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In light of Robert Gates’ speech, Cameron should set European defence reform as major objective

Posted on 11 June 2011 | 9:06am

By far the most significant UK political event yesterday was the speech by outgoing US Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

His warning to European allies that they risked military irrelevance, and that the US could not perpetually be relied upon to fund European security was blunt and timely.

Of the many surprises about the way the media covers the coalition, one has been the relative ease with which the government has cut defence spending at a time of substantial military engagement. UK defence chiefs will be hoping David Cameron takes note of Mr Gates’ remarks. A lot of them saw the recent strategic defence review as being more about deficit reduction than defence strategy.

I am sure Britain will not have been anywhere near the top of Mr Gates’ list of irritating European nations. We remain one of the few major defence powers. But he will have had all countries in mind when he complained about the fall in spending, and the confused nature of European defence.

A few weeks ago, the Obama state visit suggested something of a continuing love in between our two countries. But Gates will have been speaking with President Obama’s approval. And he will have been speaking very much with the Obama generation in mind when he said that ‘if current trends in the decline of European defence capabilities are not halted and reversed, future US political leaders – those for whom the cold war was not the formative experience that it was for me – may not consider the return on America’s investment in Nato worth the cost.’

This is not a new threat or argument but Gates is right in saying that as the cold war recedes in the collective memory, the political circumstances for defence will change.

My next volume of diaries, out next month, starts in the midst of the Kosovo conflict and I remember from that period Bill Clinton and Tony Blair feeling many of the frustrations Gates expressed yesterday. Clinton was an internationalist, and a master politician, but even he found it hard to win support and understanding for a major US contribution to an effort on Europe’s doorstep. I remember too Clinton’s frustration that Europe looked so much to the US to do the heavy lifting.

That frustration is clearly there today with regard to Libya. ‘The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country,’ said Mr Gates. ‘Yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference.’

America now contributes three-quarters of Nato military spending – much higher than at the height of the cold war, much higher than during Kosovo. It is hard to see how the post-Gates generation of political leaders will be allowed, able or willing to sustain that.

David Cameron is said to have taken a lead in pushing for action in Libya, action which would not have had any chance of success without the US. But though all Nato members voted for it, less than half have participated and less than a third have actually taken part in military strikes.  The fall in EU defence spending over the last two years is £45 billion . To give you a sense of the scale, that is the same figure as the entire defence budget for Europe’s biggest and richest country, Germany, which is sitting Libya out.

Mr Cameron is by nature a Eurosceptic. But he could do worse than trying to take on the challenge of reforming European defence. He has made a start with the French, who are never easy on the subject. But what the Gates speech showed up is the scale of a challenge still to be avowed in Europe, let alone met.

  • Excellent points Alastair. What name can we give to your brand of sensible left of centre politics that resits the “ya boo” that we normally see from our elected representatives? Would love to see some sense and thoughtful debate coming back into the political mainstream. I guess we have to wait for David Milliband to finish his sulking and get back to taking a leadership role. Or is there anyone else? Keep up the good work.

  • Paul Cowling

    Cameron is not a big enough figure for this. Also his anti European instincts will get in the way. But you are right about the challenge and right it needs a big figure to lead it. Blair was talking about an elected EU leader – that is what it needs. And it should be Blair and you should be with him

  • Christine Graves

    Are you sure Mr Gates is not just setting himself up as a future defence company leader who needs to make sure spending is high? Sorry to be a bit cynical … Loved your fight with the pop singer btw. 

  • Beverley Street

    You are right the media have let them away with it — but so have Labour. I am beginning to despair of how much the tories get away with. I read your blog and see intelligent criticism and big points but the opposition in parliament don’t seem to be able to do this in a way that damages the govt. I feel the public are able to see through it all but Labour are making heavy weather.

  • Matthew

    Hmm – if you believe public spending has to be cut then defence would be near the top of the list for me. I’d rather universities were properly funded than Trident, for instance.
    My feeling is that Britain does its bit in the main but we just don’t have the resources any more. Better cooperation with our European allies could be a way forward but we won’t get that from the Tories now will we?

  • Ehtch

    Europe and it’s defence is not as it used to be, as from their fringes in Turkey,

  • Anonymous

    Many years ago I worked for NATO and the contribution by each member country was always a bone of contention.  As you know the larger countries who contribute more to the budget have always complained about the unfairness of the agreed system to fund  NATO believing that it allows countires to ride in slipstream of others.  As reported only 5 of the 28 (or 29?) countries have a defence budget over 2% of GDP.  They all want to be in NATO but at others expense and this is particularly relevant to those countries in Eastern Europe.
    I know that Mr Gates said the US paid 75% of the 28 member states defence budget. I do not know where he got this figure from?  Is he  is including the cost of military operations in addition to the contribution to the main budget?.  Further if he used his own calculation in adding up defence contributions of other member states to the Military element of the budget this would be wrong.  Smaller countries like Iceland and Lithuiana pay a pittance with some contributions as low as 0.1337.  Maybe he meant the total spending in each country on defence and only then does his claim make sense.   The funding  formula also ensures that nations absorb military personnel and munition costs if they participate in a conflict.   As would be expected the US have more military and pay the vast sum of all military conflicts. .   This part of the formula is a huge disincentive to nations agreeing to participate in operations and one wonders about changing it in the future..  I prefer to use the percentage of the total budgetry requirements for the three areas of expenditure  ie civil, military and security. The percentage that each country pays relates to GDP,  defence budget and the ability to pay. 
    A document produced for Congress in 2010 states that the US pays between 1/5th and1/4 of the total budget – 21.8% to 22.5%, Germany 15 -17%, UK 12.5-14.1%, France 12-13%, Italy 7.5-8% and Canada 5%.  The US contribution has declined over the last thirty years but it still amounts to a substantial sum. 

    This does not detract from the clear message that we have been getting over many years that NATO relies too heavily on the US and they are getting mightily fed up with us.  This happened several times when I worked with NATO.  Mr Gates also stated in his speech that the member countries involved in Libya ran out of munitions and needed help from the US. I live in constant despair at fellow European citizens criticising the US when we rely on them so much in defence of European security.  I am also shocked that military planning did not ensure that sufficient munitions were available for the Libyan mission.  Is it not time that these military planners lost their cosy jobs?

    The US has been calling for NATO to review its operating procedures for years.  The number of Committees it needs to operate – some 300 is astonishing and it is why the larger contributors get frustrated. As to Defence Budgets and their decrease throughout Europe.  When the MOD can prove to me as a taxpayer that they are efficient in procurement etc then I may be more sympathetic.  The UK like the rest of Europe and indeed the US are having to reign in spending ( eg the US has removed the military shield project from Europe under Obama.  Rather than increasing budgets we should ensure that all countries in NATO pay a fair share of the costs. this is not happening particularly from many countries in Eastern Europe.


  • Stevebrundish

    In Paul Kennedy’s book ‘The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’ Kennedy argues that a country’s influence projected by its military inevitably reflects its economic strength. The US deficit inflated by decades of military overspend has now put America at a crossroads. The military budget will be under pressure and so will America’s commitment to NATO and the UN. This, along with China’s rise as a world power, will provide a challenge to the west in which Europe will either come of age or become irrelevant. Cameron’s short-sighted cuts in the defence budget give the USA the perfect excuse to proceed with cutbacks of their own. The defence review therefore may save a few billion now but will be repaid several times over when Europe has to pay for its own defence while severely reducing British influence around the world. The only realistic way forward is a new defence review which has European cooperation at it centre. Europe can be a world power which can work for the benefit of all peoples whether taking a lead in reducing global warming or Human rights. If we leave the future to a diminished US or to the totalitarian tendencies of China our children and grandchildren will pay the price. Obama has sent clear signals that NATO cut back are on the agenda. The results of decisions made in the next year or so will have global implications for decades to come. As Obama has said in relation to Libya it’s time for Europe to step up to the plate.

  • Boudicca

    This is just the US telling the EU to get a move on with its proposed Common Security and Defence Policy – which of course, the voters of Britain have not been permitted a vote on, like everything else to do with the EU..

  • Quinney

    Just for the record (again) the geat defenders of the British way of life and traditions have.

    Scrapped Invincible
    Scrapped Ark Royal
    Illustrious is now a helicopter carrier. Therefore no aircraft carriers until Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales are ready, at which point one of them will be sold.
    £4 billion of Nimrod MRA (martime, reconnaissance and patrol) aircraft cut up for scrap. We’ve had to borrow one of the yanks turboprop Orions to protect our subs off Libya. This cut also leaves our Trident boats defenceless when they leave Faslane.
    Tornado fleet halved
    Harrier fleet scrapped
    Joint Strike Fighter (Harrier replacement) order cut to “around 40”
    Typhoons being cannibalised due to lack of spares
    Tanks cut by 40%
    Artillery cut by 35%
    MoD personnel cut by 40,000

  • Ehtch

    With the amount of coastline when compared to land area, the UK has a surprisingly small Navy these days. Especially with a population of 60 million living on it.

