Why European Defense Still Depends on America
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, it seemed like a transformational moment for European security. Surely now Europe would finally get its act together on defense. But as the war enters its second year, such a transformation has not materialized.
The fault for the ongoing stasis lies with many parties—European states, NATO, the European Union and even the United States—all of whom have defaulted to the comfortable practices of the past in the hope of preserving an untenable status quo.
This is not to say that Europe has not been altered by the war. European publics and their leaders have rallied in support of Ukraine and maintained their support despite skyrocketing energy prices and high inflation. European countries have provided massive quantities of arms to Ukraine although not as much as the United States.
Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO. The EU has provided billions in lethal equipment to Ukraine and is training Ukrainian forces. And the sense of shock and urgency felt by European leaders in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is reflected clearly in defense spending hikes. Now most European countries in NATO come close to the organization’s goal that all members spend at least two percent of GDP on defense, with some countries such as Poland and the Baltic states spending far more.
But look more closely, and these changes seem less than transformative. Although the current spending bonanza might suggest a transformation, it may amount to little if underlying issues plaguing European defense remain unaddressed.
Instead of galvanizing efforts to address deep structural problems in European defense, the war has only reinforced them. European forces are in worse shape than previously thought, and weapons stockpiles have necessarily been depleted to support Ukraine. As Europe seeks to rearm, it is finding that its defense industries aren’t fit for purpose. Efforts to coordinate European procurements are not working, with countries all going their own separate ways, adding to the general dysfunction.
The United States has demonstrated its indispensability to European security and confirmed Europe’s dependence on Washington. European leaders have seemingly accepted this as the natural state of affairs, with many declaring the pursuit of European “strategic autonomy” dead and turning their backs on cooperation with other EU countries. The momentum in favor of reform and change that had built up over the last decade appears to have vanished.
Although proposals exist for addressing these problems, none offer the kind of sweeping initiative that would be necessary to fix them. In short, a broken status quo prevails. But the present situation is unsustainable. Joe Biden may be the last truly transatlanticist U.S. president, as a generational change will eventually come to American politics.
While American national security leaders brought up in the twentieth century were consumed with European security—from the Cold War to NATO expansion and the Balkan wars—a younger generation focused instead on the Middle East, counterterrorism, and now, China. If Europeans do not reform their fragmented defense forces and procurement systems now, they will soon be back where they started before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The opportunity to transform European defense is slipping away.
WORSE THAN FEARED
The war has revealed the appalling state of European defense. Europe has underinvested in its armed forces for the past 20 years, and what little funding it did commit was focused on building forces for humanitarian, counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism missions far from the continent, such as in Afghanistan. European militaries thus lack the basics needed for conventional warfare in their own backyards. Most countries lack basic ammunition stockpiles.
The German armed forces, for instance, only have stocks of ammunition for a few hours or days of combat. Tank fleets across Europe have atrophied both in numbers and readiness. Germany has 300 Leopard 2 tanks on paper, but only 130 are operational. And it is not just Germany: Spain also has more than 300 Leopard tanks, but one-third of them are no longer active and are largely in disrepair.
Europeans lack sufficient quantities of artillery and are therefore heavily depleting their forces to support Ukraine. France, for instance, has sent more than one-third of its howitzers to Ukraine, while Denmark has sent practically all of its artillery. Although European states, to great acclaim, committed themselves earlier this year to sending Leopard tanks to Ukraine, it is unclear how long it will take to make them combat-ready.
At the NATO summit in Madrid last summer, the alliance refocused on the Russia threat and the demands of conventional warfare. NATO agreed on the goal of creating a ready force of 300,000, up from 40,000 today. But as a multilateral organization, NATO sets targets that it hopes its member states will meet on their own—and no one explained how the organization would collectively meet such an ambitious goal. And even those European leaders who are determined to support Ukraine and ramp up their own capabilities to deter Russia do not have the kind of arsenals, supply chains, production capacities, and procurement procedures that the task at hand requires.
The European defense industrial base, meanwhile, has been hollowed out. The root cause is low European defense spending. But a broader issue is that Europe does not have a common defense market to meet the needs of European security. What it has is more than 25 different Pentagons, each with its own national procurement. This scattered landscape makes meaningful cooperation on procurement a huge political and bureaucratic undertaking. European defense spending is thus heavily fragmented and often directed at supporting national military industrial complexes.
The role played by the United States makes the situation worse. Efforts at improving defense industrial cooperation, namely by the EU, have often been met by fierce opposition from the United States. After all, American defense contractors greatly benefit from inking contracts across Europe that deprive European companies of business. Thus efforts by Europe to get its industrial act together are met by stiff resistance by American administrations, which channel the concerns of U.S. companies about being locked out of the European market.
