Europe’s armies on the attack: NATO defense ministers must solve the misery

Europe’s armies at the ready
NATO defense ministers must solve misery

The war against Ukraine also highlights the shortcomings of European armies. This does not only apply to the Bundeswehr. In view of the new threats, the NATO defense ministers must quickly find solutions for the procurement of material.

It was a bitter warning shot for the nuclear power Great Britain. The British Army is currently not a top-class military force, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace recently had to admit after a report by the Sky News channel by a high-ranking US general. The analysis came as a surprise to the public, as the government regularly portrays the troops as one of the most powerful in the world. Britain’s contribution to Ukraine’s defense against Russia was also loudly celebrated.

But things have been brewing behind the scenes for a long time. “The army is in a desolate state,” said Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defense committee and party friend of conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. If the troops had to go to war, the ammunition would probably run out after a few days, Sky reported. Most tanks and armored vehicles are 30 to 60 years old, and replacements are not in sight.

Now Sunak has even announced the training of Ukrainian fighter pilots – and even surprised his allies. The Royal Air Force is already at the limit with its own needs, said a Western diplomat. British defense politicians blame the massive cuts made in recent years for the misery. Class instead of mass should be the motto. Under the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who, even as a backbencher, regularly presents himself as Ukraine’s closest ally and puts his successor Sunak under pressure with demands for fighter jet deliveries, the number of troops was significantly reduced.

Gaps everywhere

But it is also clear that the NATO member Great Britain is not alone with its problems within the defense alliance. Outdated and inadequate equipment has been discussed in Germany for years. In Italy the newspaper recently reported “La Repubblica” of a possible threat to the country’s own defense if high-tech weapons such as the SAMP/T air defense system were delivered to Ukraine.

And also in countries like the Netherlands or Spain, as a result of the austerity period after the end of the Cold War, there is currently a lack of modern material and personnel. Reports from France are not quite so gloomy. However, the country only supplies limited arms to Ukraine in order not to weaken itself too much.

The extent of the discrepancy between actual and target figures for the armed forces in Europe can be seen not least in defense spending. At a 2014 summit, all NATO countries reaffirmed that each country should spend at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to meet its goals and fill the Alliance’s capability gaps. To date, however, not even half of the Allies have achieved this goal. The front runner in terms of economic strength and defense spending is the USA. According to NATO figures, they were at a rate of 3.47 percent. With 822 billion US dollars (768 billion euros), Washington recently paid more than twice as much money for defense as all other alliance states combined.

“War economy” necessary?

For comparison: Germany, the largest European economy, spent an estimated 55.6 billion euros according to NATO standards in 2022, Great Britain as number one in Europe the equivalent of around 60.9 billion euros. In addition to the USA and Great Britain, only Greece, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Croatia and Slovakia reached the two percent target.

For years, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the military have been putting pressure on countries like Germany to increase spending. In addition, for months there has been increased advertising to supply the defense industry with the long-term demand it needs to increase production capacities with firm orders.

The CSU deputy and head of the European People’s Party (EPP), Manfred Weber, recently found clear words. “We need – even if the term is not a simple one – a kind of war economy in the EU in order to be able to guarantee stability and security,” Weber told the newspapers of the Funke media group. The European states are currently not in a position to provide the necessary armaments quickly – neither for their own defense nor for Kiev. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the issue of stockpiles of weapons and ammunition is now also on the agenda of a meeting of defense ministers of the NATO countries in Brussels.

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