The latest examples of how this all works can be seen in Mali and Syria. The French led liberation of northern Mali earlier this year was greatly assisted by French warplanes using smart bombs to attack known terrorist bases. This was devastating and led to the rapid collapse of resistance to the French ground forces. But most of the air support would not have been possible without American aerial tankers. There was a similar shortage of aerial reconnaissance aircraft, especially those that could do electronic monitoring (to monitor terrorist communications on the ground). Now NATO is under growing pressure to support the Syrian rebels with air support, as they did the Libyans two years ago. That won’t be possible without American assistance.
Libya in 2011, was supposed to be just a European operation. NATO was persuaded to take charge of the bombing campaign (to fulfill a UN order to stop the Libyan dictator from murdering his own people). While NATO agreed to do this, they found, once more, that they didn’t have sufficient military capability to get it done with European resources alone. The U.S. still had to supply most of the refueling and intelligence aircraft, as well as send more smart bombs because most NATO nations don’t have very large stocks of these weapons.
This is not a new problem. During the Cold War the U.S. constantly, and usually quietly, complained of how unprepared most NATO members were for actual combat. These nations were quite relieved when the Cold War ended in 1991. But then came the need for peacekeeping in the Balkans throughout the 1990s. The U.S. was implored to pitch in because the European NATO nations couldn’t handle this themselves. Then came September 11, 2001. NATO members offered to help in Afghanistan and (to a lesser extent) Iraq. But it was more promises than performance.
European reluctance to send troops to Iraq or Afghanistan was more than just the result of political differences. While Europe has about twice as many troops as the United States, they have far fewer fit enough to ship to a combat zone. This was a problem first noted in the 1990s, when there was a big demand for peacekeepers in the Balkans. The Europeans couldn't fob this one off on the Americans and had to come up with combat ready troops. The Europeans had a tough time finding soldiers ready and able to go.
European armed forces are full of people in uniform who have a civil service mentality. That is, they think and act like civilians, not soldiers. Belgium discovered, for example, that 14 percent of its troops were obese (compared to 12 percent of the general population) and unfit for many of their duties. Much noise is always being made about getting all the troops in good physical shape. While that is possible, it is less likely that the mentality of the troops will be changed.
During the Cold War, Europe got most of its troops via conscription. Young men came in for two or three years and then left. Anywhere from a third to half the troops were long term professionals, in for twenty or more years. But even before the Cold War ended, many of the European military professionals were losing their combat edge. When the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, there was no longer any compelling reason for a European soldier to think and act like one. It was just a job. A government job that was not, or should not, be terribly demanding.
Europeans spend a much higher proportion of their defense dollars on payroll, leaving little money for training, new equipment, and maintenance. It also meant an older, on average, bunch of troops. Going to war is a young man's game, but Europeans have instead turned their armed forces into another job creation program. There are some exceptions, like Britain and France, demanding that the troops remain fit and maintaining high training standards. Most European nations maintain a few elite infantry units, but these don't add up to much in terms of numbers. Only Britain and France have large "rapid reaction" forces that can be sent overseas on short notice. The United States has the largest such force, and many European nations are trying to expand theirs.
America also has a leadership advantage on the ground. The U.S. has long maintained an "up or out" promotion policy, which forces people out of the service if they are not promoted within a certain amount of time. The U.S. also maintains high standards for new recruits, and making it possible to maintain more combat capable units. The U.S. is able to field more combat troops, and far more combat power, than over twice as many European soldiers, sailors, and airmen.
The Europeans are still producing more excuses than solutions, and that is not expected to change, no matter how much the Americans complain. In fact, it is getting worse. European nations are rapidly downsizing their air forces. Not just in numbers of aircraft but in money spent on training. For over sixty years the U.S. could depend on European pilots to be well trained and competent. But now Europeans are cutting flying hours and the U.S. has to adapt to Europeans showing up in modern aircraft with poorly trained pilots.