China / Cover Story

Europe tries to present case for its defense

By Zhang Haizhou (China Daily) Updated: 2012-03-01 07:02

Continent struggles to make its voice heard as the US shifts focus to Asia, Zhang Haizhou reports from London.

Criminals may run, but can they hide from two F-16 fighters?

Dutch police officers in pursuit of an armed suspect got some unexpected help in January when an airforce base scrambled two jet pilots on a routine training flight.

Officers had requested the use of a military jeep to continue the chase over rough terrain, said airforce spokesman Olav Spanjer. Instead, the fighters - armed with infrared cameras - were assigned to the search.

A tipoff from a suspicious neighbor eventually led police to their man, rather than the high-tech aircraft. Yet the incident highlights the transformation that has taken place in European defense.

"European countries today no longer face state-level security threats, but threats exist in society," said Wang Peiran, a visiting scholar on European security at Vrije Universiteit in the Belgian capital, Brussels.

Europe tries to present case for its defense

A Republic of Korea K1 tank fires at a target during a joint ROK-United States military exercise in September, part of an event to mark the 63rd anniversary of the ROK's Armed Forces Day on Oct 1. The drill took place in Pocheon near to the demilitarized zone that has separated the ROK and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea since the Korean War. Lee Jin-man / AP

Extremism, terrorism and crime are major problems in the region, he said, pointing out that police forces today play a much larger role than the military in making Europeans feel safe and secure.

European defense has been in the spotlight since the start of this year, not only because of the change in threat, but because the United States recently announced plans to withdraw troops from the region.

The move is the result of a shift in the US focus to Asia, particularly the Asia-Pacific region.

For the European Union, which has more uniformed personnel than the US, as well as higher defense spending than Russia and China, the days of freeloading off the US military are now over.

Washington's latest defense strategy, the first indication since the end of World War II that European security is no longer a top priority, has caused much debate.

While pessimists doubt whether European countries are capable of taking care of their own defenses, especially as most are slashing spending amid the economic downturn, optimists insist there is no security problem.

However, both sides agree at least that now is the time for Europe to step up defense cooperation something experts say was sorely lacking between British and French forces during last year's Libya conflict.

"Europe is viewed by the critical American public as playing a less important role today. Therefore, (it) has to stand and watch the US reduce its troops, which the US does not consider a problem for Europe to deal with," Wolfgang Ischinger, Germany's former deputy foreign minister, said at the annual Munich Security Conference this month.

"In the future, we cannot rely on the United States to stand by and assist us should the need arise," he said. "Hopefully, the US decision to move closer to Asia and the Pacific will be a useful wake-up call for Europe."

Reduction in force

The key message of the US defense strategy is that the country's military in the future will be smaller and leaner.

As Washington is under severe budgetary pressure due to fighting two major wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will cut at least $487 billion from Pentagon spending over the next decade.

Leon Panetta, US defense secretary, said in mid-February that his country will withdraw more than 11,000 troops from Europe, reducing its force on that continent from 81,000 to about 70,000, AFP reported.

He also announced in Munich that a US-based brigade will contribute to the NATO Response Force, a 13,000-strong unit created in 2002.

During the Cold War, Washington kept roughly 400,000 troops in Europe. The figure is far less today, but broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that Germany still has about 52,000, the second-largest contingent of US forces abroad, behind only Afghanistan.

Combat cooperation

Before the US defense strategy was announced in January, Europeans appeared to have already started taking charge of their own backyard. Britain and France called the shots in NATO's war in Libya, while Washington led from behind.

However, some argue that the Libya mission actually showed that Europeans are not ready.

"In reality, the campaign was heavily dependent on US military, technical, intelligence and logistical support the Europeans could not even supply enough of their own munitions," Reuters' political risk correspondent Peter Apps wrote in a recent analysis piece.

The article quoted an unnamed security source as saying only two of more than 100 cruise missiles fired during the opening days of the campaign were European, and even they were US-made Tomahawks, fired from a British nuclear submarine.

Despite the criticism, the British Ministry of Defense said in an e-mail statement to China Daily that the UK "continues to have the world's fourth-largest defense budget and some of the most capable armed forces", although "tough decisions had to be taken in the Strategic Defence and Security Review due to the defence deficit".

Unveiled in October 2010, the SDSR details how the British armed forces will be reshaped to tackle emerging threats. There were two main priorities in the review: To ensure the UK mission in Afghanistan is protected and to ensure London emerges with a coherent defense capability in 2020.

"As we have proved in Libya and during operations in Afghanistan, the adaptive posture of the SDSR allows our armed forces to respond to a number of concurrent scenarios where we are able to project power abroad and protect our nation's interests at very short notice," the ministry statement said.

Shift in focus

Although optimistic, European security expert Sven Biscop said he believes EU countries are indeed lacking in usable capabilities.

"The US can only allow themselves to shift their strategic focus to Asia because there is no security problem in Europe," said the director of the Europe in the World Program at the Egmont Institute, an independent think tank based in Brussels.

Europe tries to present case for its defense

"It is a message to take seriously because they (the US) are also cutting their defense budget," he said. "It's like a message to us: Look, you better get more usable capabilities so you can deal with crises in your neighborhood."

European countries still have "very national-based defense thinking", Biscop said. "We should make the capabilities that we have more cost-effective by pooling (resources) a lot more than we do."

The military partnership formed by France and Britain in late 2010 is an example of how European countries can work together. The partnership creates opportunities for the countries' defense industries to cooperate in areas such as unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, equipment for nuclear submarines and military satellites.

The two nations have a joint response force of about 9,000 soldiers with air and sea support, which can be assembled to take part in operations for NATO, the European Union and the United Nations. They are also accelerating plans to create a joint control and command center for military operations.

At a UK-France summit in Paris, the countries said they will push ahead with the next phase of plans to build a new generation of pilotless "fighter drone" aircraft.

Britain and France "realize the need to integrate", Biscop said, adding that instead of spending more money on defense, EU countries should spend it in "a much better way to generate real deployable capabilities".

The 27-nation bloc already has enough fighter aircraft, he said, but what it needs to develop is new capabilities such as in aerial refuelling and satellite capacity.

"In Libya we mostly had to use US assets," he said.

Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this story.

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