Shortfalls in European defense capacities, which have already been felt during the air war in Libya, could be exacerbated by spending cuts that are beginning to manifest themselves in that arena.

The campaign in Libya has been suffering in part because of a shortage of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, warns a European military official involved in operational planning. He cites as an example a shortage of Predator unmanned aircraft, noting that there are only a few on hand.

The Libya war has seen NATO allies contribute a variety of high-end systems such as the U.S. Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint signals intelligence aircraft, Royal Air Force Sentinel R1 ground-surveillance aircraft, and U.S. Global Hawk and U-2 intelligence systems, and has been using them to cross-cue each other to obtain detailed information on parts of the country. However, the official warns, that level of detail is available only for relatively small parts of Libya, leaving NATO with an incomplete picture of what is going on overall except for some hot spots on the coast. Collection efforts are further hampered because manned intelligence assets are operating at standoff distances outside of the range of Libyan air defenses.

That opinion is not shared by all, however. One RAF official points out that the air campaign has been able to limit collateral damage in part by providing persistent surveillance of potential targets for extended periods, monitoring them to detect patterns and assure that targets are struck only when no civilians are nearby.

Nevertheless, Gen. Mark Welsh, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, says: “We need more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” and that “we need to improve our dynamic targeting.” One useful step might be for NATO to establish a remotely piloted aircraft center of excellence to help to help guarantee that member-owned systems are interoperable.

But other shortfalls exist. Maj. Gen. Henrik R. Dam, commander of tactical air command for the Danish air force, says air-to-air refueling assets have been in short supply. What is more, he says, staffing at NATO's Combined Air Operations Center Five in Poggio Renatico, Italy, the planning center of the air campaign, is 30% undersubscribed for current operations.

Welsh adds that command-and-control and secure communications capacities “are not what they should be.”

Then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on the eve of his departure last month, lamented Europe's capability shortfalls that manifested themselves in Europe. And, he expressed concern that looming budget cuts would further erode the capability gaps with the U.S.

U.K. Defense Secretary Liam Fox echoes Gates's comments. Too many European allies “are looking for a free ride,” Fox says. As to NATO members not providing adequate financial resources to defense, he says: “If they want the insurance policy, perhaps they should be willing to pay the premium.”

That view is for the most part shared continent-wide. If European militaries reduce modernization spending in light of a tighter fiscal environment, it could lead to countries cutting the same capabilities, “creating potentially even bigger gaps and shortfalls” in some areas and even more duplication in others, Lt. Gen. Aarne Kreuzinger-Janik, German air force chief of staff, said at the Royal United Services Institute's Air Power Conference 2011.

To ameliorate that problem, Kreuzinger-Janik suggests Europe should look more broadly at the cuts being proposed. He notes that a “European airpower capability gap” study could be useful in assessing whether particular military skills are at risk. The goal would be to examine what the impact of a European-wide planned restructuring efforts would be on the region's air power more broadly.

One way to minimize the damage would be to work more cohesively, Kreuzinger-Janik notes, citing cooperation in the air defense, unmanned aircraft and transport helicopters realms as possible options.

Gen. Patrick de Rousiers, inspector general for the French air force, shares the German commander's views. De Rousiers lists cyber and space warfare as potential areas for cooperation, along with missile defense and unmanned aircraft.

France is already embarked on a broad cooperation agreement with the U.K. across a range of areas, including the operational front and defense modernization, particularly addressing precision weapons and unmanned aircraft. But the aerospace industry has some concerns as to the countries' abilities to finance cooperative programs being planned.