Europe's defence budgets may not be noble, but they are at least rational

19 February 2013

10:34 PM

19 February 2013

10:34 PM

Gideon Rachmann is unhappy that european defence budgets are still falling:

Since 2008, in response to the economic downturn, most big European countries have cut defence spending by 10-15 per cent. The longer-term trends are even more striking. Britain’s Royal Air Force now has just a quarter of the number of combat aircraft it had in the 1970s. The Royal Navy has 19 destroyers and frigates, compared with 69 in 1977. The British army is scheduled to shrink to 82,000 soldiers, its smallest size since the Napoleonic wars. In 1990 Britain had 27 submarines (excluding those that carry ballistic missiles) and France had 17. The two countries now have seven and six respectively.

And yet Britain and France are commonly regarded as the only two European countries that still take defence seriously.

[…] The situation in most other European countries is worse – Spain devotes less than 1 per cent of GDP to military spending. And much European military spending goes on pensions or pay, not equipment. The Belgians distinguished themselves in the Libyan campaign of 2011. But about 75 per cent of Belgian military spending now goes on personnel – causing one critic to call the Belgian military “an unusually well-armed pension fund”.

None of this might matter much if the US was still willing to step in whenever the Europeans fell short. In fact, America is losing patience with Europe’s inability to act on its own.

This is fine as far as it goes. The problem is that it does nto go very far. I confess I don’t see the point of writing about defence spending without at least attempting to match spending to needs. Nor, in its present predicament, do I quite see how one could realistically expect Spain to be in a position to double defence spending.

Washington often says it is displeased by europe’s defence draw-down. Doubtless this is so. It is also the case that Washington has persistently opposed efforts to build a common, independent, european defence capability. There are respectable reasons for this American view. Nevertheless just as it is reasonable to complain about european “free-riders” so it is reasonable to point out that the US has generally been happier with weak european allies within NATO than stronger european allies outwith NATO. That’s fine.

It is also true that there are sensible questions to be asked about British defence priorities. It seems quite probable that the present government’s cuts go too far, severely reducing Britain’s ability to punch at any weight at all.


Nevertheless one can take this too far too. The UK is still building its two new aircraft carriers (though lord knows what will happen to the second one) and is still planning to purchase a reasonable number of spanking new F35 jets. Britannia has not lost all her teeth.

Then again, I think you can make a credible argument that the money spent on the new carriers might have been better spent on new frigates and destroyers. The Navy has gone “all-in” on the carriers. Even so, I can’t think of any good reason – or even any bad one – for why we would need to maintain a Cold War era-sized submarine fleet. When a threat is removed it’s perfectly sensible to reduce some of your own counter-measures.

Show us the major, three-dimensional war for which europe should be preparing and you’ll have a better chance of persuading governments they should invest more in contingency measures.

And Rachmann’s lament – familiar as it is – falls down when he lists some future crises for which europe should be better-prepared:

 Yet you do not have to look very far beyond Europe’s borders to see an array of potential threats massing over the next decade. The Middle East is in turmoil and thousands are dying in Syria, threatening the stability of the whole region. Iran’s nuclear programme could well lead to confrontation and threaten European energy supplies. Russian military spending is rising. And growing tensions between China and its neighbours could one day menace the freedom of navigation on which European trade depends.

Well, look, you could double the size of the French and British armies and still find no good reason for intervening in Syria. Nor do I think it likely that rising Russian military spending necessarily threatens Italy or Spain. As for Iran or China, well, if there’s trouble to be dealt with in those theatres you can guarantee the Americans will be leading the western response to those potential crises. What’s Belgium gonna contribute? What realistic threats to europe are there that Washington will not also consider a threat to its own interests?

I suspect the only way you could make european governments – whatever the economic climate – increase defence spending would be if Washington decided it was going to give up its leadership of the western world and retire from hegemony. Since Washington has no desire to do anything of the sort (and no-one will believe any bluff designed to persuade you Washington wants to get out of the game) europe’s defence posture may not be especially noble but it is at least rational.



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Show comments
  • StrangeOne

    The need is there are 2 super powers that are not pro west, that could one day decide they want more power. Those two powers are China and Russia, every year Europe the us and Britain lower their army and navy budget, while China and Russia raise there’s. Russia already took Ukraines 50 naval ships and annexed one of their provinces, China wants Japan.

    If there some thing that history taught us, it’s always be ready for the worst case scenario. Europe back In ww2 decided they did not need an army. Where all of Europe was lost in the fastest territorial expansion in history.

    Now yet again Europe is not ready. The United States doesn’t have the money to defend the world anymore, they need your help Europeans.

