On the up?
Alphen, Netherlands. 31 May. Europeans will not start really fearing what they should fear in the wider world, until they stop secretly fearing each other. Consequently, deep down they cannot decide if they want to empower other Europeans or enfeeble them. That is why real European defence remains still-born, why Europeans have become cheap defence junkies, and why Europeans continue to ask Americans to defend them from the world and each other.
The trigger for that opening statement was a piece I read on a plane to Rome this week to address the Conference of Commandants of Alliance defence academies hosted by the NATO Defence College and the Italian Centre for High Defence Studies (CASD). Entitled “On the up: Western defence spending in 2018”, published by IISS, and written by Canadian academic Lucie Beraud-Sudreau, the piece endeavoured to apply some ‘science’ to the problem of defence expenditure by Europeans. However, there was also a political message; that Europeans do spend a lot on defence and that American claims to bear too high a burden for the defence of Europe are misplaced.
The theme of the piece is established early. “After years of reduced spending after the end of the Cold War and in the wake of the financial crisis, NATO’s European members increased their defence budgets by 4.2% in real terms in 2018”. It goes on: “Their [NATO Europeans] total spending would – if the aggregated figure of US$264bn were considered on its own – amount to the second largest defence budget in the world”. The crunch sentence is thus: “…given Washington’s other global commitments, attributing to European defence the entirety of the US commitment would…seem to overstate the US commitment [to European defence JLF]”. So, Europeans DO spend a lot on their own defence, possibly enough, and the Americans overstate their commitment to the defence of Europe. According to the piece all that is needed now is for Europeans to spend what they spend a bit more efficiently (common defence?) and more cooperatively.
Europe’s no pies in the sky defence
Now, I have been reading this stuff for decades. Of its kind this is not one of the bigger ‘pie in the sky’ pieces on European defence that I have read. It is well-written, well-researched, well-argued, and just plain wrong. It makes the mistake many such ‘Europeans ARE spending enough but not well enough’ pieces make by failing to address WHY Europeans still refuse to spend better, what defence outcomes Europeans should collectively aspire to, and just how much defending themselves without the Americans would cost. With regard to the latter, forget NATO’s 2% GDP Defence Investment Pledge, a truly autonomous European defence investment pledge would require at least each state to spend 4% GDP per annum on defence, probably more, with much of that funding ‘sunk’ into a central European defence fund. Only then could Europeans hope to replace the high-end forces and resources which the Americans bring to bear and which are the true granite of Europe’s defence, and the rock upon which deterrence stands.
So, why do Europeans refuse to pool their resources after decades of empty European defence rhetoric? There is at least one equation that must be understood if one is to grasp the ghastly politics of European defence: the more money promised the smaller the force becomes whilst conversely the smaller the force the more tasks assigned to whilst the number of acronyms (‘new’ forces) created to carry out such tasks expand exponentially. In other words, European defence remains an essentially political project rather than a serious defence.
The hard truth is that Europeans still do not trust each other enough to pool sufficient forces and resources to become “more efficient and cooperative”. For many of European countries their armed forces are intrinsically tied-up with their sense of national identity. They also act as sources of labour represented by vested political interests that have real clout in many European countries. Europeans also suffer from their own version of ‘pork barrel politics’ with defence industries not only strongly-represented in the political class, but also a vital source of employment often in swing parliamentary constituencies. That latter imperative is why Britain’s two enormous and hugely-expensive new aircraft carriers really got built. It is also the reason why the fielding times and project costs of so much new European defence equipment is so often lamentable, bordering on the criminal.
What to do?
The piece is at its weakest when it implies that a direct comparison of the annual cost to the Americans for the defence of the Alliance with European defence outlays is the true test of burden-sharing. Yes, the Americans may have forces spread the world-over but those forces also have the strategic enablers across air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge which Europeans, by and large, lack. Strategic enablers without which most forward deployed European forces would simply be sausage-meat in the making in any war. Strategic enablers that the Americans routinely make available to Europeans through the Alliance and which many Europeans too often now take for granted.
Here’s the twist: only in the extreme event of a new high-end world war could one envisage the Americans being forced to deny Europeans such support. Yes, as the piece states, European defence expenditure is “…equivalent of 1.5 times China’s official [note ‘official’ JLF] budget (US$168bn), and almost four times Russia’s estimated total military expenditure (US$63bn)…” And yet, there is no serious comparison to be made between Europe’s generated defence outcomes and those of contemporary China and Russia.
Given that stark reality the piece would have been immeasurably stronger if the essentially defence economic argument had been balanced and reinforced with the sage words of General Mark Milley in his May 2018 testimony to the US Congress. Milley stated, “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”. Milley then went on to suggest that if one strips out the relative high cost of US labour the defence outcomes China and Russia generate are dangerously close to those generated by the US.
Critically, Chinese and Russia defence outcomes in the scope and mass of forces they generate are way beyond any forces Europeans can aspire to simply because there is no, and there can be no comparison between the bang for the buck America, China and Russia generate, and the squeak for the buck Europeans generate. And, for all the rhetoric to the contrary, there is little sign that Europe’s defence squeak is going to get any louder any time soon.
Beraud-Sudreau is essentially correct when she suggests Europeans SHOULD spend more effectively and cooperatively. Sadly, there is little chance they will. What she can expect are yet more ‘big’ announcements, and even ‘bigger’ European claims about not an awful lot. European defence is the mouse that squeaked, and it was ever thus.