Ukraine: the lessons of Europe's neglected defence modernisation

Frankly Speaking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt assesses the defence shortcomings of NATO’s European members and sets out some lessons to be learned from the war in Ukraine.

Whatever else Putin’s war against Ukraine eventually yields, one certain effect will be a steep rise in NATO members’ defence budgets. Just as the long-neglected alliance is gaining a much-needed fillip, the spotlight is also being shone on Europe’s defence shortcomings.

In much the same way as the Spanish civil war of 1936-39 alerted outsiders to new tactics and weapons – it was dubbed a ‘dress rehearsal’ for World War 2 – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is raising important questions about NATO’s own thinking, structure and armaments.

Defence experts are studying the way Ukraine’s citizens’ army has slowed Russia’s planned blitzkrieg to a costly war of attrition. Among the lessons being learned is that tanks can be easy meat for sophisticated hand-held missile systems.

Cheap all-purpose drones are in many instances also proving more useful than state of the art supersonic combat aircraft, so assumptions that have for decades shaped defence procurement programmes must be re-thought. Putin’s floundering army attests to the truth of the old saying that “generals always prepare to fight the last war.”

Lack of inter-operability is NATO’s greatest weakness

How quickly and efficiently NATO’s member states adjust their thinking on hardware remains to be seen. It is to be hoped that in Europe they will accept the advice of progressive military thinkers that mobility, adaptability, inter-operability and above all unbreachable communications are more important than ever.

These four areas are evidently the Achilles’ heel of the Russian army, and of many European countries’ armed forces too. It is essential that their promised increases in defence spending should go on these areas. At the same time, the Ukraine conflict should teach them more than how to modernise their equipment. Lack of inter-operability is NATO’s greatest weakness.

The EU’s more federalist politicians regularly call for a “European army”, but this remains a distant dream. It is also true that it will take at least a decade or more for increased defence spending, in Germany and elsewhere, to translate into enhanced capabilities.

Much closer military and industrial collaboration will be vital. NATO’s European members pay lip service to this, but only as a goal that’s still far from reality. Almost 25 years after the Franco-British launch at St Malo of a strategy for European defence cooperation that included joint R&D and integrated weapons procurement, the results are extremely disappointing. In 2020, collaborative projects were worth only €4 billion, a tenth of overall European defence investment.

It is also an uncomfortable fact that the alliance’s force numbers have been grossly inflated in the public mind. Europe’s two million or so men and women “under arms” would be better described as “in uniform”; most are in support jobs and it has been estimated that only 2 per cent can be deployed operationally. Europe’s armed forces also suffer from under-investment in equipment; half of the €200 billion Europeans spend every year on defence goes on wages, whereas in the United States it’s less than a quarter.

There’s consensus within the alliance that this risk of escalation has enabled Putin to raise the stakes

The need for rapid deployment of combat troops saw the creation in 2007 of 15 mixed-nation ‘Battle Groups’, although none were actively deployed until 2016. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, four totalling 5,000 men in all were sent to the Baltic states and Poland, and now because of the Ukraine war four more have just been ordered to the alliance’s eastern European flanks. But of the 140,000 troops being deployed, 40,000 are from European members of NATO and 100,000 from the US.

Manpower is set to be a growing challenge. Recruitment problems are aggravated by ageing Europe’s demography while budget cuts have already imposed swingeing force reductions. The British army, said to be Europe’s most effective, is now smaller than when the Napoleonic wars began.

In parallel with modernisation issues there’s a wider question over NATO’s future role and stance. The Ukraine war has brought it face to face with its limitations as a purely defensive alliance. Its need to avoid actions that might trigger nuclear confrontation with Russia – called by some experts ‘the escalation trap’ – is raising far-reaching political issues.

There’s consensus within the alliance that this risk of escalation has enabled Putin to raise the stakes over the past decade without provoking a NATO response. As well as a much-needed overhaul of Europeans’ defence capabilities, Putin’s war in Ukraine looks certain to see a new strategic concept that re-thinks NATO’s definition of ‘armed attack’ and creates a far more flexible approach to the ways it reacts to, and deters, threats.

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