For instance, after the EU announced plans for a new European Defense Fund and an initiative to develop new weapons systems, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and other Trump administration officials strongly objected and aggressively lobbied for U.S. companies to have access to the paltry EU funds. This rather petty concern, U.S. access to the European defense market, has not gone away under Biden. In fact, the Biden administration has also forcefully lobbied EU member states on defense initiatives. Even with a war on, the major focus of the U.S.-EU security dialogue has been, at the insistence of Washington, finalizing an innocuous “administrative arrangement” granting the United States potential access to more EU defense euros.
U.S. opposition has had a significant chilling effect on attempts to improve coordination. It just takes a few skittish EU member states, worried about the reaction from their security guarantor, to pump the brakes on collective EU efforts. Partly because of such obstruction, European defense cooperation has declined over the past decade.
In 2021, according to the European Defense Agency, cooperative spending on military equipment—that is, member states pooling their money to jointly procure weapons—represented just 18 percent of total defense equipment procurement by the countries involved. This is far short of the EU’s target of 35 percent for collaborative procurement. In this sense, the defense sector stands in stark contrast to other European economic sectors, which have been heavily integrated through the creation of the European single market.
The end result is that European forces all use different equipment, making it much harder for forces to operate together. Europeans use 29 different destroyers, 17 tanks or personnel carriers, and 20 fighter planes—compared with four, one, and six, respectively, for the United States.
This creates yawning gaps in capabilities, particularly in transport, reconnaissance and surveillance, and air defense. It then falls to the United States to fill these gaps, meaning that European militaries remain dependent on Washington for even the most basic military tasks.For instance, when the United States pulled most of its troops from Afghanistan in 2021, Europeans relied on U.S. troops for the airlift of European evacuees.
PEEKING UNDER THE HOOD
Ultimately, of course, the perilous state of European armed forces is the fault of European governments. But NATO’s role in bringing about this state of affairs also deserves scrutiny. European defense is not in disarray because the EU has “duplicated” NATO efforts. With the EU neutered as a defense actor for the past two decades, European defense has been the domain of NATO and its member states. The results speak for themselves.
NATO can coordinate and integrate forces, pulling together units from different countries’ militaries and forming a cohesive organization that can fight effectively. But it has proven incapable of integrating over 25 different European defense ministries and armament divisions. And NATO’s penchant for championing its own strength and unity tends to mask the decrepit state of European forces.
For NATO and the United States, the solution to these capability gaps has been to make European defense fundamentally an American responsibility while demanding more spending from Europeans. But European countries tend not to prioritize investments in systems that would mitigate their dependence on Washington. For example, Germany’s Zeitenwende didn’t result in announcements of new air tankers. That remains a task left to the United States.Instead, European governments prioritize purchases from domestic firms or third-country suppliers such as the United States to strengthen defense ties with Washington.
WHERE IS THE AMBITION?
NATO’s fundamental job is to get the various militaries in the alliance organized to fight together. NATO does not procure weapons, determine spending levels, or get ministries of defense to collaborate more. That, however, is where the EU can help. The EU is perfectly suited to integrate, coordinate, and supplement European defense spending—just as it has in other European economic sectors. The EU should steer and incentivize European armament efforts to make sure that countries procure interoperable systems and don’t snub European defense firms in favor of third-country suppliers across the board.
So far, however, it has failed to do so. Having sent huge quantities of equipment to Ukraine, EU members that have embarked on defense spending sprees are now understandably looking for quick solutions, believing that they cannot afford to wait for European producers to finalize designs for new systems and ramp up production.
Instead, European countries are looking to restock their arsenals quickly and replace equipment sent to Ukraine with systems they can buy readily from manufacturers in countries outside Europe. Poland, for instance, chose to order tanks from the United States and South Korea last year instead of waiting for the Main Ground Combat System, a project that France and Germany started in 2012 that aims to replace the main European battle tanks that are currently in service. The problem is that when a country procures a major weapons system, it is entering into a commitment to buy and maintain that tank or aircraft for decades, setting back the next opportunity to change suppliers and cementing European fragmentation.
Europe thus needs a plan to both increase defense integration and kick-start its own defense industrial base. The European Commission wants to spend $530 million over the next two years to incentivize countries to buy the same kit.If they do, and if they buy from European suppliers, the EU will offset some of the costs of cooperation. This is a follow-up to the EU’s recently created European Defense Fund, which incentivizes member states to work together on defense research and development.
But at its current budget, this new program is not going to change member states’ behavior. The commission has pitched this procurement fund as a pilot program to lay the groundwork for a broader, more ambitious European Defense Investment Program, which will likely include a bigger budget and additional measures such as tax waivers for joint procurement programs. But a small pilot project hardly meets the needs of the moment. The problem is that the EU’s current seven-year budget was determined well before the war in Ukraine, leaving the European Commission with few funds to draw from. In an upcoming review of the EU’s budget, member states could allocate more resources to defense, but as of now there is little momentum for a massive influx of funds. The EU borrowed $800 billion in response to the COVID-19 pandemic but has not done the same in response to the war. Instead of pushing the EU to increase the budget and to encourage member states to cooperate, the United States has been lobbying behind the scenes to ensure that American companies can access the funding.
