September 26, 2022

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushes the West to re-arm

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BY INVADING UKRAINE, Vladimir Putin has revitalised the world’s democracies and strengthened NATO’s resolve, President Joe Biden told an audience in Warsaw on March 26th. Two days later he submitted a budget to Congress that included $813bn in defence spending. He called it “one of the largest investments in our national security in history”. Among other things, Mr Biden said, it was intended “to forcefully respond to Putin’s aggression against Ukraine”. In Europe, meanwhile, many NATO allies are beefing up their forces even faster. But will the extra money for weapons be spent effectively?

Begin with America’s gargantuan defence budget, the largest in the world, accounting for about 40% of global military expenditures. The Biden administration’s numbers may not quite match its rhetoric. The additional $17bn above the $796bn expected spending this year represents a 2% increase. That is lower than the budget’s projected rate of inflation of 2.5%, which some economists think is anyhow optimistic given the pace of price rises so far this year. The administration prefers to highlight the 4% increase in the base budget for the Department of Defence, which excludes such things as spending on nuclear warheads by the Department of Energy, and supplemental budgets, eg, to help Ukraine and resettle Afghans who worked with America.

“This is going to be a real-terms cut in defence spending,” says Todd Harrison of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank in Washington. “Congress is not likely to be happy.” Mr Harrison predicts that Congress, which can modify the president’s request, will add a hefty slice of extra spending—perhaps another $30bn—just as it did with the defence budget in the current year. “The politics on the defence budget have really changed substantially in the past two months. A year ago, we were hearing progressives in the Democratic Party talk about trying to cut the defence budget by 10%. Those calls have gone silent.”

As a share of American GDP, defence spending has in fact fallen over the years, from 4.7% in 2010 to an estimated 3.3% this year. Leading Republicans have called for a budget that adds 5% above inflation. If they take control of one or both houses of Congress in this year’s mid-term elections, they will have the clout to push for bigger increases. Robert Gates, a Republican who served as defence secretary under Barack Obama, wrote in the Washington Post: “We need a larger, more advanced military in every branch.” But he also bemoaned “the wasteful, painfully slow defence bureaucracy”. And he chastised the “parochial” ways of Congress, which often refuses to allow the rationalisation of military bases or the scrapping of older weapons to save money for new ones.

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The president’s request is something of a muddle. Although issued late, it does not take account of money that Congress recently agreed to spend, not least on Ukraine. Officials acknowledge that it may have to be reviewed later in the year. What is more, the request was not preceded, as is customary, by the publication of a national security strategy. A long-awaited review of nuclear policy is yet to be released.

Officials insist that the war in Ukraine has not changed their underlying analysis: Russia presents an acute menace and China is the longer-term “pacing challenge”. Over the years the breakdown of spending has shifted from the army to the navy and especially the air force—a trend that continues in the president’s request—to strengthen the latter two in Asia in particular. And a growing share, an extra 9.5%, has gone to “research, development, test, and evaluation”, not least in artificial intelligence. This helps to maintain America’s military edge in the long term, but generates little new military capability in the meantime. That suggests the administration does not think it will be at war with China soon, despite the warnings of some commanders that China could try to invade Taiwan before the end of the decade.

For America’s European allies, though, it is Russia that poses not just the most immediate threat, but also the biggest. That explains why they have been announcing crash programmes to boost their armed forces and meet NATO’s target of spending 2% of GDP on defence. Poland has announced plans to increase spending from 2% of GDP to 3%; Romania and Lithuania are aiming for more than 2.5%.

The biggest wodge of new money will come from Germany, which seems to have shed its sheepishness about arming itself in a turnaround being referred to as a Zeitenwende (“turning-point”). Last month it announced plans to raise defence spending from 1.5% of GDP to 2%, creating a €100bn ($110bn) fund to jump-start military procurement. If the target is met this year, it would release an extra €18bn—a larger sum than the entire defence budget of any European ally apart from Britain, France and Italy.

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But in the scramble for more weapons, attempts to avoid fragmentation and duplication, which plague European defence, may again be sacrificed. “There was little co-ordination when European countries started to cut defence spending after the financial crisis,” says Claudia Major of SWP, a think-tank in Berlin. “Will Europeans do better when budgets are increasing? I am not very optimistic.”

On the face of it, European allies should have little trouble dealing with Russia. Collectively their armed forces are roughly the size of Russia’s, their population is about three times larger, their defence spending is about five times larger, and their economic output is about ten times larger.

But defence spending in Europe is inefficient. It is parcelled up among more than two dozen armies, navies, air forces and ministries of defence. In 2017 the European Commission noted that its members (21 of whose 27 members are in NATO) fielded 178 major weapons systems, compared with America’s 30. There were 17 main models of battle tank versus one; 29 types of destroyers and frigates against four; and 20 fighter jets instead of six.

Successive German parliamentary reports suggest Germany’s forces are in poor shape: many units are unfit for combat; formations are often cannibalised to provide equipment to those on deployment or required for NATO tasks, leaving little for exercises. On the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the head of Germany’s land forces, Lieutenant-General Alfons Mais, vented his frustration: “You wake up in the morning and you realise: there is war in Europe […],” he wrote in a post on LinkedIn. “The army I am allowed to lead is more or less bare. The options we can offer the politicians to support the alliance are extremely limited.”

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Countries are rushing to add military capacity. To do so, argues Ben Barry of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in London, start by “filling the potholes”, ie, restocking arsenals with munitions and improving training. Second, try to speed up delivery of weapons already in the pipeline. Third, buy equipment that exists or is close to delivery, rather than trying to develop whole new systems from scratch.

Germany’s first big decision, for instance, has been to buy 35 stealthy American F-35 jets to replace ageing Tornados, to fulfill Germany’s role in delivering NATO’s nuclear bombs. Germany has also decided to buy Eurofighter Typhoons (which it makes with Britain, Italy and Spain) adapted for electronic warfare. All this will discomfit France, which fears that Germany will be less committed to the Future Combat Air System, a Franco-German-Spanish project linking manned and unmanned aircraft, to enter into service in 2040.

An underlying malaise preventing co-operation is what some call “strategic cacophony”, or European countries’ inability to agree on which threats are the most pressing. The war in Ukraine may bring more harmony. And the EU’s new “strategic compass” seeks to set out joint priorities. Yet the problem of “bonsai armies” remains. The long-recognised answer is greater pooling and sharing of military assets among allies. There are a few examples, such as the air-policing mission that NATO conducts on behalf of the three small Baltic states, or joint naval procurement by Belgium and the Netherlands.

But Nick Witney of the European Council on Foreign Relations argues, “There has been a profound lack of seriousness about the fundamental need for greater integration.” A recent report by the European Defence Agency, set up to promote cross-border defence co-operation, notes that EU countries have fallen far short of targets for collaboration. Just 11% of European procurement and 6% of research and technology were done collaboratively in 2020, instead of the intended 35% and 20% respectively.

“Defence is the last bastion of national sovereignty in Europe,” says Ms Major, “But what kind of sovereignty do European countries really have when they cannot defend themselves?”

Read more of our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis

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