Commentary

Kosovo Intervention Highlights European Free Riding

By Ivan Eland
April 28, 1999

Our military attacks on Serbia have been portrayed by the Clinton administration as a NATO mission — a true multilateral effort with our European allies. But the reality is much different.

To support the fiction that NATO is the driving force behind the military action, the Pentagon has seen to it that European NATO officials in Brussels brief the world about the ongoing operations in the Balkans. They stand behind podiums emblazoned with the alliance logo and hand out briefing papers that are stamped “NATO.” But the forces in harm’s way are primarily American. And the United States has contributed an estimated 65-75 percent of the cost of the war effort to date.

Once the current buildup of air power to 1,000 aircraft is complete, U.S. planes will be about 80 percent of the aircraft involved in the operation. Even before the buildup, an anonymous U.S. Air Force source noted that American aircraft were flying 90 percent of the combat missions. (The Pentagon is suppressing official data on the number of missions each NATO nation has conducted.) The U.S. percentage will increase as the forces grow. This lop-sided assumption of burden results from vast U.S. superiority in available aircraft, weapons, battlefield electronics, readiness and mobile logistics and support assets.

U.S. troops would also make up a disproportionate percentage of ground forces in an invasion of Kosovo or Serbia. According to retired Army Maj. Gen. Edward Atkeson, 50 percent of any NATO ground force would be American because “we’ve got the best stuff.” The United States has military capabilities — for example, in logistics and support assets such as trucks, equipment transport, ammunition-handling equipment, maintenance units, combat engineers, military police and medical units — in areas where the allies are sorely deficient.

When NATO issued its first post-Cold War strategic concept in 1991, the Europeans promised to improve the mobility of their air and ground forces so that they could more easily conduct operations outside NATO territory. In the eight years since then, they have made little progress. At last week’s NATO summit in Washington, European members agreed to a new bureaucratic structure to “coordinate” future upgrades in logistics capabilities and weapons procurement, but little else.

In fact, there is now worry in the alliance that U.S. forces may become so superior to the forces of the other members that NATO forces will no longer be able to operate together. This disparity in capability arises from the wide gap in military spending between the United States and its allies: the United States spends about $280 billion a year on national defense while the largest of our NATO allies spend a mere fraction of that. Britain spends about $40 billion, France about $30 billion, Germany about $25 billion and Italy about $20 billion. And given the great disparity between U.S. and allied contributions to the war effort against Serbia, the United States will also bear the bulk of the supplemental expenses required to conduct the war: money to replenish spent missiles, ammunition and fuel and for extra maintenance of equipment. (The Clinton administration has submitted a lowball estimate of $6 billion to fund the air war through September, but the eventual bill will reach at least $16 billion if ground troops are used.)

If the United States continues to bail out Europeans from even minor security scrapes, such as small civil wars in remote parts of Europe like Kosovo, they’ll never spend the money needed to provide military capabilities adequate to handle such situations themselves.

As always, the United States cares more about European security than the Europeans do and seems to be willing to pay the costs in blood and treasure when it perceives that such security is threatened. But Kosovo presents no threat. The Clinton administration raises the haunting specter of another Europe-wide conflagration, implying that the current conflict in the Balkans is somehow comparable to the situation prior to the onset of World War I. But that’s simply not a valid comparison. Then, some of the European great powers were actively seeking gains in the Balkans. Today, the countries of Europe harbor no territorial designs and seek only stability in the region. Despite Russia’s bluster, it is no exception and is currently too weak to aggressively defend Serb interests even if it wanted to. Simply put, the United States had no vital interests in Yugoslavia during the Cold War and has none now.

If the United States keeps rescuing its European allies from small brushfire wars, it will be doomed to do so for eternity. They will continue to take a “free ride” instead and never quite get around to developing the agile military forces needed to put out such small fires.

Ivan Eland is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.