Britain and France last week announced that they would begin a new era of defense cooperation intended to conserve their military power at a time of shrinking military budgets. The plan involves sharing nuclear weapons research and other expensive weapons development programs, pooling aircraft carriers in times of crisis and jointly training rapid-reaction brigades that can fight side by side under a single commander.
For all of its innovation, this initiative between NATO’s strongest European military powers will do little to address the alliance’s most urgent need — expanding the supply of European ground forces for future combat and peacekeeping operations, where the United States already bears a disproportionate share of the burden.
America currently has 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, with 90,000 of them fighting under NATO command. Britain, the second-largest contributor, has 9,500. France, the fourth largest, has 3,750. (Germany, the third largest, has 4,388). Britain has already announced plans to downsize the number of troops it will have available for future NATO operations. France still hopes to save enough elsewhere to avoid personnel reductions but clearly needs to be making a larger contribution than it is today.
The Pentagon can easily provide NATO with all the aircraft carriers and nuclear missiles it is ever likely to need. But NATO needs more ground troops, and the United States has been straining to meet that need.
It makes sense for Britain and France to save money on marginally useful aircraft carriers and on the costs of maintaining nuclear weapons they do not really need. The real threat to Europe now lies elsewhere. European cities have suffered repeated Al Qaeda terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, 2001, with new assaults threatened.
Britain and France should use the money they will save on these 20th-century prestige weapons to expand the number of combat troops, trainers and peacekeepers they can contribute to NATO missions like Afghanistan. That would strengthen a vital alliance strained by unequal burden sharing. And it would focus both countries’ military resources on their most pressing 21st-century military needs.
The New York Times