French forces launched a military offensive last week in Mali to push back Islamic militants and help the nascent government assert control in the northern part of that former French colony. Although senior U.S. officials have expressed interest in the fight because of the militants' connection to al Qaeda's North African franchise, the White House declined to intervene directly. Instead, the Defense Department has dispatched surveillance, refueling, and transport aircraft to aid the French effort, providing their troops with the capability to conduct sustained combat operations roughly 2,500 miles from Paris. Since then, the U.S. and French governments have tussled over what, exactly, the United States would do to support the Mali campaign, and how much, if anything, France would pay for this support.
However, this diplomatic row obscures a much larger issue between the U.S. and its European allies. Put bluntly, France and NATO countries spend too little on their defense to afford the kind of global power-projection capability they need to support missions like Mali. This problem will likely grow worse as U.S. defense budgets go down and European countries continue to spend their funds on other priorities. The Mali campaign shows both the problem, and also a possible solution, blending French willingness to put their boots on the ground with the substantial global capabilities of the U.S. military.
At a very fundamental level, every nation must identify its interests and choose the best ways and means to pursue them. For decades, the United States has chosen a robust defense strategy, providing its military with trillions of dollars to develop the capabilities it has today. For better or worse, the French have invested their money differently, opting to spend a much smaller percentage of its GDP on defense, dedicating public spending to other priorities such as social welfare programs. France currently spends 2.2 percent of its GDP on defense, compared to U.S. defense outlays that equal 4.7 percent. The French level of spending gives them the capability to act -- such as their deployment of ground troops to Afghanistan or ground-attack planes to Libya -- but not the capacity to sustain such action for weeks and months.
Enter the U.S. Air Force, with a fleet tied together by a global network of command, control, communications, and computing systems. Although Washington's immediate dispute with Paris was triggered by a request for approximately $20 million to cover the operational costs of supporting French forces, these costs represent a tiny fraction of the investments it takes to build the capability and capacity to deploy forces around the world, command them, sustain them logistically, and provide precision strike capabilities to support them in combat.
The biggest costs are the aircraft themselves. The C-17 cargo aircraft is the workhorse of the Air Force, capable of conducting transoceanic flights with mid-air refueling en route, and delivering an infantry company (sans equipment) with every planeload. Each C-17 costs roughly $225 million; during the past three years alone, the Pentagon spent $4.5 billion on procuring new C-17s and maintaining older ones. The per-plane costs include some of the extensive research and development that went into these aircraft, but not all of it. The C-17 leverages decades of Air Force investment in previous aircraft such as the C-130, C-141, and C-5, as well as the broader U.S. aerospace industry. The end result from all these billions of dollars is an ability to project power around the world that is unparalleled by any other country -- in large part because no other country spends what is necessary to develop and maintain these capabilities.
However, planes without people are nothing. Even though it takes only three people to fly a C-17, maintaining and operating a fleet of cargo aircraft means the Air Force must recruit, train, house, pay, and care for thousands of pilots, technicians, mechanics, and support personnel. The average cost per active U.S. servicemember is $385,000 per year -- and pilots are significantly more expensive because of the millions of dollars necessary for initial and refresher training. And that figure does not include military retirement costs, nor the long-term care and benefits provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs. France does maintain a sizable military force, but its air force lacks the size and transport capability to truly give France a capacity to sustain global deployments like the current mission to Mali.