NATO After Libya

The Atlantic Alliance in Austere Times

(Courtesy Reuters)

NATO's sea and air mission in Libya is the first major military engagement undertaken since the global financial crisis. With European NATO allies drastically reducing their defense spending, there were legitimate fears as to whether they could still afford to respond to such complex crises. Reports early on that the operation lacked sufficient strike capabilities reinforced these fears. But the unprecedented speed, scale, and sustained pace of execution of Operation Unified Protector tell a different story. As of early May, the pace of air sorties had remained high since the beginning of the operation, and strikes had accounted for just under half of those sorties. When requirements changed as Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces altered their tactics, NATO allies provided more of the high-precision strike capabilities that the commanders needed. Meanwhile, more than a dozen ships have been patrolling the Mediterranean Sea and enforcing the UN arms embargo.

The mission in Libya has revealed three important truths about military intervention today. First, to those who claimed that Afghanistan was to be NATO's last out-of-area mission, it has shown that unpredictability is the very essence of security. Second, it has proved that in addition to frontline capabilities, such as fighter-bombers and warships, so-called enablers, such as surveillance and refueling aircraft, as well as drones, are critical parts of any modern operation. And third, it has revealed that NATO allies do not lack military capabilities. Any shortfalls have been primarily due to political, rather than military, constraints. In other words, Libya is a reminder of how important it is for NATO to be ready, capable, and willing to act.

Although defense is and must remain the prerogative of sovereign nations, an alliance that brings Europe and North America together requires an equitable sharing of the burden in order to be efficient. Downward trends in European defense budgets raise some legitimate concerns. At the current pace of cuts, it is hard to see how Europe could maintain enough military capabilities to sustain similar operations in the future. And this touches on a fundamental challenge facing Europe and the alliance as a whole: how to avoid having the economic crisis degenerate into a security crisis. The way Europe responds to this challenge could determine its place in the global order and the future of security.

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