Europe's minor military role in attacks highlights dependence on U.S. arsenal

NATO allies' limitations reduce their capabilities in Balkans air campaign

War In Yugoslavia

April 21, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- What's been happening for the past month in the skies over Yugoslavia shows how junior a military partner Western Europe remains, paradoxically at the time when the Europeans have been clamoring for more decision-making power and a "defense identity" of their own.

"If anything, what we're doing in Kosovo proves that Europe can't handle war without the Americans," said a European official at NATO headquarters in Brussels. "Peacekeeping operations the Europeans can do, but not war-fighting."

For Europeans in particular, some of the lessons have been jarring.

The air campaign against Yugoslavia "has underlined the range of capabilities where Europe is too dependent on U.S. help," British Defense Minister George Robertson said in a speech at Harvard University.

"If Europe is serious about shouldering more of the burden in future conflicts like this, it must improve its capabilities."

Few expect a quick fix.

The label "NATO campaign," in fact, masks its great asymmetry. Of the roughly 1,000 aircraft committed to or requisitioned for the campaign of airstrikes against Yugoslavia, around 700 are American, NATO sources say.

U.S. armed forces have contributed assets no others can match: B-1 strategic bombers, F-117A stealth fighters and two types of tank-hunting attack aircraft, the fixed-wing A-10 "Warthog" and the AH-64 Apache helicopter.

A British Royal Navy submarine in the Adriatic, the HMS Splendid, has fired five cruise missiles since the operation began March 24, a NATO source said. U.S. warships have launched Tomahawks by the hundreds.

To some in Europe, such U.S. pre-eminence is humiliating in a year that has seen creation of a common European currency, and one in which the 15-nation European Union, a trade bloc that many hope is the skeleton of a future pan-European government, is supposed to name its first common representative on diplomatic and security affairs.

"It's one thing to intellectually know that Europeans are dependent on Americans; it's another to see it. Here, now, we're seeing it," said Franklin Dehousse, a professor at Belgium's University of Liege.

In June 1996, NATO foreign and defense ministers agreed to build a separate "European Security and Defense Identity" inside NATO -- jargon for allowing the Europeans to use alliance assets for missions that the United States doesn't object to but where it found no compelling reason to get involved itself.

Planning, however, has evidently run away from reality.

Since the end of the Cold War, estimated one German official at NATO, military capabilities of the European allies have been reduced by 30 percent. During the Iraq campaign, in what must have been a humbling moment, a detachment of the French army, once Europe's largest, had to be supplied by a U.S. logistics unit to stay in the line of battle.

"If people want a European defense identity, they need to get used to the idea that they are going to need to spend money," Ben Fiddler, defense-sector analyst with the London-based bank Dresdner Kleinort Benson, told the European Voice, a Brussels weekly.

The level of expenditures, however, is just one measure of European weakness. In many cases, European countries still are paying to maintain hardware designed for the Cold War when the threat was a sweeping invasion of Soviet armor.

According to the British Defense Ministry, European NATO members have more than 4,000 warplanes among them. But many are old, lack infrared and laser guidance systems or aren't carrying the kind of "smart" bombs or other munitions needed for the precision attacks that the alliance is trying to carry out over Yugoslavia.

Defense specialists rate the European allies as particularly deficient in long-haul and extensive airlift capability, in their ability to get troops rapidly to a battle zone and in warplanes that can take on a gamut of combat missions. Only Britain and, to a lesser degree, France have any rapid deployment capability at all.

Pub Date: 4/21/99

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