Tag Archives: interventionism

The European Union’s Short Legs

European defence ministers need to take a dispassionate look at what capabilities are duplicated by maintaining 26 separate national defence industries and consolidate appropriately.


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In a recent article in the Financial Times Philip Stephens argued that Europeans had discovered interventionism just as Americans were setting the idea aside. This came after the French air and ground campaign in Mali and the NATO air war in Libya. A similar line may be emerging on Syria, with the British and French leaders’ statements this week.

Aside from the Tigers and Typhoons, however, the most recent European interventions have had an Atlantic accent. In Mali the British provided a pair of C-17 transports; the Canadians lent another. But the majority of logistic support came from the United States.   The US Air Force used a wing of C-17s to transport most of the 3e Brigade Mécanisée to Bamako.  While US Africa Command spokesmen were publicly diplomatic, the Department of Defence privately intended to send the bill to Paris (the plans to charge the Élysée were quietly dropped). The US Air Force later agreed to a request to provide aerial tankers to support French combat aircraft.

In Libya, the Obama administration settled on the approach of “leading from behind“. At the outset of the war, US air power and precision strike destroyed Libyan air defences in short order. As later in Mali, US forces helped NATO allies carry out their campaign against ground targets mainly without direct combat contributions. But classing Libya as a model for European power projection would be incorrect. In its attempt to avoid civilian casualties, NATO used only precision-guided munitions. This caused severe problems for the contributing European air forces: Denmark ran out, and others ran low. The US had to resupply these allies from its stocks. The USAF and Navy continued to fly around a quarter of all missions, contributing the majority of surveillance, electronic warfare, and – as in Mali – refuelling.

These are not combat capabilities. But they are vital enablers of combat capabilities. In 2011, the US secretary of defence Robert Gates was caustic about the abilities of NATO members to sustain operations without the US.

The IISS Military Balance, updated this week, includes a section on comparative defence statistics. This presents the inventories of the UN Security Council permanent members and India for several categories of military equipment: force projection, manoeuvre, and so on. Aside from the unsubtle observation of the extent to which the US is quantitatively dominant, it is useful to look at how blocks of forces are distributed in each country. Table 1 presents some of these statistics for the UK and France combined and the US.

Table 1: Selected projection and ISTAR forces, UK/France and US

Heavy/medium transport

Tanker and multi- role  tanker/ transport


Combat aircraft †

UK & France










Source: IISS Military Balance 2013
† Includes both ground attack and air supremacy aircraft.US figure includes fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft.

In these logistics and support categories, the US maintains forces roughly ten times larger than the UK and France combined. The exception is in combat aircraft, where the UK and France have more than would be expected. The UK and France have a gap in the ratio of tankers to fighters compared to the US. The ratio for the US is just over six fighters per tanker, while just over ten British and French planes rely on each tanker.

That France in Mali and NATO in Libya had to rely on the US to support their air operations, both times in countries a handful of hours flight time away, is an indication of how far Europe as a continent is from being able to project force. If Mr Stephens in the FT was right and Libya and Mali are steps toward more joint European interventions, these gaps must be plugged. Given the continent’s sluggard economy, the idea that more money will be available to do so is unlikely. It would be better for European defence ministers to take a dispassionate look at what capabilities are duplicated by maintaining 26 separate national defence industries and consolidate appropriately. The collapse of the BAE and EADS merger in 2012 showed how difficult that will be.


Germany Won’t Fight

France has intervened in Mali to stop an assault of rebel forces from the north of the country. While Britain has supplied two transport aircraft to airlift equipment to the West African state, Germany initially remained hesitant. What is clear is that the country will not send combat forces, but will probably provide logistical, humanitarian and/or medical support. Comments from the governing coalition experts pointed towards a lack of consensus regarding what such help would entail. Nevertheless, Tuesday night it was reported that France and Germany are in negotiations to use German Transall aircraft and that a decision will be announced by Thursday.

Germany’s role during the war in Libya drew a lot of criticism from its partners. Hence, it was clear that Angela Merkel’s government would not be able to stay out of this conflict entirely. However, its reaction sticks to an established modus operandi. Germany has gotten rid of the highly moralized arguments that dominated the discussion about sending military forces abroad during the 1990s. The recent end of conscription went hand-in-hand with a hasty attempt to form a fully professional army. At the same time, do not expect that Germany will take such an active role again as it did in Afghanistan (some might beg to differ on the “active” part) in the near future. It will try using other measures (such as export of weapons and military equipment or supporting other countries in military campaigns where necessary) or only send troops where it can guarantee relative safety for its soldiers (Patriot rockets in Turkey).

During the red-green administration Joschka Fischer and Gerhard Schröder gave Germany an active foreign policy profile, taking a leading role on Kosovo for example. We cannot expect such an approach from Westerwelle and Merkel; their default mode for politics remains hesitation and low profile. In addition military interventions are largely unpopular in Germany and it is an election year.

Update: The German government announced today that it will indeed send two aircraft to support French operations. Merkel said that the “the terrorism in Mali is not only a threat to Africa but also to Europe”.


Photo Credit: fdecomite

The Consequences of Non-intervention?

The civil war in Syria has gone on for almost two years now. Western states have not intervened directly and the deployment of US American, Dutch and German Patriot rockets is not a preparation to do so. While Turkey and some Arab states have supported the rebel forces with weapons and equipment none of them has gone all in, while Iran has given large scale aid to forces loyal to the Syrian regime. The war has become prolonged, cruel and bloody.

An effect of this drawn out conflict has been the radicalization of the opposition forces which goes hand in hand with an increasing polarization along ethnic lines. The protest in Syria – as in other countries of the Middle East – started with demands for democracy and freedom but was brutally suppressed by the Syrian government. The militarization of the Syrian opposition can be seen as a reaction to a crackdown by a regime that has never had an interest in accommodating their demands. The radicalization equally is a result of the fact that the conflict has been burning for so long.

Long internal wars have the tendency to become prolonged and fester on for years if one side is unable to win the momentum, cleavages become more and more pronounced and community relations entirely determined by violence. Globalization provides the necessary resources to continue such a conflict.

The conflict in Syria is a new theatre for jihadists who want to acquire experiences at the front-lines. At the same time the Western inaction will feed into the narrative that the West stands idly by when Muslims are killed. If the war in Bosnia and its call to arms for a generation of Jihadists can tell us anything than it is that the Western inaction will have consequences in the future.

The thought to ponder about: could all of this been prevented if the West had reacted differently? A no-fly zone would have prevented the deployment of Syrian air force and would have given the Syrian rebels a better chance of opposing the Syrian regime. However, a lot of intellectual effort was spent arguing why such an intervention would be a dangerous adventure. All of those arguments are well reasoned and thought through. Where the debate falls short, however, is when it comes the consequences of non-intervention.

So after almost two years of war and about 60,000 casualties: would an early intervention have been the better choice?


Photo credit: FreedomHouse2