“I’ve seen comparative numbers of US defense budget versus China, US defense budget versus Russia. What is not often commented on is the cost of labor. We’re the best-paid military in the world by a long shot. The cost of Russian soldiers or Chinese soldiers is a tiny fraction”.
General Mark Milley, US Army Chief of Staff, May 2018
Alphen, Netherlands. 15 August. The stress faced by all Western defence establishments is not simply a function of constrained resources. It is also due to the rapidly expanding bandwidth of warfare across a new spectrum of coercion from hybrid war to hyper war via cyber war demanding forces capable of reaching across air, sea, land, space, cyber, techno-space, information and knowledge. Only a radically new concept of combined and joint arms will enable Europeans to close the rapidly expanding defence gap.
In Radically Re-thinking Britain’s Security and Defence William Hopkinson and I made the provocative suggestion that the British should consider scrapping the Royal Air Force. The intention was not to insult the RAF. The relationship between air power and innovation is well-established and to lose bespoke air power also risks killing vital innovation. Rather, it was to demonstrate that if London continues to misalign the ends, ways and means of Britain’s defence policy then hard choices will need to be made.
When I was Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy I witnessed at close quarters how small, under-funded armed forces too often talk ‘joint’ but do ‘dis-joint’. An inordinate amount of time, money and talent is wasted by army, navy, and air force staffs on preserving army, navy and air force staffs just so they can fight each other over ever-shrinking resources. Whatever ‘joint’ mechanisms are created to prevent such conflict too often become the battlefields upon which the struggle is fought. How often have I heard European defence establishments invoke tradition to avoid facing the hard military consequences of the political choices imposed upon them?
Whither transatlantic defence?
Worse, many Europeans no longer understand why they spend any money on defence. In the past, the Americans pretty much decided what defence Europe ‘bought’ with Europeans little more than spokes on an American defence hub. Their defence spending choices were by and large dictated by the need to maintain military ‘interoperability’ with US forces. However, as the transatlantic relationship creaks and groans under the weight of political and strategic tensions and in the absence of leadership Europeans simply want to stop the world and get off. The latest Deutsche Presse Agentur opinion poll suggests 42% of Germans want the complete removal of US bases from Germany. At the same time, Germany also refuses to face the defence consequences and cost of strategic estrangement from America. Having one’s cake and eating it?
Upon what should Europeans spend? At July’s Brussels NATO Summit President Trump tried to get the European allies to spend more on defence. Fearful of the consequences of American withdrawal there is now the danger that some Europeans start to throw a bit more money at their legacy armed forces simply to show good intent. One would have to work hard to find a greater example of pouring scant public money down a large black hole to no particular end. Increased European defence investment should only take place in conjunction with defence reform, but to what end and how?
Defence outcomes & Purchasing Power Parity
Defence outcomes, not defence input are the true test of relative strength upon which all-important deterrence rests. It is the paradox of American defence outcomes which, Trump or no Trump, explains why Washington desperately needs its European allies to awake from their collective strategic torpor. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) envisages an increase in the US defence budget from c$690bn to $718bn, and that does not even include the cost of the US Space Command President Trump called for in June and which Secretary of Defense Mattis apparently resisted. In a sign of future times, the Act also allocates some $40 million to the military uses of Artificial Intelligence. This is vital but also highlights the American dilemma; the need to deliver military strength the world over all of the time. No other power – adversary or ally- faces such a continuous test. Therefore, the headline US defence budget appears to be massive expanding geo-strategic and technological pressures upon US forces threaten to dilute its ability to deliver fires and effects. In other words, the headline budget might not be all it appears to be given the funding tensions between the now and the future force.
Then there are personnel costs to add to the mix. The planned 2.6% pay raise for US personnel intensifies the bandwidth dilemma US forces face and highlights a critical European defence failure: unforgiving relative purchasing power. General Mark Milley in his May 2018 testimony to the Senate Appropriations Sub-Committee on Defense pointed out that if one strips out the relatively high cost of US labour the defence outcomes China and Russia generate are dangerously close to that of the US, and far, far beyond any defence outcomes Europeans aspire to.
A New Combined and Joint European Force Concept
European defence? The expanding bandwidth of war, the state of European public finances and the nature of European society effectively mean that no European state can any longer alone afford to secure itself domestically and defend itself from external threats. In a speech last week at the Atlantic Council in Washington the British Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson suggested two unlikely outcomes. First, that Britain would remain a ‘tier one’ military power and, second, the need for Allied grand strategy – the considered organisation of immense means in pursuit of high ends. If he is serious what would ‘grand strategy’ mean? Now, I have some time for Williamson as he is the first British minister for some time actually thinking about Britain’s defence needs and its value rather than how to reduce Britain’s defences and its cost, inventing metaphors to mask further defence cuts from the media or both.
Britain also exemplifies the European defence dilemma. Britain could hike the defence budget to afford the more high-end kit and greater numbers of personnel needed to increase post-Brexit Britain’s influence a Washington vital to British policy. The Americans would certainly appreciate that. Well, at least this week. But, just what influence would London actually buy with what and at what cost? Alternatively, Britain could engage more deeply in European defence co-operation and help shape it accordingly.
There are two options for European defence co-operation; common or combined. The ‘common’ approach would see Europeans move decisively towards a fully-integrated force that effectively scrapped national command structures and formations. The ‘combined’ approach would see the further development of a plug and play system in which national European forces could be applied more effectively across the conflict spectrum, not unlike Anglo-American forces during World War Two or NATO today. The common force would be more efficient in theory, whilst the collective force would be more practical in reality.
For all the inflated rhetoric a ‘common’ European force beloved of the EU is very unlikely to happen if for no other reason than Europeans lack a shared strategic culture. In any case, the utility of such a force would require a European Government which is also very unlikely to happen. Therefore, no more time should be wasted on this Brussels fantasy. The alternative is a kind of combined super European Intervention Force along the lines suggested by France’s President Macron that builds on the ethos and structure of the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) Britain and France have already pioneered, and which would be by and large Brexit proof.
Strategic torpor is normally only broken either by an ally, an enemy or both. Whatever way one looks at the defence dilemma faced by all Europeans only radical change will realign ends, ways and means and re-establish the credibility of deterrence and defence. Closing Europe’s yawning defence gap will only ever be realised via an entirely new combined and joint European force concept.