As politicians in France and Germany debate launching a common European defence policy, Jean-Thomas Lesueur rings the alarm over the worrying state of the continent’s military capabilities.
Jean-Thomas Lesueur is CEO of the Thomas More Institute, a French think tank promoting free-market policies.
Would this be the time to relaunch the European defence policy? Some, like Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, would like to think it is. Appointing the very Europhile Sylvie Goulard as the new French “Ministre des Armées”, or defence secretary is undoubtedly related to this aim. Yet, the obstacles towards a significant step forward in this direction remain many and the British opposition to a full-fledged European defence being lifted by Brexit should not hide the oppositions and contradictions that prevail among the other member states.
In the wake of the latest NATO summit, during which President Trump, like his predecessor, asked the Europeans to take on a bigger share of their own and the world security, it is worth reviewing the military capabilities available to defend Europe. Because, before reflecting on the organisational structure, we need to have a clear picture of the resources the member states allocate to their defence. The fact is that, be it regarding their financial, human or material means, the current state of affairs is alarming.
As a whole, Europeans only dedicate 1.2% of their GDP to defence. Budgets started to increase again two years ago, but the effort remains far below what the United States (3.3%) or Russia (3.7%) are doing. China only spends 1.3% of its GDP for this purpose but has already quadrupled its defence budget over the last 10 years. Should the European countries decide to reach the floor of a 2% of GDP dedicated to defence, as recommended by NATO, they would have to make an (extra) effort of €98 billion a year – that is €28 billion for Germany and €2.3 billion for France.
This insufficient spending is also very concentrated and has a low yield. Five countries (the United-Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) account for 75% of all European defence expenditure. As the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, puts it “their yield equates 15% of US expenditures”. In addition, R&D expenditures only reach €9 billion (2014), just above a ninth of what the United States do (€76 billion). One understands that the European disarmament is primarily financial.
When it comes to their personnel, European armies have downsized by up to 451,000 men over the last 10 years, a decrease of 23%. Such a decrease can be seen elsewhere around the world but it is nonetheless twice as fast in Europe as in the United States or Russia, and six times faster than China. The armed forces mainly responsible for this decrease are the German (a cut of 107,700 posts, -37%), the British (-64,540 posts, -30%), the French (-51,945 posts, -20%) and the Polish (-42,200 posts, -30%). This drop in personnel is why Général Pierre de Villiers, the Chief of Staff of the French armed forces, explains that the French army model is now being “eroded by the level of commitment” of its forces both on our national territory (Operation Sentinelle) and in overseas operations. The level or our “réserve” being structurally low – contrary to the plans when conscription was ended and the armies were professionalised twenty years ago – does not make it a force we can count on.
In terms of equipment, the situation is not brighter. A general overview shows the extent of the decline within a decade in the equipment level of European forces, be it considering attack helicopters (-52%), fighter jets (-30%), frigates, destroyers (-15%) or nuclear-powered (-16%) as well as classic-propulsion submarines (-22%). Regarding UAVs, Europe, which will not get its own European material until 2025, is blatantly lagging behind the United States or even China. Only France has an aircraft carrier (under maintenance until summer 2018) until the British get their first own new one in 2020. Sadly, building a second vessel did not arise during the French presidential campaign. Financial constraints on European countries do not announce halcyon days. The Spanish defence secretary recently announced that out of the four submarines ordered to renew their fleet, just one can be paid for in the current state of national finances.
Furthermore, the equipment is often ageing and is less and less available. Only 17% of the French fleet of Tiger helicopters engaged in the Sahel are available. 20% of the land equipment used for Operation Barkhane will not be reusable. In 2015, the British ministry of defence announced an extension of the Bulldog combat vehicles first brought into service in the 1960s. Only between 23 and 44% of German helicopters (it varies by type) are operational and not more than half of the Eurofighters of the Luftwaffe can fly.
How could one believe those who enthusiastically trumpet a revival of the “European defence policy”? Without a real unified political power at the top, enjoying a strong support from the member states (governments as well as public opinions), there will be no “European defence policy” before long.
The reality is that all the speeches of our officials can no longer dissimulate the alarming state of the European military capabilities. Since the end of the cold war, European states have lowered their guard and have largely disarmed. Our main challenge, therefore, consists in increasing our defence budgets, financing major armaments programmes and restoring the collective military power at our disposal to defend Europe.