LONDON (Reuters) - The European Union might appear a military superpower, at least on paper. It has more uniformed personnel than the United States and overall EU defense spending outstrips Russia or China.
But as Washington pulls troops back from the continent, two decades after the Cold War ended, and refocuses on Asia, the cash-strapped nations of Europe face uncomfortable truths over just how paltry their real military capabilities have become.
NATO’s war in Libya last year was trumpeted as Europe starting to take responsibility for its own backyard, with Britain and France calling the shots while Washington “led from behind.” In reality, the campaign was heavily dependent on U.S. military, technical, intelligence and logistical support - the Europeans could not even supply enough of their own munitions.
According to one security source, of more than 100 cruise missiles fired during the opening days of the campaign, only two were European, and even those were built in the United States -Tomahawks, fired from a British nuclear submarine.
For strategists in Washington focused on the need to cut some half a trillion dollars from their defense budget, Europe offers few threats and even fewer opportunities. This much has become clear in last week’s announced U.S. strategy shift.
While several European states provided at least a token military presence in support of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, they would be able to offer much less in the way of useful capabilities in any stand-off with China, Iran or North Korea.
In what some are calling the “Asian century,” even the “special relationship” between the United States and its 20th-century Atlantic ally Britain looks much less relevant.
“The new U.S. strategy underlines the growing divergence between European and American strategic interests,” said Nick Witney, a former head of the European Defense Agency and now a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“Europe is going to have to grow up and learn to take responsibility for its own security, without Uncle Sam to prod and cajole - or, more likely, decline into a strategic backwater... Switzerland writ large”
The U.S. pullback from Europe, of course, is not new. During the Cold War, Washington kept some 400,000 troops in Europe, facing off against the Soviet Union. Only some 80,000 remain and some analysts see that being halved again in the coming years.
Those U.S. bases likely to remain open in Europe - such as the giant air force facility at Ramstein in southwestern Germany or the major signals listening post at Menwith Hill in northern England - will be those most useful to Washington for global operations further afield, particularly in the Middle East.
“It’s not as if the lights are going to go out completely on the U.S. presence in Europe,” said Charles Kupchan, director for European affairs at Bill Clinton’s National Security Council and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But, he added: “The overall message is that Europe is going to need to start taking more care of its own defense, that they won’t be able to call on the U.S. in the same way as the past.”
The prospect of Europe making up the gap, however, seems remote to many.
According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, total defense spending across Europe fell by 2.8 percent in 2010 as the financial crisis began to bite. A similar fall is expected to be recorded for 2011.
But Europe’s defense weakness is clearly not just a matter of money or even personnel.
France, Britain, Germany and Italy remain in the top 10 global defense spenders. Total estimates of European Union defense and security spending vary between $200 and 300 billion, depending on what is included. That might be well under half that of the United States, but by some assessments it still outstrips both Russia and China combined.
China’s official 2011 military budget was some $91 billion, although many analysts suspect the real figure could be much higher. Russia’s 2011 defense budget was $53 billion.
According to the European Defense Agency and the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in 2010 Europe had some 1.6 million full-time military personnel and as many as 5 million including reserve and paramilitary personnel — more than the United States, the global military superpower.
The problem, critics say, is that Europe spends that cash and uses those personnel in an almost uniquely inefficient way.
“It’s always been obvious what needs to be done - taking a more collective approach to Europe’s security,” said Kupchan. “But if anything, European countries have gone with the opposite approach.”
Many of Europe’s individual states, defense experts say, continue to use the sector as a way of bolstering national industry and employment rather than building true military capability that would be of use internationally.
Attempts at cooperation among European governments frequently flounder, with critics blaming mismanagement and political interference. Projects such as the British-German-Italian-Spanish Eurofighter or the A400M military transport aircraft ran billions over budget and suffered years of delays.
