The recent ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria) misbehavior (mass murder and so on) in Syria and Iraq has caused a public uproar in Europe and generated demands that NATO send forces to try and stop all the killing. The German government responded on August 20th with a pledge to send weapons to the Kurds who are fighting ISIL in northern Iraq. But Germany was reluctant to send warplanes or troops. A few days later a German Defense Ministry readiness report was leaked and it made it clear why even getting weapons to the Kurds would be difficult. The report showed that only 8 percent of 109 Eurofighter (similar to the U.S. F-15), 11 percent of 67 CH-53 transport helicopters, and 10 percent of 33 NH90 helicopters were fully operational (not sidelined for upgrades, repairs or other problems.) However 38 percent of 56 C-160 twin turboprop transports were available. This made it possible to fly some weapons into northern Iraq, but not much else. Normally a combat ready military has at least half, and more normally over 70 percent of its warplanes ready to go. While this situation shocked many, those who have followed European military trends since the 1980s were not surprised.
The problem is that the European NATO members never spent as heavily on their armed forces as did the United States and Russia, especially after 1991. Britain and France are still heavy spenders, but not enough to make up for what the rest of European NATO members are not doing. European NATO members are aware of this problem, but it has never been a high enough national priority to actually fix.
There was some hope in the decade after September 11, 2001 as the need to deal with international Islamic terrorism changed the armed forces of Europe in unexpected ways. More money was spent on the military and many of the troops got some combat experience. Now the Europeans have more capable and professional forces than they have had for many decades. None of this was expected. But in the last few years these changes have begun to fade. Thus the shocking readiness numbers for German aircraft.
The current mess began in 1991 with the end of the Cold War. Europe was, for the first time in nearly a century, truly at peace. There was no military threat. There were some Islamic terrorists, but that lot didn't have an army. They were considered a public safety, not a military, threat. It was a unique situation in European history, and European generals and politicians had a hard time trying to get their heads wrapped around it.
There were potential military threats, but nothing in the immediate future that required a large force. There was peacekeeping, and that's what the Europeans were trying to organize for. That, however, was found to cost a lot of money. The post-Cold War military budgets could not support the traditional type forces and the new peacekeeper ones as well. But the idea of disposing of ancient military traditions and organizations that created combat ready troops was, well, hard to accept. But that’s what happened.
All this post-Cold War euphoria began to unravel a few years into the 1990s, when war broke out in the Balkans (as multi-Ethnic Yugoslavia came apart). Now some European nations found themselves involved with military operations for the first time since World War II. When that happened, deficiencies become very obvious. It happened again, when forces were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq. Later, the problem reappeared when European peacekeeping forces went to Darfur and Chad. European nations found their troops were not in shape, not trained and not equipped for combat. After over a decade of these hassles, the Europeans have adapted, sort of.
For example, in 2008 the German parliament was in an uproar over a report depicting German soldiers as physically unfit for military service. It was found that 40 percent of the troops were overweight, compared to 35 percent of their civilian counterparts (of the same gender and age). The investigation also found that the troops exercised less (including participation in sports), and smoked more (70 percent of them) than their civilian counterparts. The military now encourages sports and physical fitness, and discourages smoking, but those efforts did not appear to be working.
When other Europeans looked around they found that it was not just a German problem. It was worse than that. Most European military organizations were basically make-work programs. It's long been known that many European soldiers are not really fit for action. They are mainly uniformed civil servants. One reason many are not ready for combat, or even peacekeeping, operations, is that they don't have the equipment or the training. And that's because up-to-date gear, and training, are expensive. A disproportionate amount of money is spent on payroll. That keeps the unemployment rate down more effectively than buying needed equipment, or paying for the fuel and spare parts needed to support training.
Britain is the only real exception, with armed forces capable of going into action at any time. But even that capability is under attack, as British politicians try to emulate other European nations, and save money by creating hollow forces that are there, but cannot really do much. Britain is becoming more like other large European states, with a small force capable of going overseas, and little more. In this respect, Britain would become more like France, which has some special units (like the Foreign Legion and Paratrooper units) ready for overseas emergencies. Most nations have small special operations (commando) units. But most European troops were not capable of fighting back in the 1990s.
European NATO troops that went to Afghanistan (where most of them went, Iraq being politically incorrect for most Europeans) quickly adapted. Money was found to properly equip the troops. Some governments took another approach and ordered their troops to avoid combat as much as possible. In some cases, the troops rarely left their heavily defended camps. All this was to avoid too much attention being paid to how much better U.S., British, Canadian and Australian (the “fighting nations”) were prepared for combat. Despite this, everyone quickly learned that you cannot bluff your way through military preparedness. That kind of pretending always ends badly when the shooting starts.
Faking military preparedness is a hard habit for Europeans to break. That’s because, from 1945 to 1991, the United States was available whenever Europeans needed some real military muscle. So confident were the Europeans, that they often heaped abuse and scorn on the U.S. and the American military, certain that the Americans would still show up if Europe ever faced a threat. But in the last decade the Europeans found that at least in military matters the Americans had not only become the masters, but were increasingly unhappy with European doubletalk and ingratitude. It’s been suggested that Europeans ought to pay more attention to defending themselves. That change is still sinking in, and is not being received with much enthusiasm. But European nations did scrape together enough forces in 2011 to help the Libyan rebels overthrow the local dictator. Even so the U.S. was still needed for a lot of the logistical and technical support. That was a start. No to one’s surprise trying to do the same against Russian aggression revealed that there’s not enough NATO military strength to stop naked aggression right next door or in the Middle East.