by MG Paul Vallely, US Army (Ret)

Alarm Grows Over Weakened Militaries and Empty Arsenals in Europe

Budget cuts and an eroded weapons industry have hollowed out armed services; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reveals Risks.[1]

The British military—the leading U.S. military ally and Europe’s most prominent defense spender—has only 150 deployable tanks and perhaps a dozen serviceable long-range artillery pieces. So bare was the cupboard that last year, the British military considered sourcing multiple rocket launchers from museums to upgrade and donate to Ukraine, an idea that was dropped.

France, the next biggest spender, has fewer than 90 heavy artillery pieces, equivalent to what Russia loses roughly every month on the Ukraine battlefield. Denmark has no heavy artillery, submarines, or air defense systems. Germany’s army has enough ammunition for two days of battle. In the decades since the end of the Cold War, weakened European armies were tolerated by governments across the West because an engaged America, with its vast military muscle, underpinned the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and defense policy in Europe. Last year, the U.S. accounted for nearly 70% of NATO’s defense spending.

But the alarm has grown as America has moved toward a more isolationist stance and as the understanding of a potential threat to Europe from Russia re-emerges after nearly two years of bloody fighting in Ukraine.

There is no immediate military danger to Europe from Russia, and Western military and political leaders think that Russia is, for now, contained by its war of attrition in Ukraine. But if Russia ultimately wins in Ukraine, few doubt Moscow’s capacity to rearm entirely within three to four years and cause trouble elsewhere. Russian President Vladimir Putin has for years mourned the loss of a Russian empire that encompassed Ukraine and other Eastern European nations, including the Baltics.

Much of Europe’s industrial capacity to make weapons has eroded over years of budget cuts, and turning that around is a challenge at a time when most governments face budget constraints amid slow economic growth and aging populations, as well as sizeable political opposition to cutting back on welfare spending to fund defense.

Europe has “systematically demilitarized itself because it didn’t need to spend the money,” thanks to the lack of an apparent threat and U.S. military dominance around the globe, said Anthony King, a professor of war studies at the University of Warwick. “They have gone to sleep.”

The Ukraine war has made clear the depth of Europe’s problem. “Although NATO countries’ combined economic and industrial might dwarfs that of Russia and its allies, we are allowing ourselves to be outproduced,” said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former NATO Secretary-General. “Ukraine is now in a war of attrition; if we do not get serious on ammunition production, the threat of war will likely come closer to us.”

Aid for Ukraine

President Biden has reaffirmed America’s steadfast support for NATO and said the alliance was more vital than ever. But former President Donald Trump, running again for the 2024 election, has repeatedly questioned NATO’s value. While he endorsed NATO’s collective defense clause, he clashed with NATO leaders over funding and U.S. troop numbers. Leaders of both political parties have long urged Europe to pay more for its defense.   Efforts to pass new U.S. aid for Ukraine have hit resistance from Republicans in Congress, and fighting in Gaza has pulled U.S. political focus away from Ukraine. The White House has said the U.S. will be unable to continue providing more weapons and equipment to Ukraine if Congress doesn’t approve additional funding by the end of the year.

European nations have pledged billions in aid to Kyiv but have said they face economic constraints and production limits on weapons. If the U.S. pulls back from providing the bulk of aid, Europe doesn’t have the stockpiles to make up the difference, nor can it resupply Ukraine and rebuild its forces simultaneously. The head of NATO’s military committee, Dutch Adm. Rob Bauer, said this year that Europe could now “see the bottom of the barrel” regarding what it could offer Ukraine.

The European Union seems unlikely to keep a promise to supply a million desperately needed artillery shells to Kyiv by this spring, achieving only around a third of that. North Korea, an impoverished dictatorship with a population of 25 million, has shipped over a million shells to Russia in the same period, according to Western officials and Russian government statements.

Ukrainian officials have said that if aid dries up completely, they will be unable to continue an already struggling military campaign to retake lost land and may be unable to hold back Russian units supported by a far larger country with superior manpower reserves.

Gen. Patrick Sanders, the U.K. army’s most senior commander, compares this moment in European history to 1937 when the U.K. and its allies debated whether they would ultimately have to face down Hitler. “The lesson from the 1930s is that when the strategic context and the threats begin to increase, and I think that’s what we’ve seen, then you need to prepare for it,” he said from his London’s Ministry of Defense office.

Putin could pressure other non-NATO countries such as Moldova or Georgia, launch sabotage attacks in the Baltics or further bolster Russia’s military presence in Kaliningrad, a strategic Russian enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, said Mark Sedwill, the U.K.’s former national security adviser.

Poland has raced to beef up its military, and both Finland and Sweden joined NATO to get its security guarantees.

