GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — As France enters the fourth week of a drive to clear militant strongholds in Mali, the operation is renewing long-held concerns about Europe’s ability and willingness to use military power against a regional threat.
France’s need for logistical support from the U.S. highlights the same gaps that plagued the 2011 NATO operation in Libya, officials and defense analysts say. That the French went into Mali alone illustrates flaws in the European Union’s common defense policy, some add.
“Is all this a sign of Europe’s strategic limitations? Yes,” said Richard Gowan of the Council on European Foreign Relations.
The topic is a focus of this weekend’s annual Munich Security Conference starting Friday. The gathering of international leaders has recently doubled as a forum for U.S. and NATO officials to challenge Europe’s defense commitment.
Last year’s conference came as the U.S. announced it would remove 11,000 servicemembers from Europe, a move many observers hoped would push Europe to reconsider recent defense cuts. The Mali intervention brings the topic back to the fore, alongside issues such as cybersecurity, the civil war in Syria and the West’s relationship with Iran.
Like the U.S., European leaders have voiced support for France’s operations in Mali but offered no combat troops. Gowan, who focuses on European security and defense, said the Continent is fatigued from deployments and reluctant to spend money at a time of deep budget cuts to social programs.
“I think the financial strain is a huge factor in European thinking,” he said. “I also think the Afghan experience, which has obviously affected U.S. opinion about expeditionary [missions], has had an even deeper effect on countries like Germany.”
Yet many hold that Europe faces a legitimate threat from northern Africa’s Sahel region, where Islamist militants find haven in vast stretches of land extending beyond the reach of regional governments. France intervened after militants, including fighters with al-Qaida in the Maghreb, took control of Mali’s north and made a push to the south, toward the country’s capital.
The EU has long viewed the Sahel as a risk. In 2008, it drafted a joint paper on security and development in the region. A 2011 strategy paper by the EU’s foreign ministry called the prevention of attacks by AQIM “an urgent and a more recent priority.”
Before the French intervention, EU nations had been preparing to send a mission to the country, but in a noncombat role and only after troops with the Economic Community of West African States had deployed combat troops, something that had been expected in the fall, but now has been moved up.
As the EU extends its “soft power” in similar training and development missions across North Africa, its military capabilities go untested and risk withering, said Giovanni Faleg, a researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels.
“It’s not becoming a matter of choice. That’s the problem,” he said. “If the neighborhood becomes unstable, and this stability produces a direct threat to European countries, you don’t have a choice between being a soft crisis manager and a strong provider of security. You have to go for the second.”
The economic crisis of the past five years could make that difficult. Few European countries previously met NATO’S requirement to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. In the past five years, NATO spending in Europe fell 4 percentage points while the U.S. share rose by the same amount, according to a recent alliance report.
Cuts by countries as large as Germany and as small as Latvia have resulted in program cancellations, changed equipment orders and, in the case of Britain, a plan to mothball a new aircraft carrier. Most middle-size European countries slashed defense spending by 10 percent to 15 percent between 2009 and 2011, according to a recent Brookings Institution analysis that cites a European Parliament study.
“Here what we’re seeing is basically cuts in capability and little thought on what to replace them with,” Clara M. O’Donnell, author of the analysis, said.
Much like the 2011 operation in Libya, France’s intervention in Mali highlights the holes in Europe’s military capabilities and its reliance on U.S. assets, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at a news conference Thursday.
“I think the Mali operation once again points to the need for increased European efforts to fill the gaps when it comes to essential military capabilities such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance,” he said.
The Continent has turned to pooling and resource-sharing among militaries in an effort to fill those gaps. NATO began its “Smart Defense” program to encourage such relationships, and multiple initiatives now exist on the EU level as well as between individual countries.
Yet Europe can’t make up for heavy budget cuts by sharing resources alone, O’Donnell said. EU member countries have collectively cut defense spending by 30 billion euros since 2008, she wrote in a recent analysis. The savings from current partnerships are estimated at only 200 million to 300 million euros.
Meanwhile, some partnerships are hitting hurdles as countries protect national defense industries and fail to reconcile their priorities with their commitments. Britain’s agreement with France to share a carrier group didn’t stop it from designing ships that lack the catapults and traps needed to land a French Rafale jet.
That particular example is likely to be raised this weekend in Munich during a session exploring resource sharing and pooling. Statements on the Euro-Atlantic relationship, including a speech by Vice President Joe Biden, will also be followed closely, given the new U.S. emphasis on security challenges in Asia.
While Mali will likely be a major topic of discussion, analysts like O’Donnell say one lesson of the operation is already clear.
“It’s highlighting the fact that there are times when we need to intervene, so you need capabilities, and you can’t always count on Americans to intervene,” O’Donnell said.