Uncle Trump to the Naval Rescue

Europe claims it can’t rely on the U.S., but look who’s protecting ships.

By the Editorial Board   August 9, 2019
Well, well, look who’s coming to the rescue of the British and shipping in the Middle East. None other than the Trump Administration that is supposed to be an unreliable ally. The Brits now say they’re joining a U.S.-led coalition to protect merchant shipping after they failed to get help from the rest of Europe.

The Royal Navy will join the effort organized by the U.S. Central Command after Iran seized a third ship this week. On July 19 the HMS Montrose frigate was patrolling near the Strait of Hormuz but was too far away to stop Iranian forces from taking a British-flagged tanker and crew that Tehran still hasn’t released.

Britain needs help because nearly half of its frigates and destroyers are undergoing major repairs or upgrades. The Royal Navy has around 80 ships, down from more than 130 during the 1982 Falklands War. The country is without a deployable aircraft carrier, though it has plans for two. London spent more than 2% of gross domestic product on defense in 2018, fulfilling its NATO requirement. But former Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood admitted after the tanker seizure that “our Royal Navy is too small to manage our interests across the globe.”

Germany refused to help, perhaps because it doesn’t want to offend Iran and might lose a naval engagement. While the Deutsche Marine has helped fight piracy in East Africa, it struggles to meet basic NATO commitments. At one point in 2018 its entire U-Boat fleet—six submarines—was stuck in dry dock. The surface fleet has held up better, though it’s aging fast.

Berlin spent only 1.2% of GDP on defense in 2018. Chancellor Angela Merkel ’s heir apparent, Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, called for Germany to meet its 2% commitment during her recent swearing-in ceremony. Her fellow lawmakers responded with boos.

The French would have had a limited benefit to a patrol mission, perhaps because La Royale has only a single aircraft carrier after cancelling plans for a second years ago.

The episode exposes that Europe lacks the means and the will to project naval force in any serious way. European leaders worry about Mr. Trump ’s reliability, and understandably given some of his rhetoric about NATO in his first couple of years in office. But when the urgent need arises, Europe still needs the United States to sail or fly or march to stand against the world’s rogue regimes.

Bluster aside, President Trump has made it a priority to reinvigorate the U.S. military, especially on operations and readiness that deteriorated under Barack Obama. With 290 deployable ships, the U.S. Navy remains about 60 short of what America needs to maintain dominance as China rises and a declining Russia lashes out. But at least the U.S. can still project naval and air power in a way that gives the world’s pirate nations pause.

The U.S. and Europe have a shared interest in defending freedom of navigation across the world, even if they disagree over Iran. So it’s a shame only the British so far have agreed to help Uncle Sam. The U.S. will do it anyway, whether or not Europe says thanks.!



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