Europe continues to shield itself behind the vast nuclear and conventional arsenal of the United States. As a result, this year nearly all of the major nations of the European Union continue to cut defense spending, and reduce troop strength. Despite a brief inclination for more independence on military matters, after Americas overthrow of Saddam Hussein last year, cuts continue unabated. Germany, the Netherlands, and Greece have all announced deep cuts in troop strength and older weapons, and Britain is struggling to pay for new ships and aircraft.
The potential is definitely there for Europe to become a great military power. Already formed is a 60,000 man Eurocorps for peacekeeping operations, and plans for a joint French/British naval force was announced last year. After 50 years of NATO, the Europeans have plenty of experience in interoperability.
With the absence of any real threat on its borders after the demise of the Warsaw Pact, the EU has little inclination for a major defense buildup. Since the Cold War ended in 1991, defense spending has been in decline throughout the world. In 1990, NATO countries average spending on defense was 4.7 percent of its GNP. By 2002, even after the terrorist attacks on America, it had reached a low of 1.9 percent. That year the 5 big spenders in the West, France, Germany, Japan, the UK, and the US collectively spent $433.2 billion on defense. At the same time non-military allocations amounted to $3.78 trillion of total government spending.
Of the Big 5, Britain spends the least of its budget on defense, a mere 6 percent. The UK also is cutting back on troop strength, purchase of Typhoon fighters, and placing still useful warships into early retirement. These reductions are needed to pay for new large deck aircraft carriers, missile destroyers, and attack subs. In Canada, whose healthcare system is the envy of the world, 30-year old naval helicopters literally falling from the skies have scandalized the country. For a major NATO ally with many global commitments, this has been a recurring embarrassment. Promises to rectify the situation by a new Prime Minister is years away, and what aircraft will be chosen to replace the venerable Sea Kings remains uncertain.
The good news in all this is that Europe, agonizingly and slowly, is following the US lead in deploying transformational weapons and introducing new asymmetrical tactics for fighting terrorists. Lighter and more mobile brigades are being fielded by most Western countries, especially in Britain and Germany, equipped with light armored vehicles (LAVs), laser range finders, and GPS. Aircraft will be used with greater efficiency and in smaller numbers, armed with precision munitions and stand-off weapons. New amphibious vessels are also being built, along with aircraft carriers, and fast sealift vessels, all geared toward expeditionary warfare.
Over the years Europe has created the worlds most comprehensive and generous welfare system and it is doubtful this will change in the near future. Whether the EU is willing or able to convince its populace of the need for foreign interventions on the scale of the US military is highly unlikely in the near future. In contrast, the American people have shown the willingness for a balance of both: an active defense policy and adequate social spending for the masses. Americas problem seems to be in making its huge military allocations stretch far enough for all its priorities. Though the budget continues to rise unabated, cuts in the number of aircraft, ships, and personnel may be in the works for the worlds last superpower. -- Mike Burleson