Even under NATO command, the U.S. military will do the bulk of the fighting in Libya — even as the Obama administration argues that this is Europe’s conflict to lead, not America’s.
The number of U.S. warplanes and ships deployed to fight Libya’s regime underscores that NATO’s other 27 members do not have the firepower and high-tech targeting capability to go solo or with little U.S. help.
Even though Europe pressed the White House to enter the war, it provided only a few of the 110 ship-launched cruise missiles fired in the first days and has flown only about 40 percent of all sorties. To some military analysts, the European performance is the result of two decades of cutting defense spending and relying on the United States to do the heavy lifting.
“The European countries have made a strategic-level decision to disarm essentially, particularly in their armies and air forces,” said James Russell, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School.
“Ten years from now, the European armies will cease to be able to perform the kind of policing operations now going on in Afghanistan. Even the British and the French will have a hard time getting forces any sort of distances and sustaining them on the ground.”
Mr. Russell just completed a book, “Innovation, Transformation, and War,” on counterinsurgency in Iraq. He is researching the coalition’s effort in Afghanistan and the contributions, or lack thereof, by Europeans.
“NATO is just a headquarters staff at this point,” he said. “Look at what’s going on in Afghanistan. The Europeans are barely able to sustain battalion-level formations, with the exceptions of the British. But even the British, with recent defense cuts, are not going to be able to sustain this for very much longer.”
America’s might and European cuts add up to a U.S.-dominated mission in Libya.
“There are certain competencies … that only the Americans have,” said retired Gen. T. Michael Moseley, former Air Force chief of staff.
“And since the  Gulf War a lot of our coalition partners have reduced their defense budgets to the extent that whatever capabilities they used to have they don’t necessarily have. And so it falls on primarily the U.S. Air Force to be able to maintain the bulk of the command and control, the [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance], overhead, etc., etc.”
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney said the U.S. has flown 60 percent of all sorties over Libya to date.
“The U.S. will have to carry the burden,” he said.
The Air Force has provided stealthy B-2 bombers, AWACs airborne control aircraft, F-15Es and F-16s strike aircraft, and lumbering AC-130s and A-10s with the principal role of gunning down ground troops and armor.
The U.S. domination is reminiscent of the 1999 U.S. war against Serbia to stop the Belgrade regime from slaughtering civilians in Kosovo and Bosnia. Although a NATO-run operation, as is Libya, and an action demanded by European leaders, the United States ended up flying more than 90 percent of airstrikes.
A U.N.-led coalition assembled before NATO took over showed itself unable to contain Serbian-led atrocities, even though the U.N. put troops on the ground to protect civilians.
After that conflict, U.S. defense officials pressed Europe to devote more budget dollars to defense, especially on so-called smart-bomb technologies essential to waging a modern air war.
The campaign failed, according to numbers that NATO released last month. Since 1999, most European countries have cut arms spending as a share of gross domestic product, while the U.S. share has grown sharply to more than 5 percent from 3.2 percent.
The Pentagon is spending a total of $708 billion this year on procurement, personnel and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
NATO’s European members invested 2.5 percent of GDP at the beginning of the 1990s. Today, the share stands at a relatively meager 1.7 percent.
In December, a report from the European Defense Agency showed another downward trend. As a share of government spending, European defense has fallen from 3.8 percent in 2006 to 3.31 percent in 2009.
At a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday, U.S. Adm. James Stavridis, NATO’s supreme allied commander, chided Europe for stingy defense budgets.
“The bad news is that many of our allies are not meeting the NATO standard of spending at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense,” said Adm. Stavridis, whose command took over the Libyan mission on Thursday after much debate among reluctant members.
“So I am worried,” he said. “And I believe that we here in the United States, because we pay a much higher percentage of our GDP for our defense, need to be emphatic with our European allies that they should spend at least the minimum NATO 2 percent.
“And at a military-to-military level, I carry that message often, emphatically and very directly, frankly, not only to military counterparts but also to political actors in each of the nations in the alliance.”
The results of the imbalance were clear from the first day of the Libyan campaign, as the U.S. military shouldered the task of firing cruise missiles to destroy Libyan air-defense targets so pilots face fewer risks.
“They don’t have the overall ‘throw weight,’ or bulk or capacity that the U.S. Air Force has got,” said Gen. Moseley. “It’s a good partnership and it’s a trusting relationship. I think it’s just a difference in scale.”
The real test for Europe will be when NATO starts to shift missions away from the United States and into the hands of European members.
“We are reducing the U.S. component of it measurably, and I think you’ll see our allies increasingly engaged,” said Adm. Stavridis.
The postgraduate school’s Mr. Russell is not optimistic about the overall future, saying Europe has made a conscious, long-term decision to bleed defense to fund popular social programs — and let the American military spend its money.
“They’re going to cease to be even something faintly resembling co-equal partners, and they’ll just be reduced to token-level forces,” he said.
“Libya is the precursor to the future. In another 10 years, Europe will be unable to support military operations in any sort of far-flung place. Their armies are going away. There is no other way to describe it.”
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