Allied Fronts

European Armies Approach Austerity in Instructive Ways

By Michael Shurkin

French military personnel and their vehicles are seen aboard a U.S. Air Force transport aircraft headed for Mali.

AP Images/Claude Paris

French military personnel and their vehicles are seen aboard a U.S. Air Force transport aircraft headed for Mali from Istres-Le Tubé Air Base near Marseille, France, on January 24, 2013.

At a time when some in the United States have been calling for greater military burden-sharing on the part of NATO allies, three of the most capable forces in NATO — the British, French, and German armies — are making themselves less capable of shouldering security burdens by accepting budget cuts that make them smaller, less ready, and less able to sustain forces abroad. These armies likely will require more assistance from the U.S. military, not less, and there is a growing need — particularly in light of looming cuts to the U.S. Army's own budget — to track what the Europeans can and cannot do.

The Europeans are well in advance of the Americans in weighing competing priorities in light of what they assess to be the future face of war.

Just as important for U.S. and NATO planners is to appreciate how the British, French, and German armies are deciding what to cut and what to invest in as they strive to prepare for their expected roles in future conflicts. The Europeans, in effect, are well in advance of the Americans in weighing competing priorities in light of what they assess to be the future face of war, making their judgments useful points of reference for U.S. and NATO planners grappling with their own cuts. In addition, qualitative differences related to culture, military doctrine, and politics distinguish the allies arguably more than do their objective differences (in force structure, equipment, and manning levels). Such considerations of culture, military doctrine, and politics may also be more relevant with respect to what America can expect from its allies.

What They Can and Cannot Do

Among the three European forces, the British Army is in the worst state due to the strain of its deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, which contributed to the derailment of its modernization efforts, in particular its plans to replace much of its aging armored fleet with a new generation of "medium-weight" vehicles. Those vehicles were intended to incorporate networked warfare technologies associated with the U.S. Army's Future Combat Systems program and the so-called transformation in military technology.

The British Army has three competing priorities. First, it wants to rebuild a force that had become overly tailored for the specific requirements of Afghanistan and make it once again a general-purpose force capable of the full spectrum of operations, from disaster relief to high-intensity conventional warfare. Second, it wants to put modernization back on track. But third, it must also absorb deep cuts. The British strategy, announced in 2012 in a document entitled Army 2020, is to shrink the force by 20 percent and to embrace specialization (with some troops trained for combat while others are trained for stability operations) as well as tiered readiness (graduated levels of readiness among the troops).

Among the three European forces, the British Army is in the worst state due to the strain of its deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.

As a result, the British Army will have no more than three armored brigades (compared with six that currently constitute the "ready" force) plus one air assault brigade, constituting a rump conventional army. Beyond that, the British will maintain seven light brigades designated for garrison duty (as in the Falklands) and for stability operations. The light brigades, however, are intended to draw 30 percent of their strength from the reserve component, which does not in fact exist in a manner capable of meeting that requirement. Sustaining as much as a single brigade abroad will soon be a real challenge for Britain, which is effectively renouncing its capacity for autonomous, unilateral campaigns.

British Army soldiers, marking completion of their tour of duty in Afghanistan, parade in York, England.

Reuters/Nigel Roddis

British Army soldiers, marking completion of their tour of duty in Afghanistan, parade in York, England, on May 24, 2013.

One bright spot: The British Army has adopted a rotational equipping strategy known as Whole Fleet Management (WFM) as a means of significantly cutting the costs of maintaining its vehicle fleet while lowering the overall size of the fleet required, meaning the army can get away with buying fewer new vehicles than might otherwise be the case. In a nutshell, WFM means that vehicles are pooled and centrally maintained and managed rather than held and maintained by individual army units, resulting in numerous efficiencies. Vehicles are assigned to units on an as-needed basis, whether for training or deployments. Anecdotal evidence suggests that WFM works: It saves money without degrading readiness or capabilities; if anything, it may enhance both.

France, too, has adopted a rotational equipping strategy, which is known by its French acronym, PEGP. Like WFM, PEGP appears to deliver substantial savings while possibly enhancing capabilities and readiness. Germany, too, is adopting its own version, known in German as DVm, but has not yet begun to implement it.

The French Army, heretofore relatively unaffected by cuts or the cost of the Afghanistan mission, has retained the fullest capabilities and currently should be regarded as Western Europe's largest and most capable force. It also aspires to remain at least as active and capable as it has been in recent years. This might not last: France's new five-year defense strategy, the Livre Blanc, which was published in April, calls for cuts in force size and a move toward specialization that may push the French Army along the same path as the British. The precise details of what will be done, however, have yet to be worked out. In the French Army's favor is the fact that it has charged ahead with modernization and is already fielding in combat a new generation of medium-weight, high-tech vehicles as well as suites of Future Combat Systems–like personnel gear worn by dismounted infantry. The burden of financing modernization is therefore much lighter than it is for the British.

Moreover, the French Army's deployment to Mali has underscored the value of its current capabilities and looms large over the Livre Blanc, which was first written in 2012 but had to be rewritten in light of the intervention, which began in early January 2013. Although the original 2012 text has not been released, most agree that it called for much larger cuts than the version published in April. Indeed, the April Livre Blanc strikes a surprisingly strident tone in its call to preserve current military capabilities, including the capacity for autonomous action, and it even suggests that France might have to play a greater role in some parts of the world in light of America's "pivot" to the Pacific and its anticipated greater selectivity with regard to when and where it intervenes. French analysts nonetheless regard the April Livre Blanc as a fundamentally unworkable bid to have it both ways. Eventually, something will have to give.