There have been attempts to solve the problem. In 2004, the European Union set up the European Defense Agency largely to provide coordination and avoid such issues. Critics say it has known mixed success at best, although supporters hope the U.S. drawdown could provide just the impetus it needs to thrive.
“What we are being told to do now is that we have to do our job,” EDA chief executive Claude-France Arnould told Reuters. “We should go full speed ahead with pooling and sharing.”
But solving those technical issues of policy coordination would only be a beginning. Most of the continent’s military personnel, many analysts say, are effectively undeployable.
On paper, even after abolishing national service, Germany retains some 250,000 service personnel, and almost twice that many when reserves are included. Yet Berlin has struggled to provide a few thousand to support NATO in Afghanistan.
There is also the question of whether European voters are willing to back governments in international ventures.
“Contributing troops to these conflicts has been very financially and politically expensive for European countries,” says Tomas Valasek, director of foreign policy and defense at the Center for European Reform.
“There will be some who will rejoice that the U.S. has in effect said that it plans to do fewer ‘nationbuilding’ wars.”
Those who want to see a more activist European military approach must put their faith in the growing but still rocky alliance between Britain and France, showcased in Libya.
But insiders say that tandem between the traditional west European military powers is already showing many of the same problems of other European attempts at defense cooperation.
“There is” much talk about “smart defense, burden sharing and so forth but not much more,” one senior British officer said on condition of anonymity. “But then, it is early days.”
Some analysts believe the fledgling Franco-British alliance is already faltering amid obvious growing divisions between the two on other issues within the European Union, for example over financial regulation and the euro.
Britain is facing particular challenges of its own. Having spent the last decade focusing on supporting Washington in just the kind of wars the United States now wants to avoid, it is seen once again struggling to find a new geopolitical role.
“The UK in particular finds itself in an awkward and uncomfortable position,” said Kupchan. “If the U.S. is going to reorientate itself toward Asia, then the special relationship with the UK loses much of its salience.”
The former U.S. official said that this might be grounds for the British government under Prime Minister David Cameron to seek a closer relationship with European allies: “But Cameron’s government seems to be taking the opposite approach,” Kupchan said. “There is a risk that Britain may simply end up isolated.”
Behind both the U.S. drawdown and Europe’s questioning of its military future lies a simple truth - Europe faces fewer security threats than at any point in its history.
Eastern European states might be nervous over the U.S. withdrawal and still fear former overlord Moscow. But few serious strategists believe Russia represents any serious danger beyond perennial threats to cut off winter oil and gas supplies.
Some in Washington and elsewhere would like to see the Europeans taking a much more activist role in nearby parts of the Middle East. But after the mixed success of the Iraqi and Afghan interventions, many others are unconvinced that such actions would make the world a safer place.
Though it might still seem a distant prospect, some believe Europe’s greatest threat may still come from within - the risk that financial crisis and economic hardship could fuel violent ambitions at home, as it did in the 1930s.
“If the economic crisis continues to deepen, you cannot exclude the possibility of autocratic, xenophobic or extremist regimes potentially coming to power in parts of Europe,” said Valasek at the Center for European Reform in London.
“In that case, I think the U.S. would find itself getting involved in Europe once again.”
If the coming decade is to be characterized by growing military build-up and confrontation in Asia, however, it is hard to see Europe taking a significant role.
In theory, British, French and other long-range European warships could deploy alongside their U.S. counterparts in any face-off with Beijing - but only in very small numbers that are unlikely to make any substantial strategic difference.
Yet that, some Europeans suggest, might not be an entirely bad thing for a continent that twice in the last century dragged the wider world into devastating global conflicts.
“If there were to be a serious military confrontation between the U.S. and China in the years to come, God forbid, the sidelines might be the most sensible place to be,” says Sam Perlo-Freeman, head of the military expenditure project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“The new focus on Asia might pose challenges the Europe.
“But it also offers an opportunity for us to decide what we really want.”
(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels)
Reporting By Peter Apps; Editing by Alastair Macdonald