Trump gives European countries ‘the willies’ about buying US weapons, but he’s not their only concern

President Donald Trump with other leaders at the 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels, July 11, 2018.

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President Donald Trump with other leaders at the 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels, July 11, 2018.
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Sean Gallup/Getty Imagess

  • European members of the EU and NATO are looking for ways to bolster their own defense industries.
  • Part of that interest stems from frustration and uncertainty about President Donald Trump.
  • But part of it is related to European countries’ own defense prerogatives and frustration with other US policies.

President Donald Trump’s broadsides against NATO are stoking resentment among the US’s European allies.

Trump’s frequent criticisms of the alliance have been focused on the 2%-of-GDP defense-spending level that the bloc in 2014 agreed to “move toward” by 2024.

The US president’s apparent frustration with that movement came to the fore during the NATO summit in July, when he reportedly told fellow NATO leaders that their countries needed to reach that spending level by 2019 “or the United States would go it alone” – though he did not directly threaten to leave the alliance.

For countries that have long been assured of US assistance, Trump’s pressure and newfound doubts about US security guarantees that he has inspired add to their growing focus on expanding domestic defense capacity.

Soldiers hold their national flags during the official welcoming ceremony for NATO's Canadian-led Enhanced Forward Presence combat battalion in Adazi, Latvia, June 19, 2017.

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Soldiers hold their national flags during the official welcoming ceremony for NATO’s Canadian-led Enhanced Forward Presence combat battalion in Adazi, Latvia, June 19, 2017.
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REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

In June, Jorge Domecq, the Spanish chief of the European Defense Agency, said European countries needed to move toward “strategic autonomy” by reducing their reliance on US-made weaponry.

Frank Haun, chief of the German combat-vehicle specialist Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, made similar comments that month, telling Defense News that European countries should buy weapons systems developed and built in Europe, “to make sure that if something happens they are capable in having the right answers to the threat.”

“I don’t think Trump would do anything, knowingly, that would hurt US arms sales,” said Jim Townsend, an adjunct senior fellow in the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, pointing to the administration’s efforts to boost US arms exports.

But Trump’s comments and policies that make the US commitment to NATO look uncertain give Europeans “the willies in terms of … buying US weaponry, because if all of a sudden we disengage does that mean it’d be harder to get spares?” said Townsend, who was US deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy for eight years.

That uncertainty is affecting European countries’ “impulse to spend more on the military,” Townsend said, “but instead of using that money to buy [from the] US, they’re going to buy European.”

German soldiers in a Leopard tank fire at a target at the Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany, May 11, 2016.

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German soldiers in a Leopard tank fire at a target at the Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany, May 11, 2016.
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US Army photo by Pfc. Javon Spence

Trump’s actions have helped build “a narrative in Europe where European leadership says, ‘We do need to spend more money on defense. We do need to build up our military capability because we feel we can’t depend on the United States,'” said Townsend, who also worked in foreign military sales at the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

“So what happens then is that this builds this narrative that we’re going to buy European and therefore we’re going to need to build up the European defense industry, and the European Union can help do this” through institutions like the Permanent Structured Cooperation framework, which aims to deepen defense cooperation.

NATO members have already increased defense spending. Defense expenditures as a percentage of GDP rose again in 2017 after 2016 saw the first such increase since 2009, according to NATO. After the July summit, Trump said NATO members had pledged additional increases, though other countries disputed that.

In Western Europe, 2016 was the second consecutive year of military-expenditure increases, rising 2.6%, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said in mid-2017. Spending in Central Europe rose 2.4% that year.

A Puma tank crosses a river during a German army training and information day in Munster, October 9, 2015.

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A Puma tank crosses a river during a German army training and information day in Munster, October 9, 2015.
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REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer

European defense initiatives have also cropped up more frequently, particularly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

In mid-2017, the EU launched the European Defense Fund, a multibillion-euro program to encourage defense procurement. That was the first time the bloc used money from its budget for buying military gear, but members have been cooperating on defense projects for some time, even if national interests and political machinations have made joint undertakings more difficult.

Support for more military spending is seen as stretching across Europe’s political spectrum.

“There is a push to build up the European defense capability from within Europe, so it’s not the US pushing,” Townsend said. “It’s actually … internally driven in the EU, which means the European Union might put more money into subsidizing [research and development] or might put in other bits of policy that makes it more advantageous for a country to buy European.”

An Airbus A400M military transport plane at the Airbus assembly plant in Seville, Spain, June 23, 2016.

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An Airbus A400M military transport plane at the Airbus assembly plant in Seville, Spain, June 23, 2016.
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Thomson Reuters

Other decisions by the US have led some in Europe to believe they need a non-US avenue through which to develop their defense industries.

In France – one of the biggest arms exporters in the world – frustration has grown over the US withholding clearance for the sale of the Scalp cruise missile, which includes US-made components. The US-made parts are critical for the long-range weapon, and Washington’s decision not to authorize the transfer upended a deal for France to sell Rafale fighter jets to Egypt.

The ability to block the sale came through the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, an export-control regulation overseen by the US government.

In response, French officials have said they’re looking for a way around ITAR – and to gain more autonomy.

A French Dassault Rafale jet receives fuel from a US Air Force KC-10 tanker aircraft.

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A French Dassault Rafale jet receives fuel from a US Air Force KC-10 tanker aircraft.
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Reuters/Handout

“It is true that we depend on this (US International Traffic in Arms Regulations) mechanism: We are at the mercy of the Americans when our equipment is concerned,” French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly told legislators in early July, according to Defense News.

“What is the solution? That the manufacturer of these missiles, namely MBDA, make the investment in research and technology to be able to make a similar component, which would avoid ITAR,” Parly added.” “We are able to do it for this contract because the component can be built within a reasonable amount of time.”

“Those kind of things – the F-35 to Turkey, the US under ITAR, the US saying to the French, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to let you export to Egypt,’ and then all this stuff with Trump – all of that is doing nothing but increasing the motivation within Europe to build up their own military capabilities, based on their own industries, and screw the US,” said Townsend, referring to a move by Congress that would withhold the transfer of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey.