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NATO Needs an Overhaul, Expansion or Not

Many opponents of NATO expansion, and several European countries such as France, focus on the high costs of adding new members to the alliance. But most of these costs are ones Western Europe should be bearing anyway. Otherwise, NATO risks rotting from within for lack of attention to the military capabilities most needed for the post-Soviet era - new members or not.

The European arm of NATO is physically incapable of deploying and operating significant military force beyond its own nations' borders. Its inability to substantially reinforce Poland, the Czech Republic, or Hungary is not troubling, in my opinion, given the implausibility of a future Russian threat to those states. But our major European allies have less than one-tenth the United States capability for prompt military operations in places such as the Persian Gulf, where common Western interests could be threatened.

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Some critics of the Clinton administration argue that Europe spends too little on defense to handle the costs of NATO expansion. They are only half right. While most European defense budgets do represent smaller shares of gross domestic product than our own, the NATO allies still spend two-thirds as much as the US on defense and field larger aggregate armed forces. That should suffice to provide real deployable military capability. But, alas, it does not.

Just ask the Pentagon. Its recently completed Quadrennial Defense Review assumes no European military contribution in the major war plans that undergird current US defense strategy and budgeting. Other wealthy countries that share our values, our dependence on foreign oil, and our concern about global weapons proliferation basically seem content to let GI Joe assure their security.

Harsh words, perhaps. But no harsher than those of former British Defense Minister Michael Portillo, who last year called European forces "hollow" given their lack of usability in places like Southwest Asia and Africa.

Better to voice such criticisms now than to wait for the outcry after the next war. Does anyone believe the US public, generally uninterested in the burden-sharing issue, will remain indifferent when almost all casualties are American? It is not implausible that we will wind up expanding NATO only to see it collapse after the next war.

Defenders of the Europeans will point to the alphabet soup of recent security concoctions intended to redress this situation. But new formations like the Eurocorps and the Ace Rapid Reaction Corps are only baby steps toward real military deployability.

The political breakthroughs these initiatives required are significant. Also, the decisions of countries like Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France to abolish the draft are making their militaries more professional and effective. None of these steps, however, have bought the long-range airlift and refueling tankers, trucks, equipment transporters, mobile hospitals and military depots, ammunition handling equipment, and other ingredients necessary to operate large forces far from home.

Acquiring the requisite systems would cost the allies about $50 billion - only 7 percent of what they plan to spend on defense over the next five years. But European governments, trying to keep alive an inefficient defense industrial base on declining budgets, are more interested in buying glamorous fighters and satellites than the systems they really need.

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During the cold war, when the most worrisome military scenario was a conflagration with the Warsaw Pact, our major Western allies were fairly well prepared. They would have provided about half of NATO's conventional combat punch in any such conflict. In the 1991 Gulf war, by contrast, the Europeans provided only about 10 percent as many forces as we did, and they could do no better today.

To their credit, countries such as France and Britain provide sizeable forces in Bosnia. They give more foreign aid than we do and generally pay UN dues on time.

But enough excuses, and enough obsession by all parties with the political machinery and memberships of European security institutions. It is time for Europe to focus on actual military capability. The basic integrity of the alliance is at stake.

* Michael O'Hanlon studies defense policy at the Brookings Institution and is an adjunct professor at Columbia University.

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