    And the waste in the MOD over the years has been phenominal, what with botched contracts. The AWAC Nimrods from a couple of decades ago is a prime example. What a waste of billions that was.

  • Quinney

    The problem with the AWACs Nimrod was that the computers couldn’t be cooled due to the size of the Nimrod. To be fair though it took Westinghouse years to overcome the same problem with the AWAC Boeing 707.

    The MRA4 Nimrods according to the info I had were performing very well and the RAF couldn’t wait to receive them.
    The original contract to build them was a dogs dinner but again BAE paid for the delays (as they did with the Astute submarine). When BAE introduced the stoppage to production to bring costs in line, the MoD had another look at the Nimrod and decided to increase its role. It had the potential to carry cruise missiles as well as its superb array of listening devices, the ability to cruise for 12 hrs without re fuelling (it shuts down two of its four engines), can be refuelled in flight too. Because of its jet engines being inside the wing as opposed to being under the wing it had a very low noise signature so was very hard for diesel/electricsubmarines to detect.
    It also carried sonor bouys which were dropped to triangulate the position of enemy subs, espiecially Russian nuclear boats as they wait off Faslane to shadow our nuclear subs.
    The decision to scrap the Nimrods was the worst decision by a defence minister since Healy cancelled the TSR2, it could well come back to haunt the tories.

  • MicheleB

    While Mr Gates puts the altruistic ‘defence of Europe’ on the origins of NATO (as does Mr Obama with his ‘The basic premise of NATO was that Europe’s security was the United States’ security and vice versa’) I reckon the reasons also included just a tad about controlling Europe from a distance. 
    That’s not cynicism or ingratitude, it’s objective.
    Beneficent but still Big/Little; there are disadvantages in the states all being lumped together as if one country … just as there are in Europe not being.

    1950s political maps ( CIA’s? ) of the world show the entire thing, outside of America, in varying shades of red and pink; NATO wasn’t just about preventing a resurgence of Nazism it was more about keeping USSR in check. 

    I posted on a US forum for about a year and there are still Americans that think the Nazis were socialist … ha hahhhhhh.
    Even more are still convinced US won WWII (Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious B*stards’ makes the most of that joke).
    More isolationist behaviour will read well with rednecks, those who just don’t ‘get’ society; poorly-paid Republicans that believed Europeans are all cadgers.
    Once Obama got the healthcare changes in to motion and those who’d supported it beforehand realised that insurance would become mandatory, lots of them stopped supporting it (vociferously) …… they really hadn’t understood that Europeans’  NI-equivalents are compulsory insurance policies to fund our respective health systems.
    He needs them on side soon …….

    I must admit that if I were over there now and watching this bunch scrap / chop up our extant hardware before any replacements are even on the horizon I might also be thinking ‘those toffs are scroungers’.

  • Robert

    There’s something very odd about the Daily Mail’s website……if you google “Russian troops still in Georgia” up pops the Daily Mail with today’s date with the 2008(?) story headlines “Georgia overrun by Russian troops as full-scale ground invasion begins”. President Bush and VP Cheney are expressing their concerns as one would expect.

    Enough said, perhaps, the Mail notwithstanding?

  • ann field

    Hi alastair,
    i hope you can read this as i am dyslexia. i suffer from bi-polar grade 2, the some as stephen fry. i am write to you because people with serious mental health problems are having there benefits cut. i cannot get any benefits, because i am deed not ill enough. you know how dibilitate it can be.i am not writing for me, but others. Mr Cameron does not seam to know that mental illness does exist. i hope you are well. love selkie field.

  • Paul M

    I’ve been waiting for a US Defense Secretary to criticise Nato’s European members publicly. Clearly we need European cooperation to pool limited resources with no more out of Europe operations. The UK is far too thinly stretched fighting an irrelevant, morally dubious guerilla war in Afghanistan.. UK nuclear weapons should be phased out, aircraft carriers are irrelevant in the days of piracy. The navy needs frigates and troop carriers. The RAF should concentrate on home defence. The army needs to be small, mobile and urban.