Europe is spending more on its defence. Can Trump take credit?

Europe is spending more on its defence. But the spree may be more cyclical than the result of US pressure, analysts say.

A Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft is seen at the ILA Air Show in Berlin, Germany, April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt
A Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft is seen at the ILA Air Show in Berlin, Germany [File: Axel Schmidt/Reuters]

Browbeating European NATO countries to spend more on their own defence has become a staple of US President Donald Trump‘s foreign policy. So too has his administration’s “Buy American” drive to boost US arms exports to allies around the world.

The tandem push has thrown the United States’ commitment to NATO into question and tarnished the notion that the alliance’s collective defence clause is unconditional.

Last July, Trump reportedly delivered an ultimatum to NATO allies in a closed-door meeting in Brussels, warning that if they didn’t increase their defence spending by January, the US would “go it alone”.

“The Trump Administration is ruthlessly transactional and disregards the normal diplomatic route for doing things,” Jacob Parakilas, deputy head of the US and the Americas Programme at London think-tank Chatham House told Al Jazeera.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if American diplomats were told to get out and sell weapons,” he added.

But as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg prepares to meet President Trump in the White House on Tuesday, and address a joint session of Congress in the run-up to NATO’s 70th-anniversary celebration in Washington later this week, President Trump appears to be getting more of what he wants.

In 2014, only three of the NATO 29 member allies had fulfilled a pledge to spend at least two percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defence.

By 2018, seven had met that threshold.

And although Germany‘s continued failure to meet the two percent target could draw further criticism from Trump this week, US arms sales to Europe are rising and projected to climb even further.

‘Buy American’

When it comes to supplying arms to the rest of the world, the US has long held a commanding lead and it’s getting wider.

US share of total global arms exports soared from 30 percent between 2009-2013 to 36 percent between 2014-2018, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). 


The shopping list for US arms is long – fighter jets, cruise and ballistic missiles, and guided bombs to name a few.

While the Middle East accounted for the majority of US arms exports tracked by SIPRI, tensions elsewhere are also helping to boost sales around the globe.

“The US is harvesting a worldwide increase in tensions,” Aude Fleurant, director of SIPRI’s Arms Transfers and Military Expenditure Program, told Al Jazeera.

Despite talk among NATO’s European allies of reducing reliance on US-made military equipment, US arms sales to Europe are strong. And forecasters see an even bigger spend on the horizon.

Europe accounted for 16 percent of US arms sales in 2017.

“That’s going to increase massively,” said Ben Moores, a senior defence and aviation analyst for Jane’s, IHS Markit which compiled that figure.

Moores told Al Jazeera the US is set to deliver $30.4bn in arms globally by 2022, with Europe accounting for $8.6bn or around 28 percent of those sales.

Strained relations with Russia have helped boost the sale of US weapons to NATO’s European allies.

But Moores cautions the increase is “not as momentous as it first appears”, given the cyclical nature of arms sales and the need for NATO countries to maintain “interoperability” between member nations’ weapons systems. 


Around every three decades, air forces need to replace ageing fighter aircraft – an expensive undertaking.

According to Moores, NATO countries are looking to replace US-made F-16 fighter jets, which are upward of 40 years old, with US-made F-35 fighter aircraft – which cost around $100m each.

Hitting a limit?

But “Buy American” appeared to have hit a limit on Monday. The Pentagon has halted deliveries and activities related to Turkey‘s F-35 jet operational capability until Ankara backs down from its commitment to take delivery of a Russian S-400 missile defence system.

The move marks the first time the US has blocked delivery of the jet to its NATO ally.

Ankara’s decision to buy Russia‘s S-400 anti-aircraft system is putting it at odds with US politicians who say handing Turkey American premier attack aircraft would be a security risk.

S-400 anti-aircraft systems are adaptive. They learn and therefore are dangerous. The US worries if Turkey links the F-35 with Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft system, the system will read and record US fighter computer weapons systems, and relay that data to Moscow.

Source: Al Jazeera