The German Army faces deep cuts at the same time that it is in the midst of transitioning to an all-volunteer force geared toward expeditionary warfare, all of which may result in a hollow force, at least in the short term. On paper, the German Army is on track to become a force that resembles the French Army in terms of composition and equipment. Like France, Germany is already fielding new, state-of-the-art, medium-weight armored vehicles and a suite of wearable communications, networking, and sensor gear. It is retaining some heavy elements — roughly as many battle tanks as the French, for example — and is similarly committed to retaining conventional warfighting capabilities. However, the German Army has an altogether different view of its role in future conflicts, belying the similarities between the emerging German and French forces.

How They Decide What to Cut

Behind the choices made by the European armies are their assessments of recent conflicts, particularly the 2006 Lebanon War and the Afghanistan mission.

A French soldier and his Malian counterparts check a map as they conduct operations.

AP Images/Arnaud Roine

A French soldier and his Malian counterparts check a map as they conduct operations in central Mali on January 20, 2013.

The Europeans find the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah to be instructive in two ways. First, Hezbollah represents the kind of "hybrid" threat that they agree is the most dangerous they are likely to face: a state-sponsored irregular force capable of complex operations and armed with precision-guided standoff weapons. Second, the Israeli military's poor performance represents a cautionary tale of what happens when a force has lost the art of conventional, combined arms maneuver warfare. The lesson is that armies must retain this conventional capacity and remain sufficiently "heavy" to handle a force like Hezbollah.

The problem is that truly heavy forces are expensive, difficult to deploy and sustain, and of limited use for the lower end of the conflict spectrum. This predicament has led the Europeans to gamble that medium-weight forces, using their new vehicles and enhanced technology, will strike the "sweet spot" of being heavy enough to handle Hezbollah-like threats but light enough to be versatile and deployable. Technology, the Europeans are hoping, will help compensate for their reduced numbers of troops.

French military theorists, chief among them retired General Vincent Desportes and retired Colonel Michel Goya, draw an additional lesson from the Lebanon War. They criticize what they see as Israel's (and America's) overreliance on technology and precision standoff weapons. Future conflicts, these theorists argue, will still require seizing and controlling territory. Therefore, boots on the ground, especially infantry, remain all-important. In this view, technology can enhance ground units but not substitute for them.

French military theorists criticize what they see as Israel's (and America's) overreliance on technology and precision standoff weapons.

In Afghanistan, the allies found a "hotter" fight than they expected. They rose to the occasion, albeit with different views of the experience. For the British, the problem was not the violence so much as the expense of bringing to bear the necessary capabilities and sustaining them. The British are leaving Afghanistan convinced that they cannot afford such an intervention again, neither at the same scale nor for the same duration.

In contrast, the French Army regards the experience in Afghanistan as salubrious for the force and is leaving more ready and willing than when it arrived, notwithstanding deep misgivings about the Afghan mission itself. Part of the reason for the French standpoint is the Sarobi Massacre of 2008, when the Taliban ambushed French paratroopers, killing 10 and wounding 21. The French Army concluded that its force had gone soft and needed to be better prepared for high-intensity fighting, resulting in a revamped "back-to-basics" training program and other reforms that have, the French believe, honed their edge.

The French view the performance of their troops in Mali — a large portion of whom were general-purpose forces as opposed to specialized, relatively elite airborne troops or Foreign Legionnaires — as validation of the merits of their enhanced training. Mali is also evidence of France's willingness to step once more into the breach, and to do so without knowing whether any of its allies will help. The French military freely acknowledges the valuable assistance it received from its allies, including the United States; however, the evidence strongly suggests that France would have carried on without it. Mali also demonstrates the French military's belief in the primacy of ground operations and of infantry in particular.

German troops on one of their last patrols in Afghanistan ponder the restive Baghlan Valley.

Reuters/Sabine Siebold

German troops on one of their last patrols in Afghanistan ponder the restive Baghlan Valley on September 2, 2013.

For the Germans, the Afghanistan experience was particularly challenging, but not for the same reasons as the British (economic) or the French (preparedness). For the Germans, the reasons were distinctively cultural. Every upgrade in the German Army's fighting ability in Afghanistan, every slackening of the diplomatic caveats or the rules of engagement and other policy restrictions that bound the German contingent's hands, was an occasion for public and parliamentary controversy. The German Army's role in Afghanistan is therefore unlikely to be repeated any time, or anywhere, soon.

The Germans appear to be sliding toward the lower end of the conflict spectrum, notwithstanding the heavy elements remaining in their force.

Together, the experiences in Lebanon and Afghanistan mean that although the three European armies resemble each other in important ways — they are betting on a medium-weight "sweet spot," on high technology, and on not having to sustain more than a single deployed brigade of roughly 5,000 troops — there are striking differences as well. The British and, above all, the French are striving to maintain capabilities that truly span the full spectrum of operations, including high-intensity conventional warfare. The French even insist on being able to take on a peer competitor and are retaining their two heavy brigades in part to be able to handle that task. The Germans, in contrast, appear to be sliding toward the lower end of the conflict spectrum, notwithstanding the heavy elements remaining in their force, just as they appear to have little stomach for conflict, notwithstanding a defense policy that emphasizes greater participation in multinational security operations.

It remains to be seen how Britain and France will manage what is likely to be a growing disconnect between their foreign policy ambitions and their military means. It also remains to be revealed on precisely what terms Germany will be willing to fight. And it remains for the United States and the rest of NATO to determine whether they will adjust their own budgets and plans based on the assessments, choices, and examples of the British, French, and Germans. square