Europe: Military Modernization

10 MINS READAug 30, 2010 | 12:13 GMT
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Since the fall of the Soviet Union, European countries have gradually evolved their militaries from large, homebound forces to smaller, more specialized expeditionary ones. This shift has its origin in the Europeans' difficulties contributing to the West’s involvement in the Balkans in the 1990s and has been realized during the war in Afghanistan. Now, with countries trimming their defense spending in the wake of the European financial crisis, the European move toward more agile forces will be further shaped.
German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg presented five outlines for potential budget cuts in the German armed forces, known as the Bundeswehr, on Aug. 23. The most stringent of these outlines, which Guttenberg has come out in favor of, stipulates a de facto abolishment of conscription. This reform would lower troop numbers by about 90,000 for a total of as few as 163,500 and would make the Bundeswehr more cost-efficient. More important, the proposed reforms could greatly increase the Bundeswehr's deployability — its capacity to deploy and sustain troops in a foreign theater for an extended period of time — and begin to close the gap between Germany and other European militaries, which are undergoing a fundamental shift from Cold War-era mass mobilization armies toward more deployable expeditionary forces. These shifts were prompted by the disastrous European experience in the Balkans in the 1990s and refined during the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and they are currently being reshaped by budget cuts imposed in the wake of the European financial crisis. Constraints to expeditionary capacity still exist — without important investment in equipment and training as well as structural and organizational reform, this new capability will be tough to come by — but it is in this atmosphere and under these constraints that the Europeans are making choices about which military capabilities they will continue to fund.

The Balkans

During the Cold War, countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain amassed large conscript armies under the assumption of armed conflict occurring on the North European Plain. The Eastern Europeans were prepared to participate in a massive armed strike against Western Europe, while the Western Europeans were braced to hold off the Soviet onslaught until the United States was able to mobilize its forces. Both sides were thus in need of large quantities of troops, and the quality of these troops' training was far less important than the armies' abilities to coherently move entire divisions. After the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s, European governments began thinking they could take care of regional security issues on their own. The Balkan conflicts quickly proved them wrong. European foreign policies were woefully uncoordinated (the realization of this problem led to the creation of the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy), and the countries almost entirely lacked the capacity to deploy or to subdue then-foes in the region, such as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999. These military shortcomings — in Europe's backyard, no less — served as a political impetus to reform European armies. The expeditionary missions that have characterized the post-Cold War era have much different requirements than those befitting the previous model of mass conscript armies fighting in multidivisional conventional combat in their home territory. These missions require not only different equipment but also more sophisticated logistical expertise and far more qualitative training for the troops involved. Because the tactical decisions of junior and noncommissioned officers can have increased strategic importance in these missions, troops must be trained in a culture of decision-making — which runs counter to the Cold War paradigm, especially in the extremely hierarchical Soviet command structure. The "strategic corporal," as the concept is called in the U.S. military, must be both empowered to make decisions and capable of the same. This shift in training and mentality is as difficult to achieve as it is crucial.


Unlike the U.S. military, most European militaries were rarely deployed outside Europe after 1945 — though France and the United Kingdom are notable exceptions — and thus do not have expertise in expeditionary operations. Their involvement in the war in Afghanistan was a grueling learning experience that forced them to come to terms with their weaknesses and put their capabilities and doctrines to the test. It is not often that militaries are able to put their occupation training into practice. When they do, their preparations and expectations are rapidly and aggressively battered by reality and the enemy. Afghanistan forced the Europeans to adapt to operating far from home in one of the most logistically challenging theaters in the world, and their experiences there — both the operations and the logistical challenges — allowed them to put the theoretical adaptations made in the 1990s into practice. That said, with the exception of France and the United Kingdom, European militaries' commitment in Afghanistan generally represents most if not all of their deployable capacity, meaning if these militaries want to further increase their deployability they will have to pull out of Afghanistan. The long war also has had a significant political impact in Europe. It is almost universally unpopular with European governments and has already brought down one government in the Netherlands. Questions thus remain as to how willing leaders will be to commit troops to another intervention abroad if the security situations in the Balkans or Maghreb region of North Africa, the two most insecure regions near Europe, flare up in some way. Abstractly, Europe could continue to refine and expand its cadre of deployable forces, but after campaigns like Afghanistan there are often lengthy lulls during which domestic resistance makes the employment of military force on a meaningful scale difficult.


