In Europe, U.S. Allies Target Defense Budgets
European governments’ budget-slashing efforts are expected to cut deep into the Continent’s defense spending, widening the gulf between U.S. and European military capabilities.
Governments in France, Germany, Spain and Italy, in rolling out recent austerity measures in response to Europe’s sovereign debt crisis, have promised that their militaries won’t be spared in coming spending cuts. Last week in the U.K.—which has Europe’s biggest military budget—new defense minister Liam Fox said the government must act “ruthlessly and without sentiment” in determining the military’s share of cuts needed to tackle the country’s giant budget deficit.
In the short term, tight finances don’t appear likely to affect European deployment to Afghanistan, where 40,000 troops, mainly from Europe, are on the ground with 78,000 Americans. “There has been no indication that any government has contemplated to reduce its commitment to Afghanistan for financial reasons,” said Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which leads the Afghan effort.
But in the longer term, cuts in defense spending are seen as likely to reduce European appetite to send troops there. Falling European defense expenditures will also further increase the spending gap with the U.S., which spends more than twice as much on its military than all its European allies combined.
This week, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, head of the 28-nation NATO, called on European countries to “resist the temptation to use the economic crisis as an excuse for letting the transatlantic defense-spending gap widen any further.”
Military spending in most European countries is already below 2008 levels. Spain’s defense spending has fallen by almost 9% this year, or more than €600 million ($740 million), adding to last year’s €400 million cut. Italy plans to slash defense spending, too, as part of an austerity package it announced last month.
Earlier this month, Germany announced more than €80 billion in overall spending cuts through 2014, about 10% of which is expected to come from its defense budget. A few days later, the French Defense Ministry also said it will seek to reduce its budget, which stood at €32 billion in 2010, by as much as €5 billion next year. That comes on top of a six-year plan France announced in 2008 to trim its army by 17%, or 54,000 jobs.
Europe could spend less but spend better, defense analysts say. At the end of 2008, the countries of the European Union had 1.8 million men and women under arms, compared with 1.4 million in the U.S., according to the European Defence Agency, an EU body. It spent more than the U.S. on personnel—€106 billion versus €93 billion—but deployed 80,000 troops on operations, compared with 210,000 for the U.S.
Most European military establishments are still structured as they were in the Cold War. “We should not continue to invest our scarce resources in fixed infrastructure and soldiers who are essentially stuck in their barracks. We should redirect our investments towards more flexible, mobile and modern armed forces—armed forces that we can actually use,” Mr. Rasmussen said.
Analysts worry that while budget cuts haven’t so far affected NATO operations in Afghanistan, the operation and the broader alliance could come unglued in the longer term.
If Europe fails to shape its militaries “into a realistic defense capability, then NATO will fail at its task and the main link between Europe and the U.S. will effectively cease to exist,” said Chris Donnelly, an independent defense consultant and director of the U.K.’s Institute of Statecraft and Governance.
Most countries haven’t specified where the ax will fall, but analysts say some prestigious, big-ticket programs are likely to be hit. Nick Witney, a former head of the European Defence Agency now at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said fighting forces “are going to have to make do with the [ship] hulls they have and the aircraft they have.”
The U.K. government, which provides the largest contingent to Afghanistan after the U.S., has said it will spell out the cuts only after completing a thorough review of Britain’s defense strategy. But the defense minister, Mr. Fox, a former Army doctor,, has promised “a clean break from the military and political mindset of Cold War politics.”
Military analysts say this may be bad news for one or both of the new fast-jet programs in which the U.K. is involved—further tranches of the Eurofighter, a joint project of several European countries, or the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, in which Britain is cooperating with the U.S. They also say the U.K. may scrap one of two planned aircraft carriers, and the army may be shrunk from its current size of 100,000 by up to 20,000.
With the British army heavily stretched by its deployments over the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, cutting troop numbers by that much would assume “a very limited appetite for further overseas adventures in the next decade or so,” Mr. Witney said.
Since 1997, when the last Labour government came to power, the number of people in the U.K. armed forces has been cut around 20%. “Is there a lot of fat to trim? No,” said Patrick Hennessy, who commanded a platoon of Grenadier Guards in Iraq and Afghanistan.
German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg wants to eliminate 40,000 troops from a current force of 250,000 professional and conscripted soldiers. He plans to present his vision for Germany’s military, the Bundeswehr, in September.
Analysts say the Bundeswehr needs to be revamped to address the realities of shifting security threats beyond Germany’s borders. The military remains too anchored to its network of bases in Germany, said Henning Riecke, an expert on transatlantic relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, and too reliant on large, aging tanks and artillery. “There’s a lot of inertia to keep reform from happening,” Mr. Riecke said.
A thriftier Bundeswehr might irk some NATO members. New members to NATO from eastern Europe are directed to spend 2% of their gross domestic product on defense, Mr. Riecke said, while German defense spending, currently around 1.5% of GDP, is moving closer to 1%.
German defense minister Mr. Guttenberg, a rising political star in Germany and a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union, caused an uproar earlier this month by suggesting conscription be eliminated altogether, bringing forth a defense from Ms. Merkel of Germany’s place among five NATO countries with an active draft.
For some countries, cutting down on military personnel and expenditures will be tough. Italy’s army, for example, is overloaded with noncommissioned officers, recruited for life two decades ago to run a conscript army. Now the conscripts are no longer there, but the NCOs are still in place. Moreover, in many countries, military pensions are paid out of the military budgets.
Mr. Witney says pressure on budgets might, in time, lead to more sharing of military assets among allies. He sees the possibility of saving money through joint military procurement projects, for example, between France and Britain. NATO is also encouraging more joint procurement on the lines of a program in which 12 NATO and non-NATO countries, including the Netherlands, Hungary and Sweden, share the use of three C-17 military transport planes.
Meanwhile, NATO’s “footprint” in Europe is also likely to shrink. The alliance employs more than 11,000 people in its military headquarters and agencies. Earlier this month, NATO defense ministers discussed cutting an unspecified number of its 12 military headquarters around Europe.
Wall Street Journal : By Stephen Fidler, Alistair MacDonald and Patrick McGroarty–David Gauthier-Villars, Stacy Meichtry and Santiago Perez contributed to this article.