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Saving NATO: Europe Must Commit to a Common Defense Fund

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A version of this article was originally published in 2014 and updated in 2015. Unfortunately for NATO, there is still a need for me to update it yet again in 2017.

The Telegraph reported this week that the UK Ministry of Defence was unable to meet recruitment targets set for it. As a consequence, the British Army has fallen to 79,000 personnel, 4% below its authorized strength of 82,000, and far from the 102,000 Regulars it had in 2010. The Brits couldn’t even find 3,500 infantry recruits amongst a population of 60 million. And the shortfall is even worse for the Army Reserve, whose bolstering was the excuse David Cameron gave to win support for such drastic cuts in the Regular Army. There the gap is 57% compared to 34% for the Regulars. Nor is the British Army the only branch to suffer: the Royal Navy has a dangerous capabilities gap until the HMS Queen Elizabeth enters service later in 2017…and even then, the carrier will merely be a vast floating target until her contingent of F-35B’s are delivered, adapted and crews trained to operate them…sometime in 2020.

The British daily’s report is only the latest in the trend of disturbing evidence that confirms Europe’s lack of preparedness and commitment to defending itself. It serves to reinforce President Trump’s unfortunate narrative of NATO free rider and exasperates American supports of Atlantic solidarity.

Germany, the bedrock of the NATO alliance in the 1980’s, is also in sorry shape. In 2014, the 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.

This coincided with a report that the German Eurofighter fleet was 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. 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. 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 was a parliamentary inquiry the same year in the Bundestag; a report which revealed a frightening lack of preparedness across the Bundeswehr’s major weapon systems. None of these deficiencies have yet been remedied.

Finally, a 2015 Brookings poll revealed the disturbing reality of erosion of support among Western Europeans for military commitments, even the mutual defense clause enshrined in Article 5 of the NATO treaty. In a survey comprising 11,000 respondents in 10 countries, participants were asked if their country should use military force to defend a NATO ally which was attacked by Russia. More than half said “no”. Only the US and Canada delivered a majority commitment to defending the Alliance; not even our most reliable allies Britain and France could muster similar levels of support.

The chart shows lukewarm support for military action in the common defense, but nations like Poland and the United Kingdom have large margins of uncertain respondents: 18% and 14% respectively, which could turn into support if a crisis were actually declared. It makes sense in Poland’s case: they have too much experience dealing with Russians to walk blithely into another conflict with them. It is telling how little uncertainty there is in the other large NATO countries: 9% in Italy, 5% in Spain, 4% in Germany and 0% in France. The article goes on to qualify that, despite substantial differences in public opinion, in practice the governments of the NATO member states are working very closely together. The author’s conclusion is that Europeans expect the Americans to step in first and only then would support for intervention grow to majority levels.

Perhaps. But that is a big “if” upon which to rest an alliance. Levels of support might not increase once a conflict starts, even with an American intervention. The fact remains that the frontier has moved to the east from the European “core” by over 1,700 miles since the end of the Cold War: from East Germany to the new Russian border. It is not difficult to get people to spend on defense when the wolf is at the door – though it may be too late by then – but from 2,000 miles away the Russians recede in the mind against the more pressing problems of jobs, cuts to social programs, immigration, and the pot holes on my street corner.

Even if Europeans did rally behind the US and support collective action, what are they expected to support NATO with? Europeans militaries have been gutted far past the point of prudence. The “big powers” of France, Britain and Italy couldn’t even deal with the paltry air defenses of a fifth rate state like Libya, and the US had to intervene much against President Obama’s desire and good judgment to prevent a fiasco. American precision-guided munitions, logistics and C3ISTAR won the Libyan campaign with minimal losses and collateral damage.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, the removal of the danger from the Heartland by 2,000 miles, shifting demographics towards an aging population, and the impression that there would “never again” be a major war in Europe all contrived to ensure that NATO governments year-in, year-out voted for social spending over military spending. Of the 27 full members of NATO excluding the US, only four have consistently met the minimum defense spending commitment of 2% of GDP: France, the United Kingdom, Greece and Turkey. And both France and the UK have serious gaps in their defense capabilities – supposed to be made good by their NATO allies – that limit their effectiveness as a stand-alone fighting force. 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.

