The Sorry State of European Military Strength
Europe was famously described as a "military worm" by Mark Eyskens, Belgian foreign affairs minister in 1991; but in light of the current situation perhaps that was quite flattering, which lowly creature could he compare Europe with today? A worm certainly shares some key characteristics with EU militaries; both have no arms and no teeth. In the face of economic austerity Europeans have been cutting military spending, and those cuts run deep.
For one moment indulge me and put aside the plethora of political and operational issues relating to EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and just imagine a scenario in which the member states put aside their sovereignty concerns and their geo-political ambitions and committed to launching a large scale military operation. Do member states have the military capabilities to run an operation?
For all of CSDP ambitions there is one fundamental drawback, it's all talk and no ‘teeth', the EU members lacks fundamental military capability. The last few years have seen monumental reductions in military spending across Europe. Governments have passed much of this as tactical reshaping but it's hard to believe that all these reductions are solely strategically driven and have no relation to state belt tightening.
The blade of budget reductions has been chopping its way across the continent. Middle sized European countries have averaged cuts of between 10 and 15 percent. The Czech Republic reduced their defense budget by 10 percent in 2011 and Greek military spending dropped by 18 percent in 2010 and a further 19 percent in 2011. Several of the smallest countries reduced their military budgets by more than 20 percent including Latvia by 21 percent in 2009 and Lithuania by a whopping 36 percent in 2010. Between 2009 and 2011 European states discharged 160,000 soldiers and reduced military spending at a rate equivalent to removing the entire German military.
Many of these reductions have reduced further already limited capabilities. Massive reductions in already limited capabilities are leading to the EU becoming increasingly militarily irrelevant. Some may argue that cuts to minority powers don't limit CSDP capabilities as long as we have the ‘big boys' of military capability. The UK, Germany and France's militaries dwarf the rest of Europe. Historically they are the most active in projecting their military capabilities and at least one of them will be required to commit for any operation under the EU flag to be a success. Even amongst Europe's military ‘powerhouses' we see a similar trend.
The UK has cut its defense budget by 7.5 percent over four years, in reality the reduction is nearly 25 percent after budgetary calamities with updating the trident nuclear deterrent system. The Army 2020 review means Britain's professional army will number a mere 84,000 by 2020 leaving Britain only able to sustain a force one third smaller than the force it deployed to Iraq in 2003. Britain is also giving up the ability to fly planes off aircraft carriers for a decade. In August, France announced the reduction of a further 34000 troops reducing its military from 324,000 in 2008 to 242,000 by 2019. They have also slashed their orders of the new Rafale fighter.
It all paints a very bleak picture, made even worse when compared with US military capabilities; The EU figures appear to dwindle even further. The Americans spent approximately $645.7 billion on defense last year compared with $280.1 billion spend in Europe. The entire combined air forces of Cyprus, Lithuania, Austria, Czech Republic, Romania, Estonia, Ireland and Slovenia could comfortably fit on the US aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, whilst simultaneously the entire armies of Malta, Luxembourg and Estonia could be accommodated onboard. The US has more troops deployed in Japan and South Korea than Britain has soldiers. While Europeans talked up their efforts in Libya and Mali they were in fact heavily reliant on US support in the shape of intelligence, ammunition stocks, missiles, refueling and transport aircraft as well as drones.
Any considerations for the future direction of CSDP must be framed within current capabilities. It's unwise for CSDP supporters to talk of grandiose EU operations when they simply don't have the capabilities. It's possible the EU does not even have the capabilities to cover any strategic threats closer to home let alone partake in expansive CSDP missions. It certainly appears unlikely that Europeans will be able to sustain operations on multiple fronts.
Fortunately, none of this really matters, as CSDP is so wrangled in political issues, it's very unlikely to reach the stage of actually deploying and by that point it will be too late.
Nic Watkins is a program associate at ISIS Europe. He holds an M.Sc. in Conflict Prevention, Peacebuilding and Security from Durham University.
This article was originally published as an ISIS Europe blog on 7 October, 2013.