On the Nature of Military Free Riding

On Tuesday this week Der Spiegel‘s international edition published a highly critical assessment of the readiness of Germany’s military. While in general it’s not surprising that the number of say, fighter jets, ready to deploy at any given moment is less than the total number of fighter jets in a military’s inventory, things like this seem genuinely concerning:

The ministry also didn’t distinguish between “full” or “conditional” operational capability. But this is an important distinction, because when the German federal parliament votes on whether the Bundeswehr can engage in a foreign deployment, it only allows equipment to be sent that is fully operational. And that’s where the deficiencies start to stack up. For example, on the list given to the parliamentarians, 16 CH53 transport helicopters are listed, but a previous air force internal report distributed to the Defense Ministry in August stated that only 7 were “fully” operational. With the Eurofighter fighter jet, Wednesday’s official list for parliament stated that 42 aircraft were ready for deployment, but the August air force report stated that only eight were “fully” capable of operation. Despite these discrepancies, the Defense Ministry is still standing behind its official list, with officials claiming it provides a “meaningful overview of the situation.”

As Spiegel makes a point of noting, this state of affairs is especially unfortunate given the desire of Ursula von der Leyen, the country’s new(ish) defense minister, that Germany take on a more active and assertive foreign policy manifested in part by increased contributions to international military deployments (in contrast to NATO’s 2011 mission in Libya, in which Germany somewhat controversially declined to participate). What this state of affairs also does is illustrate the very specific way in which the world free rides on American military might. That this happens in general is something of a foregone conclusion for certain sections of the commentariat, though the argument itself takes many forms, two of the most common being 1) that NATO and non-NATO European nations shelter under the defensive umbrella of the United States without actually, you know, paying for it and 2) that countries like those comprising the BRICS (especially China) benefit from the global trade facilitated by the United States’ commitment to keeping sea lanes open without actually having to do any of the policing themselves. One suspects the former is in some ways true (American defense spending as a share of total NATO defense spending has ballooned of late, though that might tell you more about how expensive Iraq and Afghanistan have been than anything else), but also kind of the point of NATO. The latter is a bit more ambiguous, at the very least because it’s difficult to assess the counter-factual in which America does not have more carrier groups than Germany does submarines, and also since it’s hard to imagine that if for example, the American navy halved in size tomorrow, global trade would suddenly evaporate because the Straights of Malacca immediately became infested with pirates.

But if the first form of free-riding isn’t particularly interesting (any large entity like NATO will have principle-agent problems), and the second may or may not actually happen, there is undoubtedly a third form, the existence of which Germany’s operational difficulties make viscerally clear. And that is, of course, America’s role as global policeman. To some extent it’s hardly interesting to point this out – printing all the blog posts that have been dedicated to the topic would probably result in the complete deforestation of the Amazon, and then some. But usually the discourse about America’s “globocop” role focuses on America’s self-understanding of its mission in the world (should we even have one?), or its responsibility to “do something” as the most powerful nation, with power seemingly understood in the vague sense of, “we can shock-and-awe the living fuck out of anyone without breaking a sweat.”

The Spiegel article exposes what that power is actually composed of. Firepower is certainly part of it, but the real core of America’s ability to project power overseas with relative ease is the boring stuff of maintenance and logistics and transport – hardly activities worthy of front-page news, but ones with which it seems Germany is struggling substantially enough that its ability to even transport small arms, let alone soldiers, is severely limited. To the extent that the world free rides on the capabilities of the American military, it free rides on its C-130s; on its aircraft carriers as disaster relief platforms; on its ability to supply ~70% of all aircraft deployed in a humanitarian intervention. And what can be concluded from this is that when the world free rides, it does so on the provision of global public goods that it just doesn’t value that highly. Absent NATO, one imagines many European states would feel compelled to spend more providing for their own defense, but absent American carrier groups distributing humanitarian aid in the Pacific, or American B-2s making precision strikes on Serbian military installations, it’s difficult to imagine other states making a conscious effort to fill the gap. Ultimately, when countries turn to America to “do something” about something, one suspects it’s because mechanically, and in the truest sense of that word, we’re the only country who can. And for all its grousing, the rest of the world doesn’t seem too bothered by that state of affairs.