It’s tempting to take European governments’ latest commitment to strengthening their defense and security efforts with a pinch of salt. The alphabet soup of programs and pledges that makes up the European Union’s Security Union has just seen the addition of a new ingredient in the shape of the long-awaited PESCO, or Permanent Structured Cooperation. Nicknamed by some the “Sleeping Beauty” of European defense collaboration, it is advertised as ushering in a new era of shared policy objectives and stronger military muscle.
Maybe this time EU governments mean it; the pressures of Russian assertiveness to the north as well as conflict and chaos on Europe’s southern flanks could at last be awakening them to the fact that America’s nuclear umbrella no longer offers shelter from 21st century threats ― least of all when U.S. President Donald Trump casts doubt over the value of the NATO alliance.
It is nevertheless hard to take PESCO at face value. It is almost 20 years since Europeans promised a far more determined approach to defense. Onboard the British destroyer HMS Birmingham in the Brittany port of St. Malo, the U.K. and France signed a defense cooperation pact intended both to beef up their own collaboration while showing other European members of NATO that it was time to stop being free riders at the expense of the U.S. defense budget.
Following that, initiatives to boost Europe’s defense capabilities waxed but then waned. Despite many ambitious promises and some determined political moves to boost PESCO’s counterpart, the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, the bottom line on Europe’s defense spending has gone deeper into the red. From 2012-2016, EU member states’ collective defense budgets shrunk by a 10th. Those of China and India, meanwhile, rose by 40 percent and 30 percent, respectively.
In truth, it’s not the amount of money that matters, but what it’s spent on. Four-fifths of Europe’s substantial 2016 outlay on defense of more than €200 billion (U.S. $237 billion in today’s figures) went on personnel and administrative costs. Analysts warn that only 2 percent of Europe’s 2 million men and women in uniform (counting paramilitary police forces) can be deployed in a combat role.
Worse still, European generals have been preparing to fight the last war by clinging to the tanks, artillery and supersonic aircraft of the 20th century. Just as PESCO was being rolled out in Brussels, the top brass of Britain’s Army, Air Force and Navy were telling a House of Commons committee in Westminster that thanks to successive budget cuts, their forces are today “20 years out of date.”
How the U.K.’s armed forces will fit into Europe’s defense arrangements after Brexit ― Britain’s divorce from the EU ― is still anyone’s guess. What is certain, though, is that Britain and France are the only two European nations with substantial military clout. They together account for almost half the EU’s total defense spending. But both have been severely diminished by decades of cutbacks. So in reality, the EU’s shiny, new security policies rest on very shaky foundations.
The answer is clearly to reshape Europe’s capabilities and outreach to suit its new challenges. Planners in the EU should therefore embrace technologies best suited to asymmetric conflicts. So far, Europe’s generals have generally downplayed or even ignored innovative weapons systems, especially those based on drones, and have also been slow to switch spending to cyber defenses.
The way ahead is being pointed to by none other than China. Derided for many years as overly reliant on its huge manpower reserves, China is moving into the forefront of drone technology. In June of this year, it demonstrated a swarm of 120 interconnected drones that operate as a wolf pack rather than individually. This may well signal a revolution in military tactics and organization. To underline the point, Beijing is planning reductions in its military personnel of 300,000 by 2018. That’s something that Europe’s expensively maintained but undereffective armed forces might wish to emulate.
Giles Merritt is the founder and chairman of the think tank Friends of Europe.