European militaries — especially Germany's, which has been the most resistant to reform — are likely to further evolve toward greater expeditionary deployability in the wake of the European economic crisis. Most countries have yet to determine the precise nature of their defense budget cuts due to austerity measures, but most proposals for cutting defense spending are aiming at Cold War-era programs. There is much political resistance to scrapping conscription to the Bundeswehr, but no matter which reform model is adopted, the force will become smaller and more agile and the relative importance of professional soldiers will be significantly increased — even while a move to a truly professionalized military would still require significant investments. The United Kingdom could decrease its defense spending by as much as 15 percent over the next six years, with new Defense Minister Liam Fox saying the emphasis would be on cutting Cold War programs. The French defense budget will see, at most, $4.3 billion in cuts over the next three years, $2.5 billion of which would come from the closures of bases and barracks in France itself — another legacy of the Cold War. Both France and the United Kingdom continue to spend enormous sums on their nuclear arsenals, which comes at an important opportunity cost. Because these cuts are being considered in the context of the war in Afghanistan, it is natural for Cold War fat to be cut first, especially since Europeans likely will be in Afghanistan for at least another year or two. However, there is much disparity among European armies as to how lean they already are. Germany and most Central and Eastern European countries began reforming their Cold War-type armies far later than France and the United Kingdom. They also never had the same colonial exposure and experience, which was an important difference from their French and British counterparts even during the Cold War. While cuts to Cold War programs offer Central and Eastern European countries a chance for change, they could be restrictive to French and British militaries that already stripped many of those programs away. It is therefore inevitable that some deployability capacity will also suffer during the cuts; the question is the degree to which it will affect different countries. Furthermore, budget cuts likely will delay acquisition of some equipment necessary for expeditionary missions. For example, the Europeans have been lacking in transport capabilities for years. The A400M aircraft was supposed to alleviate this problem, but it has been plagued by cost overruns and a constantly delayed delivery timetable. The Heavy Transport Helicopter (HTH) program, jointly run by France and Germany, also has been delayed, with funding unavailable before 2015 even before the most recent cuts. The economic crisis does represent one opportunity, however. Europeans could use the scarcity of resources to pool their existing assets and push for military specialization to avoid duplication — both of which are strongly encouraged by EU treaties. France has entered negotiations with both the United Kingdom and Germany on the subject, in both cases clearly as a result of the savings directives imposed on defense ministers by their respective governmental leaders. However, this is a highly politicized topic and directly touches upon issues of national sovereignty. It remains to be proven whether the current financial conditions will result in more substantial developments in military integration, which so far has been piecemeal at best.

Moving Forward

European militaries have made some progress in shifting their armies toward higher deployability, but several questions remain, the most important of which is where defense cuts will be applied. Will the Europeans shed more Cold War fat, or will they focus their budget cuts more on valuable — and scarce — deployable equipment and personnel? While the logic behind scrapping Cold War-legacy spending makes sense, powerful political and economic interests could array against such a policy at national levels. In a similar vein, the professionalization programs in Germany and Poland — arguably the two armies with the highest additional potential in Europe, due to their relatively large populations and good economic situations — must be analyzed for their merits and faults. Especially in Germany, the question of political will is an important one for the significant step away from a conscription-based army. Another important development to watch concerns the pooling of resources as well as specialization efforts on the European and bilateral level. Aside from the aforementioned A400M and HTH programs, pan-Nordic defense cooperation has made significant strides with, for example, Norway and Sweden cooperating on the development of the Archer 155 mm self-propelled Howitzer and the creation of a Nordic EU-Battle Group. The Dutch and Germans have been pooling airlift capacities to assure support for and transport of their soldiers to Afghanistan. While European politicians are upbeat about the opportunities of further military integration to come about through the restraints imposed by the financial crisis, it remains to be seen whether they will go through with oft-repeated plans in this matter. Finally, the Polish government has announced plans to make the political coordination of defense matters a priority of its EU presidency in 2011. France is a longstanding supporter of this project and if the Germans were to come on board as well, the financial restrictions could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for European military capabilities. Yet, even in a best-case scenario, this would be a process measured in decades, not years.

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