international analysis and commentary

How austerity is destroying European defense at a dangerous time


Thucydides once said, “It is not a matter of predicting the future but preparing for it”. After more than a decade of operations and now some six years into hard austerity Europe’s armed forces are not only unprepared, they are unfit for all but the slightest of future shocks. Indeed, the raiding of defense budgets by cash-strapped European governments desperate to maintain social welfare payments is accelerating Europe’s precipitous political and strategic decline. Historians will look back on the calamitously incompetent “management” of the Eurozone crisis as perhaps the greatest self-inflicted peacetime wound in Europe’s long history. Today many Europeans are close to being defenseless. It is about to get worse.

The hard global consequences of Europe’s austerity-driven defense retreat are profound and dangerous. In 2012 Asian defense spending exceeded NATO Europe spending and by 2021 Asian defense spending is projected to outstrip all NATO spending. Russia, for all of its current economic travails, is injecting €500 billion by 2020 for new armaments and a more professional military. Beijing increased the Chinese defense budget by 12.5% in 2014, 12.7% in 2013, 11.2% in 2012 and 12.7% in 2011. These are but the latest double digit increases since 1989. 

Contrast those figures with those of Europe’s Great Protector. Whilst the US spent some €575 billion on defense in 2010, the consequences of defense-cutting sequestration will see the US defense budget at a steady €360 billion by 2020. This represents a defense cut greater than the whole of Europe’s entire collective defense investment. Moreover, these cuts take place at a time when US defense roles and tasks are increasing exponentially and globally making it very hard for US forces to be everywhere in strength all of the time, which has profound implications for European defense.

Indeed, Europe is fast becoming a defense delinquent. In spite of “commitments” at the September 2014 NATO Wales Summit to halt defense cuts and move slowly towards achieving expenditure at 2% of GDP within a decade, few European nations actually believe they will achieve that target, even though the need grows with each passing year as the European defense gap expands. NATO defense expenditure in 2014 is at an average of 1.52% of GDP, with the EU at 1.36% of GDP and falling. Worse, since 2008 some half of EU member-states have cut what were already declining budgets by up to 30% and 13 of the world’s top-20 defense cutters between 2012 and 2014 can be found in NATO Europe.

Nor are the implications of irresponsible defense austerity (some would call it disarmament) simply strategic and political. European armed forces are finding it ever harder to work together on operations – be it with the Americans or with each other. Pro-European defense advocates like to make a big play of the headline figure of European defense expenditure; some €188 billion per annum. However, of that figure France and the UK together represent between 45% and 49%, whilst France, Germany and the UK together represent some 65%. Moreover, the so-called “big three” pay for 88% of all defense research and development in NATO Europe. Worse, 16 of 26 NATO Europe members spend less than €4 billion per annum and many of them very poorly.

In such circumstances one would expect better spending, but far from it. According to US defense expert Hans Binnendijk, whilst the US invests roughly €80,000 per airman, soldier or sailor, in 2014 the European average is some € $24,000. For example, this year Belgium (the leaders of which are always happy to lecture the rest of Europe about the need for “European solutions”) will spend a paltry 2.7% of its defense budget on equipment whilst over 70% on personnel. That is compared with the US spending 36% on personnel and the UK 40%. Consequently, whilst the US can deploy some 12.5% of its force at any one time, many Europeans can deploy at best 3.5% and in fact probably less. Critically, emerging missions all demand expensive deployable forces. Russia’s use of strategic ambiguous warfare, by which the use of insurgents, special and specialized forces are combined with a disinformation campaign to keep adversaries and enemies off balance.  in Ukraine re-confirms the need for a very high degree of interoperability between Allied and European forces if a credible 21st century concept of collective defense/deterrence, strategic reassurance, and a layered defense are to be established. The threat of ISIS in the Middle East demonstrates the growing danger posed to Europe by insurgents able to exploit the gaps between the great power blocs. Indeed, ungoverned spaces are emerging near Europe’s borders that pose a real threat to European stability and security. And, in a world in which armed forces are again at the epicenter of political influence and strategic effect, Europeans will need radically more capable forces to support the complex mix of values and interests for which they act. 

The cause of this fast-approaching European defense disaster is manifold: the mono-focus of Eurozone leaders on the financial crisis; the obsession of the Cameron government in London with quickly achieving an arbitrary deficit target (the already de-stabilized British armed forces will likely – and irresponsibly – be cut further after the May 2015 elections); the growing influence of a defense-averse Germany at the heart of Europe, the habit of free-riding that too many Europeans have come to accept as the norm; the use of austerity as a metaphor for pacifism; and a willingness to let “others” do the dying on their behalf.

If Europeans are to be saved from the coming austerity-driven defense disaster radical steps are needed. An integrated European defense effort is still many years away if ever. Therefore, Europe needs a new hub and spoke defense construct in which Britain and France cast themselves as the high-end command hub whilst the rest of Europe adapts to become the spokes that reinforce and augment that hub. Such a force concept will require a fundamentally different mind-set if it is to work. Specifically, all Europeans will need to be willing to share the same level of risk at the point of contact with danger. Moreover, such an effort will in effect require the twinning of NATO Europe with the EU Common Security and Defense Policy.

Anything less will sooner rather than later reveal European Defense 2015 for what it really is: an austerity-driven, dangerous, irresponsible, defense-sham.