As European NATO members confront rampant materiel shortages, officials acknowledge Trump has a point in calling for more military spending
A Leopard tank and Tiger helicopter of the German Armed Forces participating in military exercises in October near Bergen, Germany. Photo: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images
Soldiers in Germany’s Light Infantry Battalion 413 near the Baltic Sea coast complained last year that they didn’t have enough sniper rifles or antitank weapons or the right kind of vehicles.
During exercises, they told a parliamentary ombudsman, their unit didn’t have the munitions to simulate battle. Instead, they were told to imagine the bangs.
Across Europe, similar shortfalls riddle land, sea, air and cyber forces following years of defense cutbacks.
U.S. President Donald Trump last month irked European leaders when he berated them at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s new headquarters for insufficient defense spending and what he called unpaid military bills.
Current and former European officials were quick to point out that NATO members don’t owe dues to the U.S., but they acknowledged Mr. Trump wasn’t wrong: Europe lacks the capabilities to defend itself.
“Trump won’t have made many friends during his trip to Brussels,” said Richard Shirreff, a retired British four-star general and a former senior NATO commander. “However, Trump is dead right that European nations do not spend enough on defense.”
When Belgium put hundreds of soldiers on street patrols in Brussels after the Paris terror attacks in November 2015, it had to request a thousand armor sets from the U.S. Army. Britain’s Royal Navy has 19 destroyers and frigates. In 1982, during the Falklands War, it had 55.
Fighting wars—and preventing them—doesn’t entail just bullets and bombs. Troops and heavy weapons must be moved to the front, requiring fleets of planes, helicopters and trucks. Arsenals must be ready to reload weapons, necessitating stockpiles of munitions. Armies must be ready to defend themselves and to counterattack, which requires specialized systems. In Europe, all are in short supply.
The U.S. has also cut back its troop strength, naval fleet and tank forces from their Cold War highs. But Europe’s offerings are far outmatched by America’s high-end military capabilities, including advanced fighter planes, armed drones, elite special-operation forces and aircraft carriers.
Despite cutbacks in the Pentagon’s budget in recent years, U.S. military spending far exceeds Europe’s, and American conventional forces are generally better trained and equipped than their European counterparts. The U.S. defense budget, $680 billion by NATO calculations, dwarfs the alliance’s European members, which spend a total of $242 billion.
Europeans have tried for decades to more efficiently build military hardware and organize troops. That effort is littered with failures, delays and compromises. Today European allies spend roughly half as much as the U.S. on defense yet have less than one-sixth of its combat power, European officials acknowledge.
The U.S. has long chastised Europeans on their inadequate military. After the 2011 bombing campaign in Libya, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticized allies for not having enough smart bombs to conduct the effort. NATO countries had to rely on U.S. targeting experts and refueling planes and even borrowed American munitions.
The real wake-up call, allied officials say, was Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, followed by Moscow’s intervention in Syria. Both displayed new Russian tactics and weaponry. Suddenly long-ignored weapons of the Cold War became relevant again.
“The Russian ground forces have under way the biggest modernization program they have undertaken in the last 50 years,” said Christopher Foss, editor of Jane’s Armored Fighting Vehicles. “Their new vehicles are a step-change in capability on what NATO has got.”
For decades, NATO’s nuclear forces kept the peace, offsetting any imbalance in conventional forces. Russia wouldn’t risk annihilating the planet by invading a NATO country, the thinking went. But in view of the risks of nuclear war, the West would only consider pushing the button against an all-out attack. A a so-called hybrid scenario like Crimea, involving a handful of unidentified soldiers sneaking across a border to foment unrest, is impervious to nuclear deterrence.
That is where conventional weapons fit in. The best way to prevent Moscow from stirring up trouble on NATO’s borders has been to ensure the world knew NATO had the firepower to win any kind of conflict, U.S. and allied officials say.
NATO’s challenges in achieving such deterrence today are exemplified in the decline in stocks of tanks.
During the Cold War, the Netherlands had 445 battle tanks. In 2015, the country put up for sale its last 60 tanks, along with its transport helicopters and many of its naval minesweepers. Instead, the Dutch sent soldiers to operate German tanks.
But Germany was also cutting tank numbers, from a Cold War peak of 2,125 Leopard 2 battle tanks to a force as of last fall of only 244, of which just over half were ready for action. The reduction has meant units sometimes have to borrow tanks from sister units for training with just hours’ notice, according to a parliamentary official.
