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November 27, 2012 |  Print  Your Opinion  

Defence Specialization: Indispensable or Unachievable?

Alyson JK Bailes: Logically, one of the best ways to get more bang for fewer bucks - while also deepening cooperation - should be for nations to specialize further in their defence roles on a basis of comparative advantage. Yet there are many obstacles.


Both NATO, and the European Union in the context of CSDP, are focusing hard on the need to combine effectiveness with austerity in defence.  The EU Foreign Ministers' conclusions of 19 November on defence issues emphasize the need ‘to maximise the effectiveness of Europe's defence expenditure in times of financial austerity' and to that end, ‘to enhance European cooperation including through the pooling and sharing of military capabilities'.

It is always interesting, however, to consider what such official declarations do NOT say. One thing that stands out for me is that in both institutions, there is little explicit talk about military SPECIALIZATION.  Logically, one of the best ways to get more bang for fewer bucks - while also deepening cooperation - should be for nations to specialize further in their defence roles on a basis of comparative advantage. One of the most striking features of the recent Franco-British defence treaty was an agreement to do just that in connection with the use of aircraft carriers. Yet that was also the aspect of the treaty that attracted most debate and criticism, in the UK at least. So what exactly is the problem about specializing more?

One obvious answer is that any role division between states demands absolute faith in the side taking the other role, so that they can always be counted on to supply what we lack in a crisis.  That level of trust is hard to find even among European nations that have worked together in the EU and NATO for six decades. Even a neighbour who wanted to help could be prevented from doing so if it was attacked first. And when we have dropped an area of military capacity it is very hard to retrieve it: not just because of the notorious inelasticity of equipment planning, but also because European armies increasingly rely on reserves and these can hardly be expected to perform in roles they were not trained for. 

One further problem with specialization has, however, grown much more serious since Cold War times: the multiple roles of defence forces in security policy.

In the Cold War, specialization and mutual dependence existed on a huge scale in the form of multinational force structures concentrated on German soil. Crucial roles in defending free German territory (but also Benelux, Italy, etc) were allocated to US, UK, Canadian and other foreign forces plus French forces on a bilateral basis. This was possible because the great bulk of European military effort had the single aim of defending against a single possible assailant. True, the UK and France also used forces to meet neo-colonial responsibilities, and the Nordics contributed a lot to UN peacekeeping; but these countries were sited around Europe's periphery and did not really disturb the picture of solidarity and specialization on NATO's ‘Eastern front'.

Today, the compulsions of collective defence and the mutual dependency that goes with it are much weaker. Most Cold War multinational units have dissolved. As NATO chose not to build a multinational defence in Germany's Eastern Länder or on any new member's territory, Allied cooperation on the new ‘Eastern front' can be tested only through occasional exercises. In contrast, the external uses of national forces - for peace missions or extended self-defence - have grown hugely both in terms of frequency and scale of operations, and as a policy priority.

This immediately raises new questions about specialization and burden-sharing: are we dividing roles for the purpose of an operation abroad, or for self-defence on European soil?  The logic of role choice and comparative advantage are by no means the same in both cases. Estonia may contribute military police to an EU Battle Group, but it would surely want to contribute more and different things when defending itself. As a further complication, non-Allies like Sweden and Austria have become closely integrated in expeditionary force structures under both EU and NATO flags, but by definition cannot take on roles in collective defence planning. Some authors have noted the problems this poses for the non-Allies themselves, who are pushed by resource pressures (including the relatively higher costs of remote operations) to cut back some specialized aspects of home defence, without any formal assurance that others will fill the gap for them in a crisis.

What is less often recognized is that there is also a third use of armed forces: for internal national security, notably to help with natural emergencies and accidents, but also potentially for anti-terrorism and internal order functions. This has become an increasingly important tasking eg for UK and Danish forces and in several of the new Allied states. Other countries remain reluctant to use armed personnel internally, and others have specialized para-military forces (like the Carabinieri) instead. Now, the question of whether specialization and mutual assistance can have any role in this sphere is a new and still sensitive one, by no means easy for NATO itself to address. It is raised more specifically by Article 222 in the EU's new Lisbon Treaty, which commits EU members to help each other in a major non-warlike emergency with all their resources - not excluding military ones.

Whether or not states are ready to grasp the policy implications, however, the domestic role of armed forces puts another tricky obstacle in the way of ‘pooling and sharing'. An army too weak to help much in collective defence or overseas missions, and thus a target for ‘rationalization', may still be more than able to meet its internal tasks - while few citizens would be happy to see foreign soldiers suppressing their riots. This is without even mentioning other purposes the forces may serve, such as bringing different social elements together, improving young men's training, or reducing unemployment. How likely is it that a nation will put such roles at risk for the sake of honing its forces' effectiveness to join an external division of labour? Is it even reasonable for us to ask that it should? 

Alyson JK Bailes is currently Visiting Professor at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, teaching on general security topics and on Nordic and European security, and also carries out personal projects in the field of security analysis.  From July 2002-August 2007 she was Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the first woman ever to hold that post.

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