Cuts in European defense budgets raise concerns for U.S., NATO

The 16-nation euro currency zone is beset by fissures between strong economies such as Germany and weaker ones such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal, which risk being engulfed by historic levels of government debt.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 14, 2011; 11:05 PM

BERLIN - First, Germany announced it would suspend its draft, ending one of the touchstones of its post-World War II society. Then Britain and France, frequent rivals since at least the Norman Conquest, announced plans to share military equipment and research. And smaller countries across Europe are cutting defense budgets and shrinking militaries that were never large to begin with.

European policymakers say the cuts are necessary given their financial straits, and that training, not sheer numbers, is what matters in a post-Cold War world.

But some top officials, including the U.S. defense secretary and the NATO secretary general, worry that the changes could burden the United States by reducing the number of European troops available for NATO missions and other military efforts around the world. NATO's ability to function as a collective defense pact may be hobbled, they say.

The depth of the concerns was on display at a security conference in Munich this month, where instead of talking about Egypt - the situation at the forefront of many American minds - Germany's defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, gave an impassioned speech defending his cuts. The NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, followed by warning that the budget decreases across the continent could have dire consequences.

"If the cuts are too deep, we won't be able to defend the security on which our democratic societies and prosperous economies depend," Rasmussen said. "We risk a Europe increasingly adrift from the United States."

Rasmussen said the cooperation between Britain and France was an example of smart cuts but that he was concerned about the cumulative effects of the fiscal crunch across the continent.

In Germany, where the defense ministry has been asked to cut more than $11 billion from its budget over the next three years, a major part of the proposal is to reduce the size of the armed forces from 240,000 people, most of whom are conscripts, to 180,000 volunteers. Their commitment would be longer, as would their training.

France and Britain plan to share aircraft carriers and nuclear research labs. Sweden eliminated the draft last summer and has reduced the number of recruits it takes in annually by more than half. The Netherlands announced plans in November to cut the number of workers in its Defense Ministry by almost 15 percent. Italy has also unveiled plans to cut military spending.

Some analysts say that without increased coordination among European countries about how to make the reductions, they risk increasing their dependence on the United States for defense.

"I'm afraid when the smoke clears after Afghanistan in a few years and people look at what capabilities they have left, they're going to do less with less," said Daniel Fata, a former U.S. Defense Department official who now works for the consulting firm run by former defense secretary William Cohen.

Fata said he was especially worried that countries such as Greece, Poland and the Baltic states would wind up with little ability to contribute to military ventures outside their borders, such as the joint NATO effort in Afghanistan, and that ultimately they wouldn't be meaningful partners in defense pacts.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has also expressed concern that European decreases would mean a greater reliance on U.S. troops during crises. Last month he announced cuts in projected U.S. military spending of $78 billion over the next five years, itself a major change after years of increases. The budget would instead remain flat.

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