A defense ministry spokeswoman said military units do sometimes need to borrow equipment from other units to carry out exercises—a problem, she said, that informed a recent government decision to invest more in such equipment.
The dearth extends beyond tanks. Last year, only around nine of Germany’s 48 NH-90 transport helicopters and 40 of its 123 Eurofighter jets were usable at any given time.
Hans-Peter Bartels, the German parliament’s armed forces commissioner who functions as a military ombudsman, said in his annual report this year that efforts to improve equipment and replenish munitions stores were taking too long. At Light Infantry Battalion 413 the battalion near the Baltic Sea, he said, materiel shortfalls led to “discontent and frustration” among the troops.
A German army spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the complaints reported to Mr. Bartels were accurate. She said the battalion currently has the equipment and munitions it needs to train properly and carry out its duties.
Stories of shortages abound in Europe. France recently sent only five tanks and 300 troops to a new NATO force in the Baltic states partly because French deployments in Africa, Syria and the streets of Paris have overtaxed its military, according to allied officials.
Britain’s storied Royal Navy is without a single aircraft carrier while it awaits the delivery of two carriers. When the HMS Queen Elizabeth sets sail in 2021, it may initially carry U.S. Marine Corps F-35B fighter planes while Britain builds up its own fleet. The U.K. has also placed its submarine-hunting crews with allies because it lacks planes and awaits new surveillance aircraft.
Britain and France—Europe’s biggest defense spenders—and Germany, its biggest economy, have all pledged to rebuild their militaries. In 2016, non-U.S. NATO military spending ticked up by $10 billion, an increase of 3.8% over 2015 outlays.
Officials say a first sign that Mr. Trump has had an impact may come later this month when NATO releases preliminary estimates for 2017 European defense budgets.
NATO’s goal that member countries spend 2% of economic output on defense is formulated as a loose target meant to be reached by 2024. But Washington increasingly treats it as a requirement. Days after the NATO meeting, Mr. Trump tweeted: “We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change.”
German officials acknowledge their force has become hollow and vow to rebuild it—a decision they stress was made before Mr. Trump’s election. Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed through parliament a military budget increase of 8% for this year, to €37 billion ($42 billion). According to the German government, that represents 1.2% of the country’s gross domestic product. Ms. Merkel says she is committed to NATO’s 2% goal.
German and U.S. critics say changes are too slow. The German defense ministry announced in 2015 it would rebuild its tank force, but the tanks haven’t arrived, to the frustration of U.S. military planners. The €760-million deal to refurbish 104 tanks was signed only last month. The two-year gap was due to the technical complexity of the refurbishment and procurement process, the German defense ministry spokeswoman said.
How money gets spent is another factor. “Better defense spending, not just more defense spending, is what is required,” said Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Transportation remains the most critical need, U.S. and NATO officials say. The U.S. has been urging allies to extend rail lines to training bases, since its transport trailers can’t legally carry tanks on European roads due to weight limits. The U.S. also wants Europeans to buy their own tank transporters.
Cargo planes and helicopters are also a big capability gap, officials say. If tensions with Russia flare on NATO’s borders, war plans call for reinforcements of front lines with NATO rapid-reaction forces. But deploying those forces quickly would likely depend on American equipment.
NATO says members are beginning to turn a corner. Later this month, the alliance will approve a new defense plan that boosts heavy equipment, like tanks, but also calls for additional surveillance planes, air refueling tankers and strategic airlift, according to a senior NATO official.
In the short term, the U.S. is filling the gap in European defenses. Last month, the U.S. announced plans for $4.8 billion in new military spending in Europe, an increase of $1.4 billion over last year.
In Germany, military spending has become an issue in September general elections. The main party challenging Ms. Merkel is casting her support for higher military spending as kowtowing to Mr. Trump, whom many German voters dislike.
Ms. Merkel’s chief electoral rival, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, said Thursday he would officially abandon the 2% goal if elected. “I don’t think this spiraling arms buildup makes sense,” he said.
At last month’s NATO summit where Mr. Trump lambasted Europeans, several leaders said they would publicly advocate higher military spending for the sake of their own national security, not American demands. But they also privately told Mr. Trump they agreed with him, according to diplomats.
“To an extent,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte after the meeting, “he has a point.”