Is Europe prepared for a military conflict?

Newly appointed Ukraine's Defence Minister Rustem Umerov attends a session of parliament, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine September 6, 2023. REUTERS/Andrii Nesterenko

In the decades that have elapsed since the conclusion of the Cold War, Europe has witnessed a notable decline in its military capabilities. Western governments, relying on the robust military ability of the United States, had tolerated the weakened state of European militaries, with American defence investments accounting for a significant 70% of the funds allocated by NATO last year. However, the landscape is undergoing a shift as the United States adopts a more isolationist stance, causing increasing concern for Europe, which finds itself facing a mounting threat from Russia following almost two years of intense conflict in Ukraine.

The British Army, Europe’s largest defence spender and a key military ally of the United States, is confronted with limitations, possessing only around 150 deployable tanks and approximately 12 long-range artillery systems. The dire situation led to considerations of repurposing missile launchers from museums to enhance and donate to Ukraine, though this idea was ultimately not implemented. France, the second-largest defence budget holder in Europe, possesses fewer than 90 heavy artillery systems – a number comparable to what Russia loses monthly on the Ukrainian battlefield.

Denmark lacks artillery, submarines, and anti-aircraft defence systems, while Germany’s ammunition stockpile is sufficient for just two days of war. Although there is currently no immediate military threat from Russia towards the rest of Europe, concerns about Moscow’s potential to fully rearm within 3-4 years if it achieves success in Ukraine are rising.

Europe’s industrial capacity for weapon production has eroded due to budget cuts, making it challenging to reverse this trend amid economic slowdown, demographic challenges, and political resistance to reducing social aid funds.

Europe’s demilitarization was driven by a perception of security and the dominance of the U.S. as a global power, leaving the continent unprepared. Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen underlined the need for serious ammunition production, highlighting Europe’s precarious situation if it fails to address its military vulnerabilities.

Despite assurances from U.S. President Joe Biden about NATO’s strength, doubts persist, especially with former President Donald Trump questioning the alliance’s value and upcoming US elections. The European Union’s commitment to supplying one million artillery shells to Ukraine faces challenges, raising concerns about the Ukrainian army’s ability to resist Russian aggression if support dwindles.

NATO countries have seen a decline in military spending from 3% of GDP during the Cold War to around 1.3% in 2014, with a slow response to the shift initiated by Russia in 2014. Over the last decade, EU defence funding has increased by 20%, but Russia and China have substantially outpaced Europe with nearly 300% and 600% increases in defence budgets, respectively.

The weakened state of Europe’s military marks a significant departure from its historical dominance, with the continent boasting the world’s most powerful armies for around 400 years. Germany, once a military powerhouse, now faces a considerable reduction in its army and tank capabilities. Germany’s army, which at the end of the Cold War had half a million soldiers in West Germany and another 300,000 in the GDR, now has only 180,000. West Germany alone had 7,000 tanks in the 1980s; now, reunified Germany has only 200, and only half of them are likely to be operational. The Netherlands disbanded its last tank unit in 2011, and compulsory military service was phased out in most European countries after the Cold War.

Current military rankings place Russia, China, and India ahead of Britain, Europe’s leading military power, while South Korea, Pakistan, and Japan rank higher than France, Europe’s second-strongest military. Russia’s increasing defence budget and the potential for rearmament post-Ukraine conflict pose additional challenges.

The British Army, renowned for its excellence, is set to reduce its active duty troops to 72,500, replacing 227 tanks with more modern versions, but these won’t be available until 2027. These developments underscore the pressing need for Europe to address its military vulnerabilities and bolster its defence capabilities in the face of evolving geopolitical threats.

On Friday, Kyiv announced that Ukraine has entered into numerous agreements with Western partners, involving joint production and technology exchanges in an attempt to diminish Ukraine’s reliance on military supplies from the West and enhance its domestic output. The urgency to bolster domestic production is said to have escalated due to growing uncertainty surrounding substantial military aid from the United States and the European Union, coupled with Western governments’ diminishing stockpiles.

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