For the second time this year a European air force was unable to send a jet fighter into the air to confront an aerial intruder. The latest incident was on May 20th when Russian warplanes entered Finnish air space and while these intruders were detected, there were no pilots available to take up an F-18 fighter to confront the Russians. The reason given was budgetary problems, specifically an overtime cap that made it impossible to have pilots and ground crews available 24/7 to deal with intruders everywhere on Finland’s long border with Russia.
The earlier episode took place in February when Swiss F-18s failed to take off and intercept a hijacked Ethiopian Boeing 767 that was known (for several hours) to be headed their way. Two Italian fighters intercepted and escorted the 767 as it entered Italian air space near Sicily. When the 767 entered French air space on its final approach to Switzerland two French fighters took over and as the airliner entered Swiss air space the French fighters stuck with it. Swiss F-18s would normally take over at this point but, as was later explained, budget cuts and noise rules prevented the Swiss F-18s from taking off. Switzerland already had rules in place that would allow French fighters to enter Swiss air space in such an emergency. However, the French fighters could not fire their weapons without Swiss permission. The 767 landed at Geneva and the copilot, who planned to request political asylum, was arrested.
Swiss officials explained that because of budget cuts the air force could no longer afford 24/7 availability of its F-18s for emergencies. Exceptions could be made, but in this case they weren’t. That was apparently because there are also noise restrictions on F-18 use and since the 767 was arriving before 8 AM, the jets taking off would have been in violation of local aircraft noise rules. The Swiss did not see any problem with all this because they knew the hijacker wanted asylum and a French fighter escort would do.
With the Finns there was also a problem with the extent of the border with Russia (over 1,300 kilometers) and the expense of having fighters available for interception everywhere all the time. During the May incident another Russian aircraft came close to the border in the south and the Finns intercepted that one. This incident resonates with the U.S. because now Finland wants to join NATO and gain the benefits of the NATO mutual defense pact to deal with an increasingly aggressive Russia. NATO membership often involves fellow members sending jet fighters in for “trainin”. That also sends a message to any local threats.
Americans, and many Europeans, were appalled at the Swiss attitude, but a little more understanding of the Finnish situation. The Finns have long sought to placate rather than confront their enormous and often cranky neighbor. Switzerland, on the other hand, has managed to maintain its neutrality with all its neighbors for over two centuries. Nevertheless, the Finns don’t like this kind of publicity, which spotlights their usual attitude towards occasional Russian reminders of why Finland should fear their former master (Finland was part of Russia from 1809 to 1917).
Because of local politics, and the enormous expense of maintaining modern forces the politics of paying for and using military forces are different in Europe, especially since the end of the Cold War. The United States has been alarmed with these developments and has had little success in getting its European allies to organize their armed forces to be more effective. This is becoming a growing problem for the United States. For a long time the European nations took for granted that the United States would always show up to supply key military capabilities, just as the Swiss depended on France to put fighters in the air when the Swiss could not.
During the Cold War (1947-91) the U.S. accepted these European attitudes, in part because they were not as dysfunctional as they are now. Since the 1990s the U.S. has increasingly resented this growing burden and has been uncharacteristically undiplomatic over the last few years in discussing logistical and equipment shortcomings of its NATO allies. Switzerland is not a NATO ally, but as the 767 hijacking made clear, there are situations where the Swiss are involved with NATO in military matters whether they want to be or not.
Before the Swiss incident there were other recent examples how this sort of thing works, or doesn’t. The French led liberation of northern Mali in early 2013 was greatly assisted by French warplanes using smart bombs to attack known terrorist bases. This was devastating and led to the rapid collapse of resistance to the French ground forces. But most of the air support would not have been possible without American aerial tankers. There was a similar shortage of aerial reconnaissance aircraft, especially those that could do electronic monitoring (to monitor terrorist communications on the ground). Later in 2013 NATO was under pressure to support the Syrian rebels with air support, as they did the Libyans in 2011. That would not be possible without American assistance and the main reason it didn’t happen was the U.S. refusal to get involved.
Libya in 2011 was supposed to be just a European operation. NATO was persuaded to take charge of the bombing campaign (to fulfill a UN order to stop the Libyan dictator from murdering his own people). While NATO agreed to do this they found, once more, that they didn’t have sufficient military capability to get it done with European resources alone. The U.S. still had to supply most of the refueling and intelligence aircraft as well as send more smart bombs because most NATO nations don’t have very large stocks of these weapons.
This was yet another example of how unprepared most NATO members were for actual combat. The situation has gotten worse since 1991. This was immediately seen when there was a need for peacekeeping in the Balkans throughout the 1990s. The U.S. was implored to pitch in because the European NATO nations couldn’t handle this themselves. Then came September 11, 2001. NATO members offered to help in Afghanistan and (to a lesser extent) Iraq. But it was more promises than performance because NATO nations were even less prepared for peacekeeping in distant hotspots.
The reluctance of most European nations to send troops to Iraq or Afghanistan was more than just the result of political differences. While Europe has about twice as many troops as the United States, they have far fewer fit enough to send off to a combat zone. This was a problem first noted in the 1990s, when there was a big demand for peacekeepers in the Balkans. The Europeans couldn't fob this one off on the Americans and had to come up with combat ready troops. The Europeans had a tough time finding soldiers ready and able to go.
European armed forces are full of people in uniform who have a civil service mentality. That is, they think and act like civilians, not soldiers. Belgium discovered, for example, that 14 percent of its troops were obese (compared to 12 percent of the general population) and unfit for many of their duties. Much noise is always being made about getting all the troops in good physical shape. While that is possible, it is less likely that the mentality of the troops will be changed.
During the Cold War, Europe got most of its troops via conscription. Young men came in for two or three years and then left. Anywhere from a third to half the troops were long term professionals, in for twenty or more years. But even before the Cold War ended, many of the European military professionals were losing their combat edge. When the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, there was no longer any compelling reason for a European soldier to think and act like one. It was just a job. A government job that was not, or should not, be terribly demanding.
Europeans spend a much higher proportion of their defense dollars on payroll, leaving little money for training, new equipment, and maintenance. It also meant an older, on average, bunch of troops. Going to war is a young man's game, but Europeans have instead turned their armed forces into another job creation program. There are some exceptions, like Britain and France, demanding that the troops remain fit and maintaining high training standards. Most European nations maintain a few elite infantry units, but these don't add up to much in terms of numbers. Only Britain and France have large "rapid reaction" forces that can be sent overseas on short notice. The United States has the largest such force, and many European nations are trying to expand theirs.
America also has a leadership advantage on the ground. The U.S. has long maintained an "up or out" promotion policy, which forces people out of the service if they are not promoted within a certain amount of time. The U.S. also maintains high standards for new recruits, and making it possible to maintain more combat capable units. The U.S. is able to field more combat troops, and far more combat power, than over twice as many European soldiers, sailors, and airmen.
The Europeans are still producing more excuses than solutions, and that is not expected to change, no matter how much the Americans complain. In fact, it is getting worse. European nations are rapidly downsizing their air forces. Not just in numbers of aircraft but in money spent on training. For over sixty years the U.S. could depend on European pilots to be well trained and competent. But now Europeans are cutting flying hours and the U.S. has to adapt to Europeans showing up in modern aircraft with poorly trained pilots. Or, in the case of the Swiss or Finnish Air Force, not showing up at all.