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The Dangerous Hollowing of Europe


Recent incidents over the past two months have caused me considerable disquiet and should be a warning bell for anyone concerned about European relevance; perhaps even European survivability in an increasingly dangerous world.

On the week of September 22nd, the German Luftwaffe was shown to have glaring deficiencies: the Defense Minister, Ursula Von der Leyden, had requested two Transall transports to ferry her and the first planeload of $900 million in military equipment to Irbil in support of Kurdish forces fighting ISIS. Ms. Von der Leyden and her staff arrived, but the weapons did not, because the Luftwaffe had only one operational Transall at their disposal. The Germans then had to ship the weapons and trainers in separate aircraft – the weapons on a Dutch transport, and the German paratroopers on another plane what was forced to land in Bulgaria and wait for two days due to lack of clearance from the Iraqi government. To cap off the week, it was revealed that another Luftwaffe transport ferrying supplies to West Africa to fight Ebola had been forced to land with mechanical difficulties in the Canary Islands[1].


This coincided with a report that the German Eurofighter fleet was also suffering critical serviceability levels. Out of 109 aircraft in service, 35 are in long-term maintenance and 32 more are unavailable in the short-term for a variety of reasons; leaving only 42 aircraft capable training, exercises and missions[2]. This is well below Germany’s NATO commitments to the Baltic States of providing 60 aircraft in the event of an escalation of tensions with Russia.

Germany is not the only nation facing issues with its Eurofighter fleet, though the Luftwaffe’s budget restrictions and spare parts policies are exacerbating the situation[3]. The Eurofighter consortium that manufactures the Typhoon reported a fault in the rear fuselage that had caused a suspension in deliveries to Germany, Italy and Spain[4]. The fault does not affect flight safety or constrain flight operations directly, though fatigue limits for impacted aircraft have been reduced pending a solution being found and applied.  The suspension in deliveries may have more to do with domestic politics and strained finances than anything else: Britain’s Royal Air Force and Saudi Arabia continue to receive new aircraft despite the announcement.

All these incidents were merely the icing on the cake; the German government is well aware of the poor state of the armed forces. There has already been a parliamentary inquiry in the Bundestag; a report which revealed a frightening lack of preparedness across the Bundeswehr’s major weapon systems[5]:


The report probably overstates the actual state of readiness: Der Spiegel reports that the officers involved in the readiness assessment were given “wide latitude” in the application of the criteria, with the Inspector General making last-minute and arbitrary changes to the findings. While spares are unavailable to keep existing systems in the field, the German military budget is being consumed by boondoggle new equipment purchases: the Eurofighter Typhoon was far over budget while the A400M global transport plane hasn’t even been delivered yet despite massive cost and time overruns. The Luftwaffe hasn’t yet signed a maintenance contract for the new plane, nor does it have sufficient trained mechanics for it when it does arrive[6]. At this rate, the Germans will soon be flying World War 2 era “Tante Ju’s” for their transport needs.


Sweden was in an uproar last week due to reports of a Russian sub in her territorial waters. The Swedes, an “almost” NATO partner, mobilized their sea- and air forces, but failed to find the reputed Russian intruder. Newspaper reports went from panicky to mocking as the current Swedish efforts were compared to a false alarm in 1995 when the Nordic nation mistook the underwater vocalizations of minks as a Soviet submarine[7]. Yet the situation is not farcical at all: Russia has substantially increased its military activity and the aggressiveness of its posture in the Nordic–Baltic region this year:

  • On the 22nd of April, two Tu-22 supersonic “Blinder” bombers escorted by four Su-27 fighters came within 35 kilometers of Sweden. While remaining in international airspace, these Russian jets simulated attacks on Swedish military targets. The Swedish Air Force did not react to this provocation[8];
  • Russian aircraft violated Finnish airspace on May 21st, prompting this nation to scramble its jets[9];
  • Russian aircraft violated Latvian airspace four times in 2 hours during military exercises on the 12th of June[10];
  • Finnish airspace was again violated towards the end of August, four times over the course of a week[11];
  • Russian jets violated Swedish airspace near the island of Öland on the 17th of September, prompting the Swedes to scramble their Gripen fighters to intercept the intruders[12];

Sweden can’t be blamed for its failure to locate the alleged Russian submarine: the 30,000 islands in the archipelago near Stockholm are a sub-hunter’s nightmare. With all the underwater rocks and sudden contour changes creating sonar echoes and pockets, finding even a mediocre sub captain would be like locating a needle in 30,000 haystacks. Yet the Swedes can be faulted for complacency and lack of preparedness. In 2008, the Swedes retired their last anti-submarine helicopters, reduced their navy to a size smaller than Norway’s with half the population, and cut their defense budget year-on-year[13].

These Russian moves are all part of a larger pattern of activity meant to counter European and American pressure arising from the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Russia understands that the Baltic States are NATO’s Achilles Heel: isolated, easily destabilized and exposed to Russian power. Yet NATO must defend them. Russia seeks to demonstrate to the Baltic region, including Finland and Sweden, that Russian military power is real, while NATO promises are hollow. Sweden is a key strategic power in the Baltic: the Russians want the Swedes stay neutral, and their tactics while heavy-handed might be effective. Exposing NATO’s weakness both undermines support for European belligerency among the Baltic States, but also to makes membership unattractive to periphery nations like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia: “See…they can’t defend you.”


