European allies toward the shared objective of strengthening NATO military capability. This is one area that deserves another look.

For political reasons, operating within international coalitions remains desirable. But there needs to be more frank and precise thinking about the kind of support allies are able and willing to provide. Counting on Europeans even just to pull as much weight as they have in the past is an increasingly doubtful proposition. This is particularly true for the high-intensity conventional conflicts that drive U.S. force planning constructs. And while for political reasons operating as part of international coalitions is still desirable, there needs to be more frank and precise thinking with regard to the kind of support allies are able and willing to provide.

For the Pentagon, the overarching goal is to reduce the size of the American military profile in Europe, which helps accommodate the policy objective of rebalancing to the Pacific and meet anticipated budget cuts.

“We have a deep and abiding interest in a European partner that is militarily capable and politically willing to join with the United States to address future security challenges,” the QDR states. Its authors imply that additional planning and coordination will reduce the burden felt by the U.S. forces in meeting the nation’s overall national security needs. It should be noted that the QDR comes on the heels of a broader discussion about the future roles of Army land forces, Marines, and the special operations community, all of which presume ample involvement by partners and allies in collective security.

From a practical standpoint there remains a question: Can the United States assume support from abroad in ways that might reduce its need for some military capabilities, when European allies continue to cut their militaries? Looking just at the armies of the largest and most capable NATO powers who have contributed extensively to U.S. and other international security operations in recent years, some trends emerge. Britain, France, Germany and Italy plan to continue cutting their armies in two important ways. First, they are reducing their armies’ ability to conduct conventional, combined arms maneuver warfare of the sort required for high-intensity conflicts. Second, they are reducing the overall size of their force, and increasingly reducing the number of troops they can deploy and sustain.

(Related: Pentagon’s QDR Proclaims Military Ready To Do It All)

Britain is making the deepest cuts, but France is not far behind. Germany strives to make its force more deployable despite overall size reductions, primarily by cutting more among the heavier units while growing slightly its lighter forces. Italy is now Western Europe’s military giant, although its army’s focus on counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan at the expense of readiness for other kinds of operations has led some to question its range of capabilities.

If there is a bright side, it is that France has proven in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, and the Central African Republic that it is not afraid of getting into a shooting war. France arguably is willing to stand in for Britain in military operations, although France’s own cuts limit its ability to do so. Germany, for its part, has had a particularly difficult time digesting the unexpectedly high level of violence its troops faced in Afghanistan. In sharp contrast to the French, the Germans are highly reluctant to get involved in any actual shooting. Though German leaders have made clear their growing interest in participating in international military operations, particularly in Africa, they prefer to focus on what the German army’s most recent strategy paper defines as “conflict prevention” and “crisis management.” Germany post-Afghanistan will send trainers, medical personnel and logistics elements, but little else.   

As the QDR was being released, the world witnessed Russian military units moving into Crimea. The area is now annexed as part of Russia. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said, "There is not a military option that can be exercised now." It’s not clear what mix of political, military and other pressures could have prevented Russia’s actions or should be applied now. But it is clear that the U.S.’s diminishing presence in Europe in favor of the Pacific poses new challenges, especially at a time when it is weary from more than a decade of war and looking for ways to cut spending. Certainly, building a force while making assumptions about support from abroad – when indicators seem to be implying the opposite – may be too much risk for the U.S. to bear. Will Putin's actions wake America’s European partners from their slumber? 

Michael Shurkin is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation and Christopher Pernin is a senior scientist at RAND and director of the RAND Arroyo Center's Force Development and Technology Program.

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