A Marine’s Lessons for Europe

As expected, it has just been announced that U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Jones will soon take the reins as NATO’s top military leader, otherwise known as Supreme Allied Commander Europe, or SACEUR. It will be the first time that a marine officer holds that position, which has traditionally been held by a U.S. Army or Air Force officer.

There is a certain irony in the Bush administration’s decision to send Jones to NATO headquarters in Brussels. He was a favorite of former Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen and the Clinton administration, so it is perhaps surprising that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush have chosen to give him another plum job. But they were right to do so.

His nomination is an important and exciting development for the alliance for two reasons, both of which should contribute to its future effectiveness in using military force beyond the territories of NATO members.

First, the Marine Corps emphasizes expeditionary operations. That orientation now makes sense for NATO as well. Although the threat of terrorism is clearly more real than ever, NATO no longer has to worry about large foreign armies posing serious threats to its members’ territories. Its European members today spend about $150 billion a year on their armed forces, yet only Britain has substantial amounts of deployable military power to show for the money.

Other countries still try to contribute to various missions—especially in the Balkans, where Europe does most of the heavy lifting today, as well as in Operation Enduring Freedom together with the security assistance force in Afghanistan. But their ability to rapidly deploy large amounts of combat power well beyond their borders is severely constrained. Although spending half what the United States does on defense, they collectively own only about 10 percent as much deployable military force.

Putting a marine general in charge of NATO helps send a message to the alliance that this state of affairs should change. To be sure, gradual change has already been under way for a decade, as reflected most recently in Europe’s “Headline Goals”—the aspiration to be able to deploy 60,000 troops abroad within two months and keep them deployed for at least a year.

In addition, no U.S. general will have great influence over the actual military resource allocations of European governments, which clearly make their own decisions on such matters and accord only a limited voice to Washington. But small gestures, and single individuals like Jones, can still make a difference.

Second, and just as importantly, the Marine Corps knows how to develop real military capability on a modest budget. That is especially critical for our allies. For years, American politicians have called on Europeans to spend more on defense. It is true that they do not spend enough, with the typical European country devoting just over 2 percent of its gross domestic product to its armed forces in contrast with the U.S. figure of more than 3 percent.

It is equally true, however, that European countries are unlikely to increase their overall levels of defense spending given their budgetary situations and their political priorities. But even if European defense budget increases would be desirable, they are not essential. By emulating the marines, the budget-constrained European militaries can buy a lot more bang for their buck.

The Marine Corps has a budget of just over $10 billion a year. Even after factoring in the ships and airplanes bought for the marines out of the navy budget, the effective annual budget is well under $15 billion. That stands in contrast to French and British levels, each over $30 billion; a German level that is the equivalent of about $25 billion; and Italian defense spending of almost $20 billion. Yet as noted, only Britain spends its defense resources as efficiently as the U.S. Marines—assuming that the goal now is to project power to distant conflicts rather than to defend home territory.

Why are the marines so efficient?

* They limit their purchases of high-technology weapons to those they need most, rather than insisting on state-of-the-art equipment across the board.

* They make good use of ships to transport supplies, rather than depending principally on airlift.

* They accept a certain dependence on the larger American military services for assets such as communications and intelligence satellites.

* They do not waste force structure. Of their 170,000 active-duty troops, most are devoted to the mission of preparing marines for deployment abroad, be it for peacetime presence, exercises, crisis response or warfare.

Clearly, European militaries will not all wish to make the same choices as the marines. But if they listen to a few of Jones’ guidelines, they can double or triple their long-range power projection capabilities without increasing their defense budgets by a single euro. That would be a welcome development for them and for the U.S.