During the Cold War, Europe’s conventional forces were far smaller than the Soviet military, so deterrence relied on the threat of a nuclear response should the U.S.S.R. roll across the continent to expand the Iron Curtain. But none of the more minor actions by today’s Russia would likely be seen as worth risking nuclear war, so a more considerable conventional military deterrence is vital, Sedwill said.

Military spending among NATO countries fell from about 3% of annual economic output during the Cold War to about 1.3% by 2014, according to NATO data. Things began to change after the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, but only slowly. The European Parliament said EU defense spending rose 20% in the past decade. Over the same period, Russia and China boosted their defense budgets by almost 300% and close to 600%, respectively.

A militarily weak Europe is a massive shift for a continent that boasted the world’s best-armed forces from at least the early 1500s to the 1940s, a stretch of five centuries in which European armies and naval power carved up the world into global empires. That dominance ended during World War II when the region’s armies pulverized each other for the second time in roughly two decades. After that, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. emerged as the more extensive powers.

During the Cold War, European nations on the Iron Curtain maintained robust armies on both sides. The post-Cold War peace dividend allowed governments to slash military spending in favor of everything from pensions to healthcare, raising wealth and standards of living across the continent but leaving their militaries hollowed out.

Germany’s army, which at the end of the Cold War had half a million men in West Germany and another 300,000 in East Germany, now has 180,000 personnel. West Germany alone had more than 7,000 battle tanks by the 1980s; reunified Germany now has 200, only half of which are likely operational, according to government officials. These officials said the country’s industry can make only about three tanks a month.

The armed forces are lacking in everything,” Eva Högl, the parliamentary commissioner for Germany’s armed forces, said as she presented the findings of her report earlier this year. She noted that German military bases lack armaments, ammunition, and functioning toilets and internet. Her findings show that one attack helicopter unit has been waiting a decade to be fitted with helmets.

The Netherlands disbanded its last tank unit in 2011, folding the remaining few tanks into the German army. Conscription across most European countries was scrapped after the Cold War.

Russia, China, and India are ranked as more potent military powers than the U.K., the highest-rated European military. In contrast, South Korea, Pakistan, and Japan are ranked above France, the second highest-rated European power, according to Global Firepower, a website that uses public data to publish an annual military strength ranking.

South Korea, where the Cold War never ended given the threat from North Korea, now has a military of equal size—roughly half a million personnel—as the U.K., France and Germany put together. It also has a world-class military industry that is helping arm Poland.

Counterinsurgency focus

American military officials and political leaders have long urged Europe to carry more of the military burden, including every American president since Dwight D. Eisenhower, who warned Western European allies in 1959 that they risked “making a sucker out of Uncle Sam” by not spending more of their own money on defense.

In 2014, NATO allies agreed to move toward spending 2% of economic output on defense within a decade. According to the group, only 11 of NATO’s 31 members are expected to hit this year’s target.

Within days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Germany pledged to spend 100 billion euros, or about $110 billion, on defense in a one-off surge in spending. Still, only about 60% of that amount is expected to be earmarked by the end of this year.

South Korean marines during a training exercise in 2022. PHOTO: JUNG YEON-JE/PRESS POOL

Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, combined with military budget cuts, left most European armies built for counterinsurgency operations in far-flung countries and poorly equipped to fight a well-armed foe in a grinding land war in the style of Ukraine.

Britain invested in lightly armored equipment, such as armored Land Rovers, rather than heavy artillery, as it took on less well-equipped enemies.

The thinking was “for us, all wars are optional,” said Simon Anglim, a military historian at King’s College London.

Putin has changed that. Beginning around 2005, he has openly hinted at his aim of recapturing lost parts of the former Soviet Union, such as Armenia and Georgia. That has ratcheted tension with the West in a way few expected just over a decade ago.

Poland, Finland, and the Baltics—all sharing or near borders with Russia—have moved the fastest to build up their militaries. Poland said it wants to spend more than 4% of its annual economic output on defense next year, almost double what it did in 2022. Poland could have the most potent conventional forces in Europe in two or three years, said Bence Nemeth, the academic program director of the Advanced Command Staff course at the Defense Academy of the U.K., the country’s top postgraduate military program.

According to Russia’s finance ministry, Russian spending on national defense will grow to 6% of its economic output next year from around 3.9%. That would be the highest level since the demise of the Soviet Union, economists who track the data said. If the Ukraine war stopped today, it would take Russia three to five years to rebuild enough capacity to attack another country, according to Estonia’s military intelligence.

“It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Russia will not rebuild, and by the late 2020s, it will be able to learn a lot of lessons of its own and field a formidable army which could pose a threat” to Europe, said Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director at the Royal United Services Institute, a military think tank, in London.

