“Armed conflict is a human condition, and I do not doubt we will continue to reinvent it from generation to generation.”
General Sir Rupert Smith
Alphen, Netherlands. 13 June. How can Europe restore military credibility? Three events this past week have led me to consider what makes armed forces credible? The first was a brilliant (of course) intervention of mine in the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf in which I again pointed out why what the Dutch government claims is a modest increase in the Dutch defence budget is in fact not. The second, and not unrelated event, was a visit by the NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to the Netherlands during which he politely pleaded with Dutch Prime Minister Rutte to increase their defence spending. The third, and most glitzy of all the events, was London’s impressive Trooping the Colour this past weekend to mark the official birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and her own ninetieth birthday. British military precision at its best, topped off by a thirty-five aircraft flypast by the Royal Air Force. And yet, it takes ever more effort by the British armed forces to put on a show that is by historic standards relatively modest.
The problem in Europe is as ever primarily political. At this point some right-on Leftist dude with political leanings towards the likes of Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn would tell me that armed forces are in and of themselves the problem. On the political Right Colonel (Retd.) Aubry Twistleton-Twistleton Smythe-Ffrench would tell me that Britain (for example) needs to spend at least 10% of the public purse to keep Blighty safe from dangerous, bloody Johnny Foreigner-types.
On one hand, the political Left tend to see their small armed forces as the armed wing of liberal internationalism, particularly in Western Europe. Over the past decade European leaders have come close to breaking their respective armed forces by sending them on bottomless pit campaigns in the hope of making the distinctly illiberal, liberal. On the other hand, the political Right tends to see the military as solely devoted to preparing to fight a major war in order to prevent it.
Ironically, the two political camps are both wrong and both right. The world is such that there are of course occasions when armed force needs to act as a kind of super police force, just as there are times when such a force must demonstrably demonstrate its warfighting credentials through fighting power. Can the European state strike a credible balance between the two?
Before that question can be answered a further question must be addressed; against what must armed forces defend? There is a new way of war called hybrid war in which disinformation, destabilisation, and destruction are fast becoming one and the same. To mount a credible defence and preserve the capacity for the offensive today’s armed forces need to operate together with all security elements of a state (and allied states) across eight domains of engagement; air, sea, land, space, cyber, information, knowledge, and resilience.
The first step back to military credibility is to face facts. According to its own figures the Dutch government spend 1.14% GDP on defence, significantly below the 1.43% NATO Europe average, and far below the 2% GDP on defence NATO calls for. In fact, if one applies the standard measure for measuring defence expenditure the Dutch spend nearer 1% GDP on defence. In May Euroland leaders conceded the principle of debt mutualisation. By so doing Euroland leaders also conceded the need for the relatively few taxpayers of the relatively few Eurozone states who actually pay for the mess that is the single currency (that is me!) to transfer economic growth-annihilating billions of Euros to those that do not. Therefore, the chance that a country like the Netherlands where I pay my taxes would actually increase its defence expenditure over the interim is now highly unlikely, whatever the spin. In the great struggle between European debt and European defence the latter has been, is being, and will be repeatedly and consistently defeated.
The second step is to bring defence back to the heart of the state. The only way a credible twenty-first century European defence can be mounted is to place the armed forces back at the very heart of European state power – civilian and military. That does not I am proposing the militarization of the state. There are relatively small forces, such as those of the British and the Dutch, which if properly embedded in and backed by all state means, much of it civilian, and further-embedded in demonstrably functioning alliances, could in turn generate the necessary ends, ways and means to be mount a credible integrated defence and on occasions a pre-emptive offence.
The third step is to either generate or have access to a sufficiency of military firepower that matches the firepower of potential adversaries. Size and strength does indeed matter in the race for a military edge.
The fourth and most crucial step is for politicians to recognise all of the above and to demonstrate an understanding of the utility of force and, if needs be, in the worst of all circumstances; war. This week Dutch Prime Minister Rutte, like so many of his European counterparts, again demonstrated that he either lacks this crucial understanding, or that on balance to him European debt is a more important strategic issue than European defence. Sadly, the politics of contemporary Europe does make the choice between debt and defence mutually exclusive.
In a follow-on to my 2015 book on Friday I finished a big, shortly to be published, paper on NATO and the July Warsaw Summit (which is of course brilliant) in which I pose twenty hard questions about whether the Alliance can endure in a changing world. The questions I pose are all questions politicians urgently need to answer at Warsaw, but will not. This is precisely because a) Europe’s political leaders are still unwilling to face hard defence facts; b) far from embedding their armed forces at the heart of the state, most Western Europe’s leaders have spent the past decade pushing them to the political margins by using defence budgets as debt alleviation funds; c) the very idea of military firepower is to many in this generation of European political leaders toxic; and d) many leaders simply do not understand either the political or the strategic utility of legitimate force.
My conclusion? Most of Europe’s armed forces are today far from being credible as armed forces, which tests not only their credibility but their very legitimacy. Indeed, when set against threats Europeans face few if any would be able to mount a credible defence, and that crucially undermines their collective ability to deter.