  • Watcher237

    If the European countries had anything close to the defense budgets they had in the past, they would have to unwind most of their social programs. But hey! Most of their military budgets are social programs (pensions etc..)!

  • Remittance Man

    I confess I don’t see the point of writing about defence spending without at least attempting to match spending to needs.

    And I don’t see much point in cutting defence spending without at least attempting to match spending with needs. The current government inherited one war and has engaged in two more since being elected less than three years ago. Worse it shows no sign of stopping its military adventurism. Yet, it persists in cutting defence expenditure.

    The latest wheeze is that the end of the Afghan Campaign will release even more funds for slashing, ignoring the simpkle fact that the British Armed Forces were committed to Afghanistan with spending at already low peacetime levels.

    Since the end of the Cold War, the world has become a less safe place. Piracy, Islamic militarism, assorted forms of regional nationalism and the proliferation of WMDs have all contrived to make the threats against the Free West both more numerous and more complex. Yet all the w@nkers in Westminster can do is look at the budget numbers to see if there is not a few billion more for buying votes or giving themselves yet more bennies.

  • Joost N.

    With all due respect, but the writer MASSIVELY contradicts himself with regards to the submarine service. First the author mentions that the Royal Navy had 27 submarines in 1990 as opposed to 7 subs now. Then later on in his piece he writes and I quote:
    “Even so, I can’t think of any good reason – or even any bad one – for
    why we would need to maintain a Cold War era-sized submarine fleet. When
    a threat is removed it’s perfectly sensible to reduce some of your own

    So, your submarinefleet went from 27 to just 7 (almost a 75% reduction), but somehow that’s not called a serious reduction let stand a massive downsize? And even more is needed to be called “some of your counter-measures”? I wonder if the number of hospitals went down by 75% if that would also not be considered more then just quite considerable. Seriously going from 27 to 7 and implying that the latter is “Cold War-sized” just as the former is,…. sorry, insane and reeks of the writer really not knowing what exactly he’s writing about.

    @Ron Todd :”The stronger the economy the quicker we can build up the military when required.”. True, however due to the increasing complexity of the equipment used and the people manning/controlling them the time build up a military also has substantially increased. It’s no 1940 anymore when a division could be raised out from the ground in a matter of a few months. Expect atleast 10 years for something to be realized in this age when the equipment is not in stock and has to be aquired.

    • Ron Todd

      You are right it is not 1940 the capabilities of western industry have massively improved since then. If we were facing a national survival type war I am sure we could design and build weapons a lot faster than we do under the peace time management of the MOD. There would be two problems the stock of raw materials if world wide commerce were already disrupted and shipyard capacity if we needed more boats.

      • William Haworth

        You’re wrong Ron, you can’t turn out guided missiles at the speed the Germans could turn out Panzerfausts or rifles. Bayonets don’t win wars in the 21st century. Just because you can’t name an enemy today, doesn’t mean that there won’t be one in 5 years’ time. Another key problem is the political impact of re-arming. If we had to re-build even 3 divisions, the outcry from the press, and our potential enemies, would be deafening, and might prevent the job being done. Far better to retain the capability, while we still have it. In your own life, would you rather be overinsured, or uninsured?

        • StrangeOne

          The threats today are China, and possibly Russia we don’t know what side Russia is on.

          China is definitely a threat they have the slave labour, the manufacturing means, now they have the money. Their current military budget is second to the USA today, at the current rate of things it will pass the USA, who has the only formidable military besides Russia to defend the entire world.

          Not to mention China is communist, they’re a big threat, stealing technology, wealth and secrets while diplomatic powers stand by.

      • StrangeOne

        The only reasons ww2 was one besides Germany getting destroyed in Russia, was because the United States converted all of its consumer manufacturing plants to make tanks weaponry and vehicles. As well Russia used its slave workforce to produce massive amounts of weaponry. Today however the usa doesn’t have the manufacturing plants. China does, China makes everything, and Russia in no longer a slave workforce. Europe sure does not have the manufacturing means, so if there turns out to be an immediate threat, no one we will not be able to start building faster then potential enemies who already are equipped.

  • Ron Todd

    We need to decide what do we need the military for then find the finance to enable it to do that well. Is sending troops to Mali so Cameron is owed a favour by the French something that will give us any long term benefit? The aircraft carriers, Gordon Brown’s pork barrel will not have catapults to launch AWAC type aircraft and would be unable to safely operate independently of the Americans in any major conflict. Should we spend more on protection from cyber attack and less on fighter aircaft. What can aircaft do that can not be done by some type of rocket? The stronger the economy the quicker we can build up the military when required.