The US Department of Defense is beginning what could well be a long, dismal downward spiral in resources, force structure and capabilities.
The storm clouds that have swirled around the fiscal 2015 defense budget indicate deep reductions to current forces, the truncation of modernization programs and the retirement of entire fleets of aircraft and helicopters. The Army chief of staff has warned that he might be forced to reduce end strength to the point that his service will be too small to support the National Military Strategy.
The US appears to be at the beginning of the path that NATO has trod for more than 20 years. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the alliance took a “peace dividend” out of its defense spending that has yet to halt.
In fairness, this decline was exacerbated by the ongoing fiscal and economic crisis in Europe. On average, defense spending by our European allies is 1.62 percent of gross domestic product, with 20 out of 28 NATO members spending less than this average. The result has been deep, even drastic reductions in force structure and reduced investments in military modernization
Moreover, as the conflict in Afghanistan and the air war over Libya demonstrated, NATO has spent what little money it had relatively poorly, maintaining too much of some capabilities and not acquiring enough of others.
Former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates chided the NATO allies in 2012, remarking that “The non-US NATO members collectively spend more than $300 billion US dollars on defense annually which, if allocated wisely and strategically, could buy a significant amount of usable military capability. Instead, the results are significantly less than the sum of the parts. This has both shortchanged current operations, but also bodes ill for ensuring NATO has the key common alliance capabilities of the future.”
Responding to this crisis, the Smart Defense initiative was proposed by Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in 2011. He called upon NATO allies to pool resources to develop, acquire and maintain jointly operated military capabilities under the banner of Smart Defense.
“Smart Defense is about building security for less money by working together and being more flexible. This requires identifying those areas in which NATO allies need to keep investing ... Smart Defense also means encouraging multinational cooperation,” Rasmussen said.
The Smart Defense initiative has led to some significant multinational programs, including the acquisition of a fleet of aerial refueling tankers and the NATO Airborne Ground Surveillance program, in which 14 NATO countries will acquire, maintain and operate five Global Hawk high-altitude UAVs. Smart Defense also has resulted in a number of projects to pool resources and combine activities in helicopter maintenance, medical support, logistics and intelligence sharing.
There are lessons the US should learn from the European experience. While the most important is that a good defense requires an investment of serious resources, an almost equally important one is the need to spend defense budgets wisely and strategically. The United States must understand the lesson that its NATO allies have learned the hard way: It is no longer possible to go it alone, relying solely on a national defense industrial base. The US must source its military wares globally.
With this in mind, the US should consider spearheading a Trans-Atlantic “Smarter Defense” Initiative. The goal would be two-fold: Build partnership capacity across the alliance by providing greater access to US advanced technologies; and spend scarce defense dollars more wisely by acquiring, where appropriate, European weapon systems and defense products.
Average Americans might be surprised to learn the extent to which the European defense industry already supports the US military. Just consider the Army’s UH-72 Lakota helicopter built by Airbus Helicopters; the power and network systems for both variants of the littoral combat ship that come from Finmeccanica North America; the fuel, crew escape and life support systems aboard all F-35 joint strike fighters provided by BAE Systems; and the new agreement between Rolls-Royce and Lockheed Martin on engines for future C-130J transport planes.
Smarter defense requires leveraging the best of what the United States and the rest of NATO bring to the table. The US is a leader, for example, in such areas as strategic and tactical ISR, UAVs, stealth, electronic warfare, military robotics and special operations gear.
Europe is competitive, at the very least, in precision-guided munitions, military power systems and engines, helicopters , light armored vehicles, communications gear and night-vision equipment.
Why go through a lengthy and expensive acquisition cycle if close allies can provide an 80 percent solution to a requirement? Moreover, the Pentagon can look to European defense companies to help ensure competitions in major acquisition programs. Finally, parts and subsystems coming from Europe have less risk of being counterfeit or substandard than some the US has acquired elsewhere. ■
Daniel Gouré, vice president, The Lexington Institute, Arlington,Va.