Governments across Europe are about to slash their defense budgets -- but they need to ensure they cut correctly.
By Tomas Valasek
The economic crisis has wracked government budgets across Europe, as revenues have fallen and spending on stimulus and bailouts has soared. Already, there are signs that defense spending across the continent will suffer. Finance ministers will be looking for ways to reduce deficit and debt, and military budgets are a tempting target.
Such budget cuts will have some salutary effects: Defense establishments, with their resistance to civilian oversight and emphasis on continuity, tend to get bloated in times of relative plenty. It often takes a crisis to force meaningful reforms. But cuts also threaten to sap the effectiveness of European fighting forces and leave parts of the world exposed to insecurity.
The easiest portion of the budget to cut is operations. But it's also the most important portion. Withdrawing soldiers from faraway places plays well at home and requires no layoffs, but it means fewer troops in some of the world's most imperiled regions. Poland announced in April that it would withdraw from all U.N. peacekeeping operations. While the Poles may be no less safe, fragile countries such as Chad and Lebanon still need foreign troops to keep the peace.
Rather than withdrawing from conflict zones,
European countries and agencies should stop sending overlapping missions to the
same trouble spots. Both the EU and NATO sent missions to Sudan in 2007, and
three different forces are currently fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia. Better
to roll those operations into one; the
current duplication wastes taxpayer money.
As defense ministries slash their budgets, their instinct will be to cut multinational weapons programs and make any purchases domestically so as to protect jobs at home. But that carries risks. Many truly necessary systems, such as transport airplanes, are so expensive and complex that they are best funded and shared between countries.
Granted, many past collaborative programs have been disastrous, such as the seven-nation plan to develop the A400M military transport aircraft. A modern-day Spruce Goose, the plane cannot fly because its engines, made by a four-nation European consortium, lack the proper certification; the plane is also said to be too heavy.
But the trouble with the A400M lies not in the collaborative nature of the program. The plane is a failure because its designers have been more concerned with securing production jobs than with obtaining a good product. In return for investing in the aircraft, they have demanded that a commensurate number of production jobs go to their country. As a result, bits of the plane are being built all over Europe -- and not necessarily in the countries most qualified to do the job.
European governments must be smarter. They should accept that it makes more sense to order the needed parts from the plant with the most relevant technical expertise. The governments also need to be more ready to buy off-the-shelf components, rather than try to generate jobs by manufacturing parts from scratch.
The impact of the budget cuts -- particularly the reductions in personnel and equipment -- also threaten to turn some European militaries into showcase forces, incapable of deploying abroad and thus irrelevant to most EU and NATO operations. It makes little sense, for example, for all but very few allies to keep tanks unless they are upgraded to be able to operate in faraway places such as Afghanistan and unless the governments have access to aircraft big enough to transport the tanks. As an excellent new study commissioned by the Nordic governments concluded, "small and medium-sized countries lose their ability to maintain a credible defence" when certain units shrink too much.
There are two ways to avoid such outcomes while cutting budgets. Some of the key equipment that makes modern warfare possible -- such as planes providing air-to-ground surveillance or military transport -- needs to be jointly owned. NATO operates a common fleet of aircraft that coordinates air traffic, and the alliance plans to buy transport airplanes for its members to use. This arrangement allows militaries of smaller and poorer European states, like the new allies in Eastern Europe, to take part in complex operations in distant places.
But that alone will not generate enough savings. Indeed, the time has come for European governments to consider abandoning parts of their national forces and infrastructure and to form joint units with their neighbors. Modern militaries do virtually all their fighting abroad and in coalition with others. If they lack the money to equip and deploy their soldiers overseas, they need to consider radical cost-saving measures. More governments should do as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg did -- they merged parts of their air forces -- or emulate the Nordic countries, which are considering joining their amphibious units.
Most European governments have, in the past, found it too difficult to part with the cherished symbol of national sovereignty that is a proper army or an air force. But the practical value of such military services in Europe is often negligible. As the recession deepens, defense ministers across Europe should see the crisis as an opportunity to combine certain units and programs across countries. This will save money, which could be put to use properly training and equipping forces for EU and NATO operations.
Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defense at the Centre for European Reform in London. A version of this article first appeared as a post on the Centre for European Reform blog.
Photo: Flickr user Jerome K
It's looking dangerously similar to the 1980s in Northern Ireland, but a lot has changed since the worst days of "the troubles."
By Simon Roughneen
Last weekend shattered the illusion that the gun had been permanently removed from Irish politics. Two Irish Republican Army (IRA) splinter groups carried out what seemed to be well-planned hits, first against two Afghanistan-bound British soldiers, and later, against a Catholic policeman responding to what turned out to be a terrorist trap. Tragedy that it was, the violence was just the first of two related messes now threatening peace and prosperity in Ireland. The financial crisis has also sent a wave of panic across the now-dead "Celtic Tiger" -- whose economy is now set to shrink by at least 6 percent in 2009 after a decade and a half of record growth.
Is history repeating itself? To many in Ireland, it's like a return to the 1980s -- shootings in the north and a basket-case economy in the Republic. No one, barring the hard-line pro-independence minority, is nostalgic for the bad old days. But some fear they might get a return to the 80s nevertheless.
From the politics, at least, the crisis looks familiar enough to warrant concern. The two splinter groups, which call themselves the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, continue to push for Irish unification by gunfire; they have resisted the political approach adopted by mainstream IRA leaders. Although this is the first fatal attack since 1998, there have been ample warnings recently that IRA splinter groups were sizing up potential targets. Northern Ireland has seen more than 20 gun and bomb attacks in the past 18 months, wounding seven police officers. One month ago, police found a 300-pound car bomb outside a British army barracks, a hint that some of the old IRA bomb-making and training networks might have been revived and coopted by the dissident groups.
To be sure, these latest murders were intended to spark either a heavy-handed British response, or a reaction from terrorist counterparts on the other side of the sectarian divide. Indeed, the perpetrators might have sought both in a bid to reinvigorate the tit-for-tat vortex of violence that took so long to seal off. The governments in London and in Dublin were quick to condemn the attacks. Yet London will not want to redeploy additional soldiers to Northern Ireland, for fear that this will play into terrorist hands.
It was significant that Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland's deputy prime minister, pointedly and evocatively described the killers as "traitors." As an IRA leader during the 30 plus years of attritional terror endured by Northern Ireland, McGuinness (who helped dole out a good proportion of the misery) today views the "dissident" IRA groups as a challenge to his authority and that of Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, the political party linked to the "mainstream" IRA. Today, the pair lead Irish Republicanism through political channels -- resisting the tradition of using political violence to agitate for an all-Ireland independent republic. McGuinness called the perpetrators traitors to preempt what hard-liners consider his and Adams's own treachery -- taking formal political office as part of a British-ruled Northern Ireland under the 1998 Good Friday peace deal.
So, what now? During the troubles, as the 1969-1998 conflict is now referred to, Dublin was ambivalent about hunting down the IRA in the Republic, given the heavy-handed British response in Northern Ireland and the threat of Protestant terror groups mounting attacks in the Republic.
Now, however, cooperation between the police forces in both jurisdictions is good. The Republic has a highly professional counterterror police unit and an elite Army Ranger corps modeled on the British SAS (the latter of which is now contributing to an EU-UN joint peacekeeping mission in Chad). Both can be deployed against IRA factions hiding out in the Republic.
One can only hope that the dissident IRA factions have not got too much of a head start on the security forces with the recent attacks. As the Irish economy capsizes, the Dublin government -- and the Irish population -- certainly have plenty of other things to worry about. Unemployment, for example, is expected to reach at least 10 percent before the year is out, leaving vast legions of jobless, much as in the 1980s. This time, there is no where to flee to, as the U.S. and European economies falter too.
The recent violence is troubling, but it's not yet the troubles of the 1980s all over again. As Peter de Vries once said, "Nostalgia just isn't what it used to be."
Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist currently covering southeast Asia.
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