While Russia doesn’t disclose data on its weapons manufacturing, statistical lines in its industrial production reports indicate significant growth. The output of finished metal goods—a line that analysts say includes weapons and ammunition—rose by 31% in the first ten months of the year compared with last year. Other lines associated with military output also increased. Production of computers, electronic, and optical products rose 34%, and so-called unique clothing jumped by over 37%. In contrast, production of medicines was down around 2%.

Germany is currently unable to fight a war of defense and must rearm, considering Russia’s massive military buildup, the commander of Germany’s armed forces said. “We must get used to the idea that we will maybe have to fight a war of defense,” Gen. Carsten Breuer told the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper on Sunday. The reign of peace that society has become accustomed to “exists no more,” he said.

Not fast enough

For European politicians, spending more on defense is a tough political sell, especially at a time of stagnant economic growth, soaring government borrowing costs and an aging population that will strain government budgets for years.

Once pooled, NATO forces are technologically superior to Russia, some European officials say, though NATO’s ability to fight jointly is untested. Ukraine proves that a smaller but better-managed force can challenge a juggernaut like Russia.

Still, military analysts say Ukraine’s forces are having trouble dislodging the Russians partly because Russia has advantages in numbers of soldiers and equipment, which could make a difference if the U.S. stalls its support and Europe runs out of military equipment to give.

“People may say the Russians have taken it on the chin, and we don’t need to worry. That’s a valid point, but it ignores residual Russian strength,” said John Deni, a U.S. Army War College professor and an expert on European militaries. “If the Russians present us with a mass problem in Europe, the challenge is, can technology and advanced capabilities. And there we see some challenges.”

Another primary concern is when the European defense industrial base needs to shift gears if the Russian threat grows. “Definitely more money is being spent, but the increased military capability could be years away,” says Nan Tian, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks military global expenditure.

The British army is widely regarded as being run by competent soldiers and has among the best special forces in the world.

But defense spending as a share of U.K. GDP has halved since the mid-1980s to around 2.2%, and the army is only now undergoing modernization. A combination of underfunding and botched procurement deals for equipment upgrades weakened the service. “You need a super capable air force. It would be best if you had a super-capable navy. We’ve got them. But you’re incomplete if you don’t have an army,” said Sanders, the U.K. Army senior commander.

Britain hasn’t had a fully deployable armored division since the 1991 Gulf War. Ben Wallace, U.K. Secretary of State for Defense until the end of August, said recently to Parliament.

Sanders said the U.K. had taken a risk by allowing stockpiles to dwindle and its industrial base to atrophy. He said he had spent more time in the past year visiting factories than inspecting troops in the field.

Britain announced its most significant increase in defense spending since the Cold War in 2020. However, the army size is expected to shrink to 72,500 full-time troops from a previous target of 82,000. It is replacing its 227 tanks with 148 more modern versions, which won’t be deployed until 2027. Of its existing 227 tanks, only 157 can be deployed within 30 days. Perhaps only 40 are fully functioning and ready to move, military analysts said, as many are in storage or being upgraded.

The U.K. has pledged to ramp up defense spending to 2.5% of GDP, but only when economic conditions allow.

President Biden and other leaders at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, declined to comment on how much equipment the army could deploy. He said the army will get an average of 200 new armored vehicles annually between 2024 and 2028. It will also address the shortfall in ammunition capacity, though he declined to give a timeline.

“As the bloke who is responsible, not fast enough,” Sanders said.  The Ministry of Defense placed a £410 million, or about $515 million, order with

BAE Systems

This year, artillery shells and ammunition will bolster production eightfold. But that production capacity won’t be reached for another two years. It also bought 14 Archer artillery systems from Sweden to replace the 32 AS90 long-range artillery pieces it handed over to Ukraine, plugging a gap until the U.K.’s upgraded long-range artillery systems arrived in the late 2020s. “We are on the right trajectory,” said James Cartlidge, the British Minister for Defense Procurement.

The British army’s new armored reconnaissance vehicle, Ajax, shows how long it can take to upgrade a fighting force. On a recent fall day, army officers stood in the pouring rain watching as two Ajax vehicles cruised over the muddy plains in southwest England. It was the first time the Ajax was used in a military exercise, 13 years after the army announced it would purchase them.

Initially ordered at £5.5 billion to replace aging tracked reconnaissance vehicles used since the 1970s, Ajax, made by the U.K. subsidiary of

General Dynamics suffered numerous technical problems. Hundreds of soldiers fell physically ill during test runs due to the vibration and noise when driving them. The delays were so long that the army had to extend the use of its ’70s-era vehicles.  Those problems are now fixed. However, the nearly 600 new cars won’t be fully deployed until 2028. Meanwhile, the new high-tech communications kit the Ajax is supposed to use is delayed, perhaps longer.

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[1] Wall Street Journal 12.12.2023