The U.S. Strategic Turn: A European View


by General (Retired) Jean-Patrick Gaviard

President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta have recently presented to the US military a major change of strategic vision.

The document of reference[1] enumerates with a staunch line, the United States’ priorities for the 21st century. In the face of budget constraints (cuts of $450 billion over a 10-year period), the American executive has given specific directives to its military personal.

This document, a true political legacy, allows us to identify four major strategic orientations:

  1. The rebalancing of American efforts towards South East Asia and the Middle East.
  2. The reformatting of the armed forces, under budgetary constraints, to turn them into an “agile, flexible and ready to use” force with “cutting-edge technology”;
  3. The emphasis has been put on prioritizing the maintaining of the armed forces or their development to counter regional threats, in particular, in relation to weapons of mass destructions, to cyber defense and (and this is new) to deny access of the airspace, the seas and the outer space;
  4. A rebalanced relation with NATO along with an American policy of industrial investments in Europe to develop these new capacities.

What consequences can be drawn from this strategic turn for Europe and most particularly France?

On policy and diplomacy

While this document highlights the continued American commitment to NATO, in particular in the framework of Article V, the role on the sideline played by the US military during the Libyan operations and their repeated requests to Europeans to invest more heavily in their own armed forces have a clear message.  The Americans would be eager to reduce their commitment to NATO and as a result let the Europeans meet their responsibilities.

President Obama has announced major defense cuts and changes. What are the implications for Europe? Credit Image: Bigstock

The direct consequence from this “partial disengagement” would enable to revive the idea pushed by France of a ‘European defense’ that would rely on two pillars: the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) and NATO.

At a time where the idea of greater engagement in European politics is pushed, wouldn’t it be wise to put back this proposition on the agenda and revive the Europe of Defense, an  idea that is running out of steam?

Despite the budget constraints, the corollary of such a vision will require caution in regards to the future financial efforts made by Europeans in this domain.

On capabilities to develop

On the capability side, the free access to Global Commons is deemed crucial by the United States in order to ensure the free movement of goods and the projection of their forces. In the short run, this freedom of unrestricted access runs the risk of being denied by China and Iran, as illustrated by the recent maneuvers of the Iranian navy in the Straits of Ormuz.

In this context, the Americans have identified as key elements to retain the following capabilities: “intelligence, anti-submarines and spatial assets as well as the development of a new stealth bomber.”

The future European and French capability doctrine will need to be based on the American conclusions, because this threat will weigh heavily on the freedom of our supply chain and force  projection.

Lastly, the American document puts emphasis on the development of cyber defense capabilities, the struggle against the spread of weapons of mass destruction as well as nuclear deterrence.

On the defense industry

The American ambition to develop “with the Europeans” capabilities adapted to the 21st century is in line with a clear logic of stranglehold of the European defense industry. The examples of anti-missile defense or the ‘share strategy’ introduced for the development and the manufacturing of the F-35, with a selected number of European countries, demonstrate how the Americans intend on industrially impose their rules in Europe.

As such, their ambition of pooling and sharing seems to be a one-way-street.

Indeed, the air-refueling tanker contract is a reminder of that.

Deemed strategic for the United States, it left no chance to EADS for winning the bid.

As far as the defense industry is concerned, it is very important to remain clear because European and French  strategic autonomies are at skate.

A European and national policy of defense industry is therefore a real necessity if Europe wants to maintain the control of its future operational engagements.

The European Defense Agency (AED) has  a major role to play in that domain provided that that member-states give it full responsibility to do so. Concerning France, while efforts need to be achieved in the domain of UAVs and stealth, its industry is well positioned in the sectors of very long range cruise missiles, in submarine actions, in tactical data and command and control.

The national industry has capabilities in the ballistic defense anti-missile domain as well. All of these capabilities are relevant to what the Americans wish to offer to the Europeans in their new logic of capabilities

The upcoming NATO summit in May in Chicago offers a great opportunity for French manufacturers to respond, in kind, to these propositions. Let us pursue similarly efforts in research and technology, which are vital for the future.

On concept and budget

Beyond the development of new operational concept on the “accessibility  of common spaces” adapted to the new threats, the document indicates that missions of counter-insurgency and that of stabilization are still part of the assignments devoted to American forces.

But it is clearly stated that these will be limited and shall not be undertaken “on a big scale for long period of time”.

The abandonment of these missions is already implicit.  What transpires from this, is the reduction of troops in the four branches but most particularly in the US Army, as missions of counter-insurgency and stabilization require lots of troops. These gains in personnel should allow the “recapitalization” of forces, which aim to extricate budget gains all the while allowing efforts in terms of capabilities evoked earlier.

In conclusion, this new reality needs to be examined very carefully.

Europe has to face its responsibilities. It has the opportunity to fully take its defense and security needs in its own hand while preserving its special relationship with the United States.

Will it be up to the task? Great-Britain, traditionally attracted by the “Open Seas” will play by its own rules.

As a result, France will have a leading role to play alongside Germany, as well as Sweden, Poland, Italy and Spain.  But this possible only if France does not neglect to maintain a budgetary effort for its defense, a sign of credibility, directly related to its strategy.

Defense is first and foremost a matter of political will.

For General Jean-Patrick Gaviard background see

Translation from the French by Franck Znaty






[1] Sustaining US leadership: Priorities for 21st century defense, January 2012