This assessment would seem to be at least partially true: the European members of NATO are barely in a condition to defend themselves much less anyone else. Of the 28 full members of NATO, only 5 have consistently met the minimum defense spending commitment of 2% of GDP: the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Greece and Turkey. Every other member state has been below that threshold for 5 out of the past 10 years, and in most cases, for 10 out of the past 10 years. This has contributed to a European defense deficit equivalent to 330 billion euros over the decade, a deficit that cannot easily be made up.


The average spending hides some important differences. The six principle European members of NATO, in terms of economy and population, by no means contribute at the average. France and the United Kingdom have consistently met the 2% target for spending, though their defense budgets have been under severe stress since 2009 and the advent of the Great Recession. Italy had also maintained the criteria until 2004, but has below it since then. Germany and the Netherlands have hovered around 1.5% for the past decade; while Spain has struggled for relevance[14] at barely 1% of GDP dedicated to defense.


Not only budgets have been slashed; troop strength has fallen and major formations have been eliminated to the point that NATO is a hollow shell of a few headquarters units and some light units that can be rapidly deployed to support America in our expected “future wars” of low intensity conflicts. The West German Army, the Heer, once formed the backbone of NATO’s defenses against the Warsaw Pact in the most critical theater of a potential Third World War: Central Europe. The German Army has been slashed far beyond what was required in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) agreement signed in 1990:


Nor is Germany the only country that has gutted its standing army, though they are perhaps the most extreme example. Every European state has transformed its military organization into something smaller, lighter and more deployable. This made perfect sense as long as the most likely enemy was far away and lightly armed – like insurgents, guerrillas, and poorly equipped militaries with ancient equipment – or if you were going in after the Americans anyway.  So long as there was no serious conventional military threat on the European continent, there was no cause for keeping large armies. As is so often the case with military planning, both assumptions have proven wrong.

NATO military

The rise of China and the re-emergence of Russia as a significant regional military power – and more importantly as a regional destabilizer – has put paid to the concept of “Future Wars” as low-intensity conflicts. Europe must once again think of the possibility of a conventional war on the continent: and that means tanks, artillery, mechanized infantry and plenty of ordnance. Europe is deficient in all of these areas. The major European powers proved incapable of taking on a fifth rate African nation on their doorstep in the 2011 Libyan campaign, and the US had to intervene – much against President Obama’s desire and better judgment – to prevent an embarrassing fiasco for our French, British and Italian allies.

The European Union today is a frightening mirror image of France in the 1930’s: thoroughly disarmed, with the wrong strategic doctrine, riven by faction and permeated by pacifism and a justifiable abhorrence of war, yet aware of the rise of a menace to the east that must be met with a much stronger military. The French were dumbfounded with the speed of the Nazi rearmament program: the Wehrmacht went from non-existence in 1934 to continental dominance in just 5 years. They were not able to prepare themselves for Hitler’s storm when it was finally unleashed and Great Britain was saved only by the geographical blessing of the English Channel.

European leaders are today beginning to awaken to the danger. They have cut their militaries to the bone and beyond. The Russia of Vladimir Putin is not the threat that the Stalin’s Soviet Union was, but it is nevertheless a threat. Russian military capabilities are improving at a steady rate; improving, whereas European capabilities continue to move in the opposite direction. The European “heartland” today finds itself over a thousand miles from danger, but that can change in a disturbingly short period of time, as the fate of France in 1940 ought to teach us. It may not be true that Vladimir Putin remarked that he could have the Russian Army in Warsaw in two days[15]; but with the parlous state of Europe’s defense forces, I wouldn’t bet against it either.


Sources and Notes

 [1] Alison Smale, “Seeking Global Role, German Military Stumbles,” New York Times, 29 September 2014

[2] Sebastian Schulte and Nicholas de Larrinaga, “German Eurofighters facing serviceability issues,”                IHS Jane’s 360, 06 October 2014

[3] Ibid.

[4] Andrew Chuter, “Manufacturing Fault Suspends Typhoon Deliveries to Germany, Italy, Spain,” Defense News, 02 October 2014

[5] “Germany’s Disarmed Forces: Ramshackle Military at Odds with Global Aspirations,” Der Spiegel, 30 September 2014

[6] Ibid.

[7] Richard Milne, “Swedish hunt for submarine descends into farce,” Financial Times, 24 October 2014

[8] Justyna Gotkowska, “Sweden’s reaction to a simulated Russian attack,” OSW, 24 April 2014

[9] Erik Brattberg and Katarina Tracz, “The Hunt for Black October,” Foreign Policy, 20 October 2014

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] IBid.

[13] Simon Johnson and Alistair Scrutton, “Farce, defense cuts highlight hard task in Sweden submarine hunt,” Reuters, 22 October 2014

[14] Contrast with tiny Portugal, which has, on average, dedicated 2.01% of its GDP towards defense over the past 10 years.

[15] Delfi and BBC, “Putin: Russian Troops could be in Vilnius, Warsaw, and Bucharest in Two Days,” Atlantic Council, 18 September 2014

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