Systematic and long-term underinvestment has left Europe with an enormous structural defense deficit: over 330 billion euros. That’s equivalent to one-third of Spain’s entire GDP. That is reflected not only in reductions in formations and personnel; but also antiquated equipment, elimination of key systems and capabilities, cutbacks in training and live fire exercises, reductions in inventories of munitions and spares, and deterioration of serviceability levels. To make good these deficits would require European nations to not only raise their spending to the 2% threshold, but to actually increase it substantially above that for a number of years: something which is inconceivable in today’s political environment.

Under-investment is almost as bad as no investment at all; after a certain point, militaries lack sufficient capabilities to operate on their own. It’s like baking a cake: you can reduce the proportions of the ingredients to a certain point, but if you get rid of the eggs or the yeast entirely, the whole thing collapses into an untidy mess. The once mighty Bundeswehr, the bedrock of Western European defense against the Warsaw Pact, is a perfect example of the transformation of NATO’s militaries into a paper force. Berlin has reduced its military to the point that it cannot even defend Germany, much less project power into Eastern Europe. Half the tanks would breakdown before reaching Poland and they would be without air cover because the Luftwaffe’s Eurofighters lack the parts for sustained air operations. This is the NATO partner that will defend the Baltic States from the 6th and 20th Armies of Russia’s Western Military District?

The solution I have proposed in the past is the creation of a European Defense Fund. It would operate in precisely the same manner as the Regional Development Fund that has been so successful in updating infrastructure and living standards across wide swathes of Southern and Eastern Europe. Member states far removed from Russia and unwilling to make the major investments that would allow them to contribute meaningfully to a distant conflict in the Baltic States would pay into the fund, which would pay out to those members closer and more willing to bear that burden, but who might lack the resources to do so effectively on their own. Specifically, this means the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Norway though other nations might also receive supplementary funds to bolster key capabilities or installations, like in Denmark, Iceland or the United Kingdom.

What makes this concept work is that it requires a far smaller contribution from the contributor states to make a big difference for the recipients than raising their own force levels does. Imagine that Western European states[1], with the exception of Great Britain, contributed the equivalent of 0.25% of their GDP to the European Defense Fund. That would raise 27.7 billion euros, based on 2014 GDP data[2]. These funds could then be distributed to the key “front-line” nations most in need of bolstering their defense capabilities. The results would be dramatic:

Poland and Norway, which are relatively large economies and who devote close to the 2% minimum, could have their annual defense budgets boosted to 4% of GDP. Romania, another large nation but one whose military has suffered substantial under-investment, could be increased to 5% of GDP. Finally, the vital but economically weak Baltic States could have their defense budgets increased to the equivalent of 6% of the GDP. And there would still be 241 million euros let-over in the EDF for overhead and administrative costs as well as to roll-over into the following year.

All this could be achieved by a modest 0.25% increase in Western Europe’s government spending.

Nor should this be considered as money lost by the contributor nations. Poland, Romania and the Baltic States are all major importers of weapons systems from Western Europe. The contributors could confidently expect to get much of their money back in the form of more arms deals and a greater percentage of arms deals won than currently. It would not be a precondition of receiving funds, which would go against WTO rules, but let’s just say that everyone would expect European manufacturers to gain an edge.

Europe must act decisively; complaining about President Trump’s attitude towards NATO is counterproductive when their own commitments are so demonstrably weak. I strongly disagree with the President regarding the “obsolescence” of the Atlantic Alliance; but today it is a hollow force, held together only by American might. Nothing encourages an aggressor so much as division and weakness; an enhanced commitment to NATO and financial demonstrations of intra-European solidarity will go far to preventing war on the continent’s periphery and could save a vast expense of blood and treasure in the future. A European Defense Fund is the right solution: it is politically feasible in the short term and it put the tools in the hands of those that need them the most. French Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron seems to agree; I hope other European leaders will support this Common Sense measure.


Sources and Notes

[1] Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Ireland, and Denmark.

[2] Defense spending data from SIPRI.

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