September 15, 2012: European NATO nations are determined not to be humiliated again by their inadequacies. NATO nations were again embarrassed last year when they found themselves depending on the United States for most of its air reconnaissance and aerial refueling needs over Libya. So last May NATO nations once more signed an agreement to overcome this dependence. This would be done by having European NATO members making their air recon and refueling aircraft available as part of a NATO air support pool. As with previous efforts, there are still problems to be overcome. First, the contributing nations need aircraft similar to what the Americans use. That has long been an insurmountable problem because the U.S. has long led the world in developing reconnaissance aircraft (for taking pictures or monitoring electronic transmissions). But that is changing as Germany is buying Global Hawk UAVs equipped for electronic eavesdropping. Britain already has some manned aircraft that can do this and several other nations have, or are getting, smaller UAVs that can handle this as well as the usual photo surveillance.
A lot of the needed aircraft won’t be in service for another five years or so. Until then, the Americans will still have to be called on. Even when the European nations have the specialized aircraft, some have to change their laws to allow information obtained by their recon aircraft to be quickly shared with NATO allies. This was also a problem in Afghanistan over the last decade. Temporary arrangements were made to enable effective intelligence. But for this new deal to work all nations contributing aircraft and other resources have to amend their laws and regulations to enable the new NATO support unit to quickly start sharing info, like the Americans do.
The aerial tankers situation is less of a problem. There are no secrecy issues and the only potential problem is the presence of two different techniques to transferring fuel in the air. NATO has already solved this problem on paper, and tankers under NATO control will have to have the kits needed to convert boom systems to the more common (in Europe) hose-and-drogue systems.
It would seem odd that after 60 years NATO would still be having problems cooperating. That’s because for most of that time the U.S. supplied a lot of the specialized refueling and recon aircraft. Most European members (with the notable exception of Britain) were glad to let the Americans take the lead. This saved the Europeans a lot of money and bother. But since the Cold War ended in 1991, (with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the aggressor NATO was formed to resist) the Americans have largely departed and, for situations seen as a European responsibility (like Libya and now Syria) the Americans are not keen on taking the lead. At the same time Europeans are inclined to deal with these local situations themselves. But they are finding that decades of “let the Yanks handle it” came with a cost. The bill for independence is now coming due.