According to data by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, military spending increased by 49 percent worldwide during the period from 2001 to 2013. During the same timeframe, expenditure grew by 277 percent in China, 152 percent in Russia, 72 percent in India, 99 percent in East Asia, 114 percent in Africa, and 59 percent in the Middle East.
By contrast, defense spending fell by 3 percent in Western Europe, with reductions in some countries of up to 25 percent, as in Italy. U.S. military spending, meanwhile, increased by 56 percent over the period 2001–2013 but has declined every year since 2011. These figures mark a slow but clear shift in the hierarchy of military powers. The United States retains the world’s largest defense budget ($640 billion in 2013) ahead of China ($188 billion) and Russia ($87 billion) but accounts for only 37 percent of global military spending, against more than 50 percent some years ago. The list of the top ten defense spenders includes only three European countries—France, the UK, and Germany—all of which spend less than Saudi Arabia.
Analysts often insist that EU countries still devote some $300 billion to their armed forces, slightly more than China and Russia combined. Although seemingly reassuring, this statement ignores the fact that in 2001, Europe spent four times more than those two countries. Moreover, large disparities exist because 40 percent of the defense effort in Europe is carried by two countries, France and Britain. And these expenses are not always effective because of the continent’s multiplicity of actors.
The decline in Europe’s defense spending has resulted in a massive downsizing of European states’ militaries and equipment. According to The Military Balance, an annual assessment by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank, the number of tanks in Western Europe was reduced by 69 percent between 1995 and 2015, from over 22,000 to less than 7,000. Turkey and Greece account for half of this figure. The pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine have more tanks than the largest Western European armies. This decline affects not only the so-called armored relics of the Cold War but also other major equipment: the number of combat aircraft fell by 54 percent from 5,400 to 2,500, while the number of submarines dropped by 45 percent.
Efforts are under way to halt these trends. NATO’s September 2014 summit in Wales strongly reaffirmed at the highest political level the objective for allies to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense within the next ten years, as part of the defense investment pledge. Today, only four out of 28 allies—the United States, the UK, Greece, and Estonia—meet that target, while many are closer to, or below, the 1 percent mark.
In spite of a degraded security environment, NATO members endorsed this somewhat modest spending objective only with multiple caveats. Just a handful of allies are seriously working toward this mid-term goal, citing fiscal and other domestic constraints. “Many @NATO allies not only spend little but also spend badly.”
Another and equally important commitment was to focus defense spending on real investments such as the acquisition of major equipment. Only five allies—the United States, Britain, France, Spain, and Turkey—meet the new criterion of devoting 20 percent of their defense budget to such investments. This indicates that many allies not only spend little but also spend badly. Assuming that NATO countries will follow up on their political commitments with budgetary decisions, what is the best use of the fresh money announced? Five priorities stand out.
First, restore the credibility of NATO’s defense and deterrence posture. The basic post–Cold War assumption that the alliance faced no threats at its borders is no longer valid. The best way to avoid war is to deter any attempt to test NATO’s resolve to defend its territory and populations against external threats. This involves both conventional and nuclear capabilities. Ruling out the risk of major war in defense planning would be imprudent.
Second, develop NATO rapid-reaction forces. The poor military readiness of too many allies is unacceptable in a degraded security environment. The NATO Readiness Action Plan approved at the Wales summit—a comprehensive package of measures to respond to new security challenges—is an opportunity to address this important gap. In future crises, the ability to deploy quickly will be decisive. Training and exercises play a major role in testing this readiness.
Third, enhance the alliance’s ability to anticipate and analyze. A focus on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities will enhance NATO’s ability to address and prevent crises. “The poor military readiness of too many #NATO allies is unacceptable.”
Fourth, preserve NATO’s technological lead. The alliance’s military leadership has always been based on its technological edge. This position is now increasingly challenged. Allies should focus on twenty-first century strategic capabilities such as cybersecurity and ISR. The EU could play a specific role in preserving and enhancing the European Defense Technological and Industrial Base.
Finally, maintain a force structure able to address multiple challenges. A major development is the simultaneous nature of crises. Allied nations today need to be able to conduct a credible reassurance mission in Europe’s East while at the same time deploying forces to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State in the Middle East and other terrorist groups in Africa. From that perspective, it makes little sense to choose between territorial defense and expeditionary forces: for many allies, a strong ability to deploy swiftly is the best contribution to collective defense.
Achieving these objectives will require a steady and long-term effort. In the short term, the first aim should be to reverse the ongoing negative trends (further budgetary cuts are anticipated in the UK), to avoid more countries falling into military irrelevance. In the longer term, the main challenge is to convince reluctant public opinion and political leadership to sustain such an effort. Preserving peace and security has a modest price compared with waging major wars. As the Romans said: Si vis pacem, para bellum.
Camille Grand is the director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.