Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.
The US defence budget seems set to fall as Washington begins to restore order in its finances. Spending on the military has reached such heights – $700 billion, or 20 per cent of the US federal budget – that it has become too large for deficit-cutters to ignore. Even traditionally pro-defence Republicans now argue that military expenditures need to be reduced along with other government expenses. Europe, too, will feel the pinch: many of the American soldiers currently based on the continent seem certain to go, and some joint weapons programmes will be cancelled. In case of future crises in Europe, NATO’s and the EU’s ability to respond will be tested. The US will expect Europe to lead but European allies themselves have been reducing forces and budgets.
Congress is poised to cut the White House’s request for defence for the fiscal year (FY) 2011 by $15-$20 billion. That might seem low relative to the $700 billion total but of that amount roughly $160 billion is set aside for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will decrease as those conflicts wind down. And much of the remaining money is tied up in non-discretionary spending such as pensions and healthcare for military personnel (the latter alone costs the Pentagon over $50 billion a year). The brunt of the cuts in FY 2011 will therefore fall on the pool of $200-$300 billion that pays for purchases of new equipment, foreign military assistance, overseas bases and non-core military operations. Money spent abroad will be particularly vulnerable to cuts – more and more Americans say that the US government should look after its own rather than, say, wealthy Europeans (all foreign aid is in for big reductions).
The effect of US defence budget cuts on Europe will be five-fold. First, some of the 80,000 US soldiers left in Europe as assurance to NATO allies will most probably leave; Gates said in January 2011 that “it is clear that we have excess force structure in Europe”. The Balts and others in Europe who continue to fear possible trouble with Russia will wonder whether the US has enough forces ready to defend them. But their unease will be tempered by the many military exercises that the US held in the region last year. In 2010, Washington also successfully lobbied the rest of NATO to draft a defence plan for the Baltic. This was done in order to re-affirm US intent to uphold the alliance’s mutual defence pledge, and it seems to have worked: judging by mood at events such as this month’s GLOBSEC conference in Bratislava, the Balts and other Central Europeans are more at ease with Obama. Besides, as Stephen Flanagan of CSIS, a Washington think-tank, points out, “the 50,000 troops that will stay in Europe would be more than double the US ground presence in South Korea, where there is daily risk of imminent war.” Many of the new allies have been busy cutting defence budget themselves: they say that the fiscal crisis leaves them no choice, but the cuts also suggest that they feel little imminent threat from the East. This will make Washington less reticent about withdrawing troops from Europe.
Second, the military assistance that the US provides to help allies to modernise and re-arm will continue to fall. In the past decade, the US generously funded equipment purchases in Europe, with most money going to the new allies. Low-interest US loans allowed Poland to buy F-16 fighter jets, while Romania purchased C-130 cargo planes with US aid. But in recent years, assistance to countries such as Egypt or Pakistan has taken priority – of the $5.4 billion in ‘foreign military financing’, which the US set aside for 2011, $4.7 billion will go to Middle East and North Africa. The proportion of the aid going to wealthier and less strategic European countries will be slashed further when, as expected, the overall volume of military assistance falls. In the past, US defence companies would have had a decent shot at thwarting cuts in such assistance: they tend to be its main beneficiaries as most of the money ends up with them in the form of procurement orders. But the mood in the US is changing: Republicans in particular argue that the US government should not be in the business of funding new jobs, and that the best job-creation strategy lies in cutting expenses, thus restoring order in the federal budget. Should military assistance to Europe be slashed, as seems likely, programmes such as Romania’s planned purchase of F-16 fighter jets that are financed with US monies would likely be postponed or cancelled. With defence budgets falling in virtually all NATO countries, there is little hope that European allies would pick up the slack.
Third, US personnel on operations in Europe – in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Kosovo – will likely be reduced or withdrawn altogether. Because their numbers are low to begin with, the short-term impact will be minimal. Only 20 US soldiers remain in Bosnia in a force that once counted 20,000 American troops. The US has about 800 soldiers left in Kosovo, where the overall NATO force is being reduced from 14,000 to 2,500. Should a new crisis break out in the Balkans, the Pentagon will be able to send more soldiers from bases elsewhere in Europe (primarily Germany). But this reserve force too is being reduced. The downsized Pentagon will be far less willing than in the 1990s to lead military operations in Europe. In the future, Washington will look to its allies to assume main responsibility for dealing with the Balkans and other crises on Europe’s periphery. The defense department’s resistance to a no-fly zone in Libya could be a sign of things to come.
Fourth, those European companies that do business in the US will lose some of their orders – but so will their US competitors. Signs of renewed protectionism have been few so far. While the Pentagon recently chose Boeing over a Franco-German consortium EADS to build a new generation of tanker aircraft, “this is mainly because Boeing’s planes were $2 billion cheaper”, says Andrew Koch, an analyst with Scribe Strategies and Advisors, a Washington consultancy. The European companies have worked hard to erase their US competitors’ advantage: the likes of BAE Systems and EADS pledge to build equipment in the US using American workers, so they are likely to have as many members of Congress on their side as their US counterparts. While competition for US defence contracts will toughen, European companies are not necessarily losing ground to US ones.
Fifth, the future of new weapons funded jointly by the US and its allies is in doubt. Already, the Pentagon has announced that it was pulling out of a US-German-Italian project to build a new generation of medium-range missile defences. This is in large part because the project, MEADS, has suffered technical problems. But the Pentagon, in announcing the decision, also cited financial constraints as a factor. The more the US cuts defence spending, the higher the risk that NATO’s own flagship, continent-wide missile umbrella could be at risk. Announced in November 2010, the system envisions combining future US radars and missiles to be stationed mainly in Central Europe with yet-to-be-developed European sensors and interceptors. But few European governments have come forward pledging money for it. It is not obvious why the US Congress would fund a programme to defend European mainland, which the Europeans themselves are unwilling to support.
Politically, cuts in US defence spending are sure to rankle in Europe. A setback to NATO’s missile defences could be particularly divisive, with new allies lamenting a chance to host US military bases, and with NATO losing one of its key initiatives, which it also has been hoping to use to entice Russia into a closer relationship. The effect of US reductions will be compounded by cuts to military spending in Europe: there is a risk that reductions on one side of the Atlantic will be used to justify corresponding cuts across the sea. NATO remains the most powerful military block in the world but it will lose some of its ability to handle multiple crises simultaneously.
The main challenge for US and European defence communities for the next few years will be to keep NATO’s mutual defence pledge credible: this will require allies to prioritise missions and to hone their ability to diffuse crises before they require deployment of large forces. Even if no such crises occur, the Americans and Europeans will be busy managing the political fallout from cancelled procurement programmes and reduced operations. To minimise damage, the Pentagon should keep allies apprised of its cost-cutting measures. For their part, the Europeans need to co-ordinate better their own reductions in defence budgets, so as to make sure that enough money and resources are left to cover any shortfalls that US cuts will create.