In mid-2018 France approved a defense budget for 2019-25 that concentrates on greatly increasing spending for procurement and also reaching the NATO goal of each member spending at least two percent of GDP on defense. Of more immediate importance is getting new equipment. By 2025 France will have received or have ordered four SSNs (nuclear attack submarines), five new frigates and nine offshore patrol boats. The air force will have received 28 Rafale fighters, upgraded 55 older Mirage 2000 fighters and obtained twelve aerial tankers. The ground forces will get 1,700 new armored vehicles plus much new equipment for the infantry and special operations forces as well as more money for training and to support overseas peacekeeping and counter-terror operations. This means more spending on intelligence as well. All this makes France the first major NATO member in many years to return to spending at least two percent of GDP on defense. France is currently spending 1.78 percent. In Europe, only one other major nation (Britain) never fell below two percent.
The new French defense spending plan comes after a year (2017) when NATO countries reversed years of declining defense spending (as a percentage of GDP) and NATO members (other than the U.S.) increased defense spending by nearly 5 percent. That drove overall NATO defense spending to $957 billion and that should pass a trillion dollars in the next few years. The United States still accounts for most (72 percent) of total NATO defense spending even though the U.S. accounts for only 51 percent of total NATO GDP. This reversal in defense spending was expected since 2014 when Russia became a real (rather than potential) threat with its invasion of Ukraine and threats to NATO countries in East Europe, especially those that border Russia.
It took a while for NATO members to respond. Defense spending decreased from $943 billion in 2014 to $893 billion in 2015 and took a smaller dip in 2016. As has long been the case most of the defense spending is by the United States and a two percent drop in American spending in 2015 accounted for most of the decline. Meanwhile, East European NATO members are increasing spending, two of them (Lithuania and Poland) by over 20 percent in one year. Currently, 64 percent of NATO members are increasing defense spending but only 18 percent of the 28 member nations spend two or more percent of GDP on defense and most of these are in East Europe. The is the goal for all nations but most NATO members are still cutting defense budgets as they have been doing since the Cold War ended in 1991. The Russians have noticed this and are encouraged to continue their aggression against Ukraine and other former parts of the Russian Empire.
Because of local politics, and the enormous expense of maintaining modern forces the politics of paying for and using military forces are different in Europe, especially since the end of the Cold War. The United States has been alarmed with these developments and has had little success in getting its European allies to organize their armed forces to be more effective. This is becoming a growing problem for the Americans because the European nations now take for granted that the United States would always show up to supply key military capabilities. There is growing popular anger in the United States against that assumption and cost of remaining able to supply what the Europeans refuse to pay for.
During the Cold War (1947-91) the U.S. accepted these European attitudes, in part because the European defense policies were not as dysfunctional as they are now. Since the 1990s the U.S. has increasingly resented this growing burden and has been uncharacteristically undiplomatic over the last few years in discussing logistical and equipment shortcomings of its NATO allies.
There continue to be examples of how the American support works. The French-led liberation of northern Mali in early 2013 was greatly assisted by French warplanes using smart bombs to attack known terrorist bases. This was devastating and led to the rapid collapse of resistance to the French ground forces. But most of the air support would not have been possible without American aerial tankers. There was a similar shortage of aerial reconnaissance aircraft, especially those that could do electronic monitoring (to monitor terrorist communications on the ground). Later in 2013 NATO was under pressure to support the Syrian rebels with air support, as they did the Libyans in 2011. That would not be possible without American assistance and the main reason it didn’t happen was the U.S. refusal to get involved.
Libya in 2011 was supposed to be just a European operation. NATO was persuaded to take charge of the bombing campaign (to fulfill a UN order to stop the Libyan dictator from murdering his own people). While NATO agreed to do this they found, once more, that they didn’t have sufficient military capability to get it done with European resources alone. The U.S. still had to supply most of the refueling and intelligence aircraft as well as sending more smart bombs because most NATO nations don’t have very large stocks of these weapons.
Libya and Mali followed the campaign against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) after 2013 provided more examples of how unprepared most NATO members were for actual combat. The situation has gotten worse since 1991. This was immediately seen when there was a need for peacekeeping in the Balkans throughout the 1990s. The U.S. was implored to pitch in because the European NATO nations couldn’t handle this themselves. Then came September 11, 2001. NATO members offered to help in Afghanistan and (to a lesser extent) Iraq. But it was more promises than performance because NATO nations were even less prepared for peacekeeping in distant hotspots.
The reluctance of most European nations to send troops to Iraq or Afghanistan was more than just the result of political differences. While Europe has about twice as many troops as the United States, they have far fewer fit enough to send off to a combat zone. This was a problem first noted in the 1990s when there was a big demand for peacekeepers in the Balkans. The Europeans couldn't fob this one off on the Americans and had to come up with combat-ready troops. The Europeans had a tough time finding soldiers ready and able to go.
European armed forces are full of people in uniform who have a civil service mentality. That is, they think and act like civilians, not soldiers. Belgium discovered in the 1990s that 14 percent of its troops were obese (compared to 12 percent of the general population) and unfit for many of their duties. Much noise is always being made about getting all the troops in good physical shape. While that is possible, it is less likely that the mentality of the troops will be changed.
During the Cold War, Europe got most of its troops via conscription. Young men came in for two or three years and then left. Anywhere from a third to half the troops were long-term professionals, in for twenty or more years. But even before the Cold War ended, many of the European military professionals were losing their combat edge. When the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, there was no longer any compelling reason for a European soldier to think and act like one. It was just a job. A government job that was not, or should not, be terribly demanding.
Europeans spend a much higher proportion of their defense dollars on payroll, leaving little money for training, new equipment, and maintenance. It also meant an older, on average, bunch of troops. Going to war is a young man's game, but Europeans have instead turned their armed forces into another job creation program. There are some exceptions, like Britain and France, demanding that the troops remain fit and maintaining high training standards. Most European nations maintain a few elite infantry units, but these don't add up to much in terms of numbers. Only Britain and France have large "rapid reaction" forces that can be sent overseas on short notice but even these are threatened by continued budget cuts. The United States has the largest such force, and many European nations tried to expand theirs but decades of politicians spending more than they should have is catching up with most European nations. The unexpected Russian menace has changed that mentality momentarily but that is temporary. Old customs die hard.