Austerity budgets in Europe will mean that key NATO members are going to cut their defence costs in ways that could damage the alliance’s military preparedness. Britain’s defence cuts could total as much as 20% by 2014-2015, and Germany and France plan to reduce their defence budgets by about 6% through 2013, and their forces by about 40,000 people each. Italy, Spain, and Portugal are preparing significant cuts, with other NATO countries likely to follow suit. Over the coming years, European defence spending could fall by 10-15% if not more.
These cuts, combined with proposed withdrawals from ISAF operations in Afghanistan and waning support for U.S. nuclear deployments in Europe, would lead to a further widening of the transatlantic defence capabilities gap. That in turn could exacerbate the growing perception in the United States that its allies are not pulling their weight. If the U.S. loses confidence in NATO, the single greatest instrument for global stability will be at risk. But it's a risk that can be reduced if the European allies would be willing to limit these defence cuts, invest affordable resources more wisely, pursue multinational defence planning, show solidarity on Afghanistan, make sound NATO-level decisions on nuclear deployments and expand partnership activities with other countries and organisations. This article sets out an eight-point plan that could help NATO pursue this agenda.
Today’s defence budget crisis is no minor event. In recent years, total NATO European spending has declined to only 1.6% of GDP, well below the 2% guideline suggested by NATO leaders and far below the U.S. level of more than 4%. Overall European defence spending currently totals about €210bn annually, but only about €45bn of that is available for investment – well below the amount needed to transform European militaries for new missions. The current defence budgets of many NATO countries are already “austerity budgets”, additional cuts look set to magnify the problem at a time when more funds are needed. A recent Gallup Poll showed that 55% of Europeans feel defence spending should either be held constant or increased, so the pressure to cut defence spending is not coming from public opinion.
Acting on the premise that cutting national budgets is needed to reduce public deficits, stabilise financial markets and fuel economic growth, European governments may be sliding toward a mentality that treats defence spending as just another area to trim, not a primary concern driven by enduring strategic requirements. This worrisome trend is being aggravated by perceptions that ISAF is failing in Afghanistan and that future threats to Europe – terrorism, nuclear proliferation, Middle East instability, Russian assertiveness – do not warrant additional defence efforts. Against this background, the withdrawal of Dutch, Canadian and other forces from Afghanistan may damage NATO’s unity of purpose and so erode transatlantic confidence.
The combination of declining European defence preparedness, imbalances in contributions to the Afghanistan campaign and the desire by some to remove all U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe could create a crisis of confidence in the United States about its European allies.
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Hans Binnendijk is the Vice-President for Research at the National Defense University in Washington D.C.
Richard L. Kugler is a Senior Consultant at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy (CTNSP) of the National Defense University.