The Great European Defence Crisis

Republished piece by
Prof. Dr. Julian Lindley-French from his Blog Blast Series

“All cruelty springs from weakness”.


Alphen, Netherlands. 28 May. The great European defence crisis is upon us. It has been a long time coming and can even be traced back to the very founding of NATO. Most Europeans never got over World War Two and have been happy to do the least possible to defend themselves ever since, albeit commensurate with ensuring the Americans did their defending for them.  However, news that Germany, Belgium and in reality a host of other Europeans have absolutely no intention of honouring the NATO Defence Investment Pledge (the appropriately-named DIP). The DIP was the formal commitment made by the nations of the Alliance at the 2014 Wales Summit that by 2024 they would all spend 2% GDP on defence of which 20% each year would be on new equipment.

When the Cold War began spluttering joyfully to an end in 1989 ‘Europe’ re-defined itself as a civil power.  Subsequently, European armed forces were cut to the bone and often beyond in the decades that followed.  Slashing defence spending became a habit. Now, Europe again faces threats some of which demand a level of force commensurate with establishing a new level of deterrence, credible defence and meaningful engagement. Sadly, ALL Europeans are failing the test implicit in that challenge, whatever the small ‘dead cat bounce’ increases in defence spending that some leaders have championed.  What has caused the great European defence crisis and is there a way out?

Lack of money and unreformed militaries: Some leaders have questioned the commitment they made to the Defence Investment Pledge, whilst some have suggested that they spend c. 1% GDP on defence so well it is, in fact, the equivalent of 2%. This is nonsense. 2% GDP on defence spent moderately well would be at least twice as effective as the 1% currently spent very badly.  However, before such increases could take place many European forces and their procurement systems would need to undergo thoroughgoing reforms if new money is to be applied to any effect. There is little sign of such reforms taking place.

Financial crisis: The effects of the financial crisis that started in 2008 and the austerity that followed have had a disastrous effect on most European armed forces, even the strongest. Last week the much-respected Paul Johnson of London’s Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested the UK government can no longer take money away from defence to fund the National Health Service. The raiding of hard security to fund social security has been a phenomenon across Europe.   The Dutch armed forces are a case in point. Reduced to the verge of incapacity by successive governments they have just received a small cash inject that will do little to resolve the force-resource crisis in which they are mired.

Strategic pretence: In an effort to wiggle out of the DIP EU member-states last year re-invented Permanent Structured Co-operation or PESCO.  The idea at the core of PESCO is that by being more efficient and more together EU member-states could generate the same defence outcomes spending 1% GDP on defence as each state separately spending 2% GDP on defence.  This is again nonsense. I wrote my doctorate on European defence and I have seen the same political trick used time and again.  Indeed, there is an inverse correlation from which European defence suffers: the more acronyms created the more military capabilities lost.

Loss of strategic and political cohesion: Europeans either do not agree on what the main defence effort should be or still do not believe defence is that important or both.  This lack of strategic and political cohesion and the lack of defence seriousness it engenders has been revealed over the past week during the latest attempt by the European Commission to punish Britain for Brexit. The Galileo satellite positioning system is the one piece of EU security architecture that matters to the British armed forces, and yet the Commission wants to exclude post-Brexit Britain from using the highly-encrypted core of the capability. This is even though British money and expertise has gone into developing Galileo and Britain’s loss of access to it would weaken the defence of Europeans. Sadly, such misplaced intransigence is all too totemic of the great European defence crisis. For the European Commission punishing Britain is more important than the safety of Europeans.

American over-stretch: Over the weekend the United States Navy conducted a freedom of navigation exercise in contested waters in the South China Sea. The growing challenge of China is exacerbating the strategic over-stretch of the United States which remains the world’s only global, albeit hard-pressed military power. Europeans must share more of America’s burdens if America is to credibly maintain its security and defence guarantee to Europe. However, too many European leaders remain in denial about the challenges faced by Washington and the implications for the defence of Europe.  Indeed, a few see free-riding on the Americans as a right.

New technologies of war: In 1906 the Royal Navy commissioned HMS Dreadnought, the world’s first all-big gun, heavily-armoured, fast battleship. At a stroke, the warships of all navies (including Britain’s) were rendered obsolete. The emergence and deepening combination of artificial intelligence, machine-learning, offensive cyber capabilities and electronic warfare in the battlespace suggests a new ‘Dreadnought’ moment is fast approaching. However, it could well be illiberal command powers, such as China and Russia who make the breakthrough, rather than Europe’s technologically dilatory social market powers.

Populism: Overnight President Mattarella effectively blocked the formation of a new populist government in Rome, effectively tipping vulnerable Italy back into political crisis.  The rise of populism across Europe is destroying the ability of European states to credibly defend themselves or uphold their commitments to allies.  Italy is one of Europe’s major powers and there is now the very real danger that in effect Rome will be lost to NATO and Europe.  There is a profound and dare I say tragic historical metaphor in this latest Italian crisis.

Europe’s leadership vacuum: There is a vacuum in the leadership of European defence that an opportunistic Russia is exploiting. That vacuum is primarily caused by an irresponsible and increasingly selfish Germany which seems to want the benefits of leading Europe but refuses its responsibilities. For those of us who respect modern, democratic Germany this failure of leadership is a profound regret.  Two issues reveal the extent of the German malaise.  The Nordstream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany is a reflection of Berlin’s profound ambivalence when it comes to the defence of Europe.  This weekend the Joint Investigation Team cited the Russian military as culpable for the July 2014 downing of Malaysian Airline MH17 with the loss of 298 souls. There is a meeting in Brussels to consider the conclusion.  It is almost certain Berlin will try to water down any action proposed against Russia. Berlin’s ambivalence is compounded by the appalling state of the German armed forces.  With most German ships and submarines confined to port for lack of spares and only two of the Luftwaffe’s fleet of more than 90 Tornado aircraft fitted for night action Germany is a central cause of the great European defence crisis.

The European military mobility crisis:  The European force generation and mobility crisis is the consequence of the great European defence crisis. Naturally, all of the above has a profound impact on the ground. Back in 2014 much was made of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence and strategic reassurance to the Baltic States. And yet, in an emergency NATO forces would find it extremely difficult to move any force of any size quickly across the Continent in support of the trigger/trip-wire forces now in situ in the Baltic States. At a meeting ten days ago I suggested it would thus make more sense to move the main bulk of forces further east to overcome the crisis in mobility faced by the defenders of Europe. No, I was told, it would make those forces more vulnerable.  This is nonsense. A senior officer confided in me that the real reason is that most European states do not wish to antagonise Russia and/or are simply not prepared to pay the cost of preparing an effective force to be maintained at a higher-level of readiness beyond their own borders.

Is there a way out of the great European crisis? Yes, but it will require political leadership. Last year, as lead writer, I supported General John Allen, Admiral di Paola, General Wolf Langheld, Ambassador Tomas Valacek and Ambassador Alexander Vershbow in preparing the GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Reports (  In addition, several of the West’s leading thinkers contributed major papers.  For all the insight and creativity the project generated it faced a simple reality: unless such efforts are backed up with a mix of political vision and defence realism at the top of government across Europe the great European defence crisis will continue.  Too many of Europe’s leaders are still in denial about the dangers Europeans face and will face and I only hope they will not one day be condemned by history and their citizens for it.

European defence is in crisis. It must first be faced before it can be resolved. Peace through legitimate strength!


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