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BRUSSELS, Belgium — From the stern-faced Foreign Legionnaires to the gleaming sabers of the cavalry guards and the Mirage fighters roaring overhead, the French military put on an impressive display as they marched down the Champs-Elysee this July 14.
Behind the annual Bastille Day pomp however, France is at full stretch keeping over 12,000 troops deployed on an array of international missions from wars in Libya and Afghanistan to keeping peace in former African colonies like Chad and Ivory Coast.
“The armed forces now are fragile and vulnerable,” Admiral Edouard Guillaud, France's chief of defense staff admitted in a recent speech. “We cannot deny it or look the other way. It's a fact that we are in a difficult situation.”
France is not alone. Across Europe, defense budgets are shrinking as governments wrestle with budget deficits and public debt.
Britain, along with France, is the major military power in the European Union but last year announced it was scrapping HMS Ark Royal — flagship of the Royal Navy, axing fighter jets and spy planes and slashing the strength of the armed forces by 17,000.
Of NATO's 26 European members, only France, Britain, Greece and Albania meet the alliance's target of spending at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. In comparison the United States dedicates 5.4 percent of its budget to the military.
During the Cold War, the United States accounted for half of NATO’s defense expenditure, now it pays 75 percent. Rather than catching up, 17 European allies further cut military budgets last year.
U.S. politicians have long scolded Europeans for freeloading under the U.S. military umbrella, but outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates went a step further last month in a farewell speech to allies in Brussels.
He told allies they risked “collective military irrelevance” unless they boosted military capabilities, then issued a stark warning that after more than 60 years of NATO, they should no longer take Uncle Sam's protection for granted.
“The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress and in the American body politic writ large to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense," Gates explained.
President Barack Obama's decision to take a backseat in the air campaign against Muammar Gaddafi's forces in Libya has already served notice that America does not intend to rush to the rescue when crises erupt on Europe's doorstep. Shortfalls in vital capabilities have forced the United States to play a bigger-than-expected support role, but as the Libyan conflict drags on concern is mounting about Europe's ability to bring it to a successful end.
“The Libyan adventure has already made it pretty plain that we don't have the muscle, we don't have the command-and-control, we don't have the missiles, we don't have the naval forces,” complained Giles Merritt, director of the Security and Defense Agenda, the Brussels-based think tank where Gates gave his speech. “We've got 2 million people in uniform and we can't actually muster a comparatively straightforward, offshore strike force.”
NATO's European militaries are 2.1 million strong, compared to 1.4 million in the U.S. forces, but outdated structures and lack of investment mean that few are available for international deployment.
Germany is an extreme example, with its government only recently moving away from a draft-based military. Of its 246,000 troops a maximum of just 9,000 are available for overseas deployment. In counties like Belgium, Italy and Romania, salaries and other personnel expenses eat up almost three-quarters of the defense budget, leaving precious little for investment in new, modern equipment.
The transatlantic gap in military spending really took off after the 9/11 attacks. In the years that followed, the George W. Bush administration poured money into the military, increasing the defense budget by about 8 percent every year. No European country matched that rate of spending.
Mired in the worst debt crisis in recent history, Europeans are unlikely to launch a major military spending spree now. Instead they are hoping to get more bang for their euro through increased cooperation. The current buzzwords in European defense circles are “pooling and sharing” and the idea that nations can avoid expensive duplication by helping each other out.
Britain and France signed a landmark treaty in November to share an aircraft carrier and set up a 10,000-strong joint expeditionary force. Groups of NATO nations have agreed to pool resources to acquire much needed transport planes; Nordic, Benelux and central European neighbors are forging more joint forces.
So far the results have been limited, but one former NATO boss believes Gates’ warning and the U.S. stance on Libya have sent a message the Europeans can't ignore.
“European members of NATO have suddenly been made aware more than ever before that their Emperor is stark naked,” acknowledged Lord George Robertson, who was NATO secretary general from 1999-2004.
“When President Obama supported the rescue mission in Libya, but pulled back to let the Europeans lead, he performed a great favor to our continent. He has forced the European nations to confront their own destiny,” the former British defense secretary told London's Chatham House think tank on July 6. “European nations will have to make a decision on what kind of transatlantic relationship they want, or need, or value. The option of grumbling dependency is over.”