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

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; A08

BERLIN - First, Germany announced that 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 that 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 this month at a security conference in Munich, 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 that 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.

Defense Secretary Robert M. 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.

In Germany, where decisions about the military are made in the shadow of two world wars, money isn't the only thing at stake - it's about the very identity of the country, which for decades has been cautious about exerting its power.

A passionate debate has taken place about whether to suspend the draft, which was instituted to help normalize Germany after World War II and to bind the military to civilian society in a way that would make it more difficult to engage in any more conquests.

Many conservatives, including those in Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic party, say the draft should be preserved as an essential part of postwar life. But the defense minister, zu Guttenberg, has argued that the draft has outlived its usefulness.

It was suspended at the end of 2010, part of a broader overhaul and cuts package that will make Germany's armed forces more like those of other countries and less unwieldy to use.

At the security conference, zu Guttenberg called the plans "the most fundamental transformation of our armed forces since the launching of the Bundeswehr," or postwar German military, in 1956.

Leaders across Europe, he said, were struggling to decide how to keep their countries safe within the context of the tough economy.

The West German military was organized to repel a Soviet invasion along the 866-mile-long border of the Iron Curtain, and small barracks still stud tiny towns across the country. For a generation of military leaders that came of age during deployments in the Balkans and Afghanistan, the design is increasingly seen as outmoded.

"There's a huge attitudinal shift in this country" toward normalizing relations toward the military, said Constanze Stellzenmueller, a Berlin-based security expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank. "No longer are people snarky about it." Instead, she said, they're increasingly pragmatic.

"Nobody needs 27 air forces and 27 navies," she said, referring to the number of countries in the European Union. "We're all broke."

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