A U.S. Army paratrooper briefs a German soldier on the M240 machine gun during qualification for the Schuetzenschnur, the German Armed Forces badge of marksmanship, at the 7th Army Training Command’s Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, on June 17, 2021..

A U.S. Army paratrooper briefs a German soldier on the M240 machine gun during qualification for the Schuetzenschnur, the German Armed Forces badge of marksmanship, at the 7th Army Training Command’s Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, on June 17, 2021.. (Markus Rauchenberger/U.S. Army)

Europe’s in a race against time to arm itself.

Senior officials know they shouldn’t be counting on the US for Europe’s defense, but building up their own military capabilities requires a determination they’re yet to prove. The continent’s efforts leave it at least a decade away from being able to defend itself unaided, according to people familiar with these preparations.

Amid fears that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may represent just the first phase of much broader imperial ambitions, western intelligence assessments are suggesting that the Kremlin could be in a position to target a NATO member within the much shorter span of three to five years.

The resurgence of Donald Trump has upped the pressure, after the presidential hopeful said he’d welcome a Russian attack on NATO allies falling short on their spending commitments. That would leave more than a third of the alliance outside of the US security umbrella, according to new figures released Wednesday.

The fact is that European leaders need no encouragement from across the pond to turn themselves into a serious military power, but everything from supply-chain snags to disagreements over procurement means they’re falling short.

“It all takes time,” Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur said in an interview in Brussels on Jan. 30. “Unfortunately, we do not have time.”

Because Europe is witnessing the biggest conflict on its soil since World War II, it feels threatened. Because of its long history of relying on the US, it feels unprepared. And because Trump narrowly outpolls his democratic rival in surveys for the November election it’s feeling increasingly rattled, according to the officials who spoke to Bloomberg and who asked to remain anonymous when discussing matters of strategy.

These fears are likely to dominate panels and conversations from Friday at the annual Munich Security Conference; a gathering of leaders, military officials, and security experts which takes place days before the two-year mark of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Trump’s provocative weekend remarks were just the latest combative statements reminding European leaders how, at a time when they’re battling unpredictable foes, they now contend with unpredictable allies too.

The specter of his return to the White House has heightened the stakes. But they’re already foregrounded under what is superficially a more cozy transatlantic partnership with Joe Biden, who’s struggled to push through the military aid Ukraine badly needs to repel its Russian invaders.

The US’s NATO partners arrested a long-term trend by increasing defense expenditure every year since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and in no single year so steeply as just after its second invasion. But that’s been insufficient to rival US largesse - still less to fill the breach were it to retreat.

If European nations came under attack today they would still be dependent on the US for a slew of capabilities, and the gaps are especially large in certain areas. These include air and missile defense, deep-fire missiles, and the advanced computer systems needed to conduct warfare, according to officials familiar with the matter.

The worst case scenario would emerge from three things happening in succession: Europe not acting quickly enough to invest in its defense, the US failing to send Ukraine more aid, and Trump winning re-election then pulling the US out of NATO, according to one senior EU diplomat.

Since only the last of these is an outside prospect, it is not hard to see why the moment has European officials on edge.

Several told Bloomberg they suspect Trump wants to spook the continent into spending more, rather than withdraw from the alliance entirely. The risk he makes good on such threats has been mollified by a new bill that bars a president from withdrawing unilaterally. But the fear he’ll summarily cut off aid for Kyiv and hand Moscow a victory is far more imminent to them.

Trump has long given allies reasons to doubt his commitment to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which enjoins every NATO member to support others under attack. The only time it’s ever been invoked was after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US.

More than $60 billion worth of aid to Ukraine is stalled in Congress, exacerbating European suspicions over the US’s commitment to their security. The outbreak of conflict in the Middle East has also reminded Europe of Washington’s split attentions, and they fear forces could ultimately be transferred elsewhere; including to Asia, if China were ever to attack Taiwan.

One way that Europe is trying to keep the US on side is by emphasizing, behind the scenes, that it’s attuned to its concerns over China. That could serve as a reminder to the American public of NATO’s relevance to the US.

If Russia wins in Ukraine, and if the US disengages - either prior to that or consequently - the EU’s main powers would need to do more than just make up the existing shortfall in order to defend the alliance’s eastern flank. NATO’s presence would have to triple along its new border with an emboldened Vladimir Putin, according to another senior European diplomat.

‘Never again’

After the end of the Cold War, European countries slashed defense budgets and divested large equipment in the belief that the continent’s major wars were a thing of the past.

Fast forward to 2024 and 18 NATO allies are on course to reach the alliance-wide 2%-of-GDP spending goal, compared to just three of them in 2014 - one of which was the US. But the effects will take time to be felt, since they’re trying to churn out ammunition and weapons at a time when demand is skyrocketing around the world, leading to competition for both components and raw materials.

Compared to 2023, the EU expects to triple its production of artillery shells to around 1.4 million units this year. The problem is that Russia is ramping up faster than expected and will make 4 million unites this year, according to Estonian estimates.

The US currently has around 80,000 forces stationed across Europe, hosts missile-defense sites in Poland and Romania and four destroyer warships in Spain. It leads a battle group and contributes forces to others on the eastern flank. Crucially, it also stores around 100 tactical nuclear weapons in five NATO nations: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.

While both France and the UK have nuclear weapons, these wouldn’t be enough to deter Russia from using one of its own, according to retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, a former commander of US Army Europe.

“The US provides a nuclear umbrella and it’s because of that the Russians would never dare to attack a NATO country,” Hodges said.

Wake-up call

NATO and European allies are working to give their weapons greater interoperability, given the many different types of weapons systems in use across Europe, which hampers forces’ ability to fight side by side.

The challenge was laid bare when Ukrainian fighters tried - and failed - to use the same caliber ammunition in similar equipment donated by different western allies.

But in trying to build up military capability, Europe is derailed by an almost Trump-like concern: that of protectionism. Clashes between Paris and Berlin over whether to buy foreign weapons systems are inciting tensions at a time when joint procurement could be growing capacity.

France has held back from joining a German-led anti-missile program, dubbed the European sky shield, which will purchase air defense systems from abroad, including the Israeli Arrow 3 and US-made Patriots.

The concern in Paris is that buying outside of the EU displaces investment that would otherwise go toward boosting local industry, especially as big weapons purchases involve long contracts and years of maintenance.

“We all agree there’s been fragmentation in Europe, because we all have this reflex of doing everything by ourselves,” Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren said in an interview on Jan. 31. “Now we have to have a European reflex, and that will make all of us stronger.”

Some of the proposals under discussion include the inauguration of an EU defense commissioner or even the introduction of small battalions answerable to Brussels, according to one official, who nevertheless said that nothing is likely to transpire before European Union elections in June.

In the short-term, grouping orders among different member states would help solve interoperability problems and drive production by giving defense contractors clarity about demand. And large multinational orders are already taking place, including through NATO’s procurement agency and the European Defense Agency.

In the coming weeks, EU Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton is due to unveil an EU defense strategy that will designate strategic areas for investment and strip away red tape for businesses, among other measures.

At an event last month he pointed to Trump as he urged Europe to do “drastically” more to boost it’s own defense. “Now more than ever, we know that we are on our own.”

With assistance from Cagan Koc, Alan Katz, Ania Nussbaum, Alberto Nardelli and Ben Sills.

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