European governments have long forgotten that their primary task is the defense of those they govern. The two most prominent European powers, France and Great Britain, spend only 2.3 percent and 2.4 percent, respectively, of their GDP on military spending – amounting to less than what Djibouti and Namibia each spend on their militaries, in proportion to their GDP. The economic crisis has provided perfect political cover for those who have long favored slashing European defense spending even further to start getting their way – and they’re proposing greater cuts, anywhere between 25 percent to 40 percent of the military budget.
The degradation of the military is not a recent phenomenon. The UK has done defense on the cheap for years. Former prime minister Gordon Brown decided in 2007 that defense minister was not even a full-time job, asking a cabinet loyalist to do both that role and be secretary of state for Scotland. The current deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, believes that Britain should get rid of Trident, its nuclear deterrent. Last month he claimed that “It's going to be difficult for someone who is going to receive less housing benefit… to understand why we should spend huge, huge amounts of money on replacing Trident.” To put this in context: the Department for Work and Pensions receives over £150bn a year and the National Health Service nearly £94.5bn. The total cost of replacing Trident – which will last between 25 and 35 years – is £20bn. Yet the Treasury is breaking with tradition by refusing to fund it, meaning that the Ministry of Defense will have to – an outlay that will account for over 50 percent of its total budget.
As a result, it will be virtually impossible for the UK to offer any meaningful military assistance to the U.S. in the future. The overstretched and under-equipped Ministry of Defense can barely function as it is. The major shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan is now well established, with a parliamentary committee reporting last year that the lack of helicopters was having “adverse consequences” for Britain. Up to two-thirds of the Apache attack helicopter fleet has been described by the Ministry of Defense as “unfit for purpose.” Last July, a plan to severely diminish the threat of Taliban improvised explosives devices (IEDs) – responsible for more NATO troop deaths than any other tactic – was scrapped due to insufficient troop numbers and helicopters. A month later, British soldiers were forced to protect the remains of a senior officer killed by a roadside bomb for three days before a helicopter was available to collect his body.
The shortages-problem is endemic. A lack of heavily armored vehicles meant two soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Army doctors lack basic equipment, such as surgical tools. A coroner at an inquest into the deaths of two soldiers in Afghanistan labeled the Ministry of Defense’s inability to provide basic equipment “unforgivable and inexcusable.” Four soldiers killed this year in Helmand did not have enough metal detectors available to trace bombs, and soldiers are even forced to dye their own uniforms due to a lack of camouflaged shirts.
Also in short supply is much financial reward for being constantly shot at by a variety of jihadist head-hackers. The newest recruits to the army are paid approximately £22,000 a year, while one of Britain’s more notorious Islamist hate-preachers receives over £25,000 a year just in state benefits. The government is now paying out more to those seeking the imposition of Islamic law than it is to those willing to die protecting fledgling democracies from a return to it.
This is a fundamental problem facing not only the UK, but all of Europe. Those making the case for a responsible, engaged foreign policy, spending less on social welfare and more on defense were swimming against the tide in times of prosperity. In a recession, the idea elicits revulsion and incomprehension in equal measure. The European social welfare model is based on the complete repudiation of this idea, relying as it does on high taxes subsidizing a lavish welfare and benefits system, and the U.S. getting its hands dirty by dealing with foreign dictators and rogue states.
While the UK bucked this trend somewhat by at least trying to be useful in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is now headed by a leader who is overwhelmingly domestic focused. Like his counterpart in the White House, Prime Minster Cameron looks at foreign policy as an unwelcome problem that needs managing, not something to define his administration. He has therefore been happy to sacrifice the military budget on the pedestal of ‘necessary’ spending cuts. It will be hard enough to reverse this in Britain. Halting the rest of Europe’s slide into military irrelevance will be even harder.
Robin Simcox is a research fellow at the Centre for Social Cohesion in London.