Thus, instead of the war serving as a transformative moment, European countries are doubling down on their reliance on the United States and failing to coordinate. The EU is coming up with smart ideas but is not coming through with the funding. The United States is basking in the glow of demonstrating its indispensability while subtly undercutting common European efforts that might mean less profit for American defense companies. And NATO is busy creating the illusion of strength by setting unachievable targets, such as a 300,000-member ready force, when almost none of Europe’s tanks seem to work.
In the end, there is only so much the EU institutions can do to influence member-state behavior. Financial incentives only go so far as long as member states are unwilling to overcome their protectionist instincts and take bolder step toward European defense industrial cooperation. Some have made the change. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, for instance, offered a plan for European governments to jointly procure $4.2 billion of 155-millimeter artillery rounds through the European Peace Facility. This new EU security assistance fund has already been used to provide $3.7 billion to the EU members sending military aid to Ukraine. The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, backed the Estonian proposal at the Munich Security Conference in February, arguing that the EU needed to take joint action as it did during the pandemic, when it acquired vaccines as a bloc. This could be a significant step because if the EU can jointly procure ammunition, there is no reason why it can’t take similar steps to jointly acquire artillery or to step up Leopard tank production. Shockingly, not enough orders have been made for new Leopards to increase production, even though Ralf Ketzel, the CEO of the Munich-based tank manufacturer KMW, has said it has the capacity to ramp up. “No one has thus far given us the signal,” he said in Munich last month.
EUROPE NEEDS ITS OWN WEAPONS
To commit to joint acquisitions, the EU and its member states will have to allocate the funds. This is where Washington’s encouragement is critical. Although the Biden administration deserves considerable praise for its engagement with Europe and its leadership in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, the United States has not pushed for any major structural reforms to European defense. Instead, the Biden administration has mainly pursued initiatives that have enlarged the United States’ role on the continent. Washington has increased the number of U.S. troops stationed in Europe, adding forces to the eastern flank, establishing a base in Poland, and expanding the American naval presence in Spain. These steps were all sensible and gratefully received by Europeans. But the sustainability of increased deployments to Europe is unclear, especially as the Pentagon is increasingly focused on China.
The Biden administration now looks increasingly bereft of ideas for how to make Europe less dependent on the United States. The United States is torn between the contradictory goals of preserving its indispensability in Europe and reducing Europe’s dependence on the United States. Trapped by this confusion, the Biden administration has defaulted to the traditional U.S. demand that European countries spend more on defense (but to buy American and not through the EU). Now that European countries will finally spend the equivalent of two percent of GDP on defense, there is talk of the United States pushing for a new NATO spending goal of possibly three percent. But if spending remains uncoordinated, it will have a marginal impact on European defense. At the same time, a new, impractical target will serve only as a source of tension and frustration within the alliance.
One way to get out of this rut would be for the United States to reverse its opposition to EU defense integration initiatives and outwardly encourage more funding for such efforts. The United States should stop lobbying for access to EU defense funds and instead use its influence with European member states, particularly in northern and eastern Europe, to push these countries to support more funding for EU procurement programs. If U.S. embassies across Europe used their influence to press for those efforts instead of U.S. arms sales, it could move the needle.
It has become clear that American arms sales to Europe have come at a cost to the transatlantic alliance. Every weapons sale to Europe weakens the European defense industrial base by depriving a European company of its core market. That is what happens whenever a European country buys a Patriot air defense system from the U.S. company Raytheon instead of a SAMP/T system from Raytheon’s French-Italian-United Kingdom competitor MBDA; a Lockheed Martin F-16 instead of a Saab Gripen from Sweden; or an Abrams tank instead of a British Challenger, a French Leclerc, or a German Leopard. American diplomats will inevitably advocate weapons purchases from U.S. companies, just as European diplomats champion their own countries’ military contractors. But when the United States speaks on defense in Europe, Europeans listen. The diplomatic benefit to the United States of these sales is also minimal as Washington is already in a military alliance with European countries. The U.S. State Department should therefore consider the impact of American arms sales on the defense industrial base of the NATO alliance when it weighs whether to advocate such purchases.
More broadly, instead of merely pushing European countries to spend more on defense, the United States needs to use its leverage to encourage European military cooperation. It could instead encourage a coordinated defense planning effort between NATO and the EU that encourages the European production and procurement of certain critical capabilities deemed essential by both organizations. As long as Europeans fail to act, think, and spend collectively, the continent will never outgrow its overreliance on Washington.
Max Bergmann is Director of the Stuart Center and the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 2011 to 2017, he served in a number of positions at the U.S. Department of State, including as a member of the Policy Planning Staff.
Sophia Besch is a Europe Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Source: Foreign Affairs