Cover: Setting Priorities in the Age of Austerity

Setting Priorities in the Age of Austerity

British, French, and German Experiences

Published May 6, 2013

by Michael Shurkin


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Research Questions

  1. What choices are the British, French, and German armies' making to manage significant budget cuts while attempting to sustain their commitment to full spectrum operations?
  2. What implications do the decisions of the British, French, and German armies have for the U.S. Army?

This study examines the British, French, and German armies' approaches to managing significant budget cuts while attempting to sustain their commitment to full spectrum operations. Specifically, it looks at the choices these armies are making with respect to how they spend dwindling resources: What force structure do they identify as optimal? How much readiness do they regard as necessary? Which capabilities are they abandoning? It was found that they are prioritizing capabilities and compromising readiness and sustainability while attempting to optimize their force structure and readiness system to reflect their perceived role in future conflicts, as informed by their assessment of risk and the lessons they have derived from the conflict in Afghanistan and the 2006 Lebanon War. Among other things, these militaries are moving toward a medium-weight force built around a new generation of medium-weight armor. The French Army appears to be the last Western European force capable of conducting the full range of operations — including high-intensity conventional conflict — autonomously and for a sustained period of time. That may change soon, however, with the anticipated release of the 2013 Livre Blanc (White Book), which will spell out defense priorities.

Key Findings

The British Army is in the worst state of the three armies addressed and has made significant compromises with respect to force size, deployability, sustainability, and its capacity for autonomous operations.

  • The Afghanistan and Iraq missions have strained the British Army's resources at the same time it has been subject to successive budget cuts.
  • The British Army judges that it can best meet future exigencies by dividing the force into a small but somewhat FSO-capable conventional force kept at a high state of readiness and a less-ready force geared toward stability operations that is reliant on reserves.
  • The British Army hopes to occupy as much of the middle of the spectrum of capabilities as possible while also being able to finance the modernization of its medium-weight armored vehicles. It is betting that quality will make up for quantity and that a conventional conflict against a peer state is unlikely.

The French Army has retained the fullest capabilities in part because it is less affected by the Afghanistan mission and budget cuts, although new defense spending priorities that will be articulated by a new Livre Blanc (White Book) expected in April 2013 may force the French to make significant compromises perhaps along the lines of the British Army.

  • The French Army has charged ahead with modernization while maintaining its commitment to FSO capabilities, including combined arms maneuver warfare.
  • The French have been cutting support and logistical elements, but its force size and force generation system have remained sufficient to provide commanders with what they consider to be adequate numbers of ready troops for multiple deployments and a high operational tempo.
  • The French Army is reluctant to substitute quality for quantity, suggesting that, in the future, the French would opt for less-capable but cheaper weapons and equipment if that would allow them to maintain the military's size.

The German Army faces significant budget cuts at the same time that it is in the midst of profound reforms and appears to be drifting toward a focus on stability operations.

  • Major reforms in Germany include the end of conscription, as well as shifting toward a medium-weight force based on new medium-armored vehicles: the transition to an all-volunteer force may result in a hollow force at least for the short term.
  • Evidence suggests that the German Army is evolving into a force geared primarily toward meeting the requirements of stabilization operations; a variety of factors make conventional conflict appear implausible to German planners.


  • While being aware of the growing limitations of our major European allies, US Army planners would do well to learn from the Europeans' assessments of future conflicts and how to optimize their force structure to minimize risk.
  • The Europeans are counting on Whole Fleet Management to provide significant savings and make modernization affordable; US planners should examine their experience with it to gauge its potential utility for the Army.
  • The Germans and above all the French are fielding new systems that are similar to those associated with the Future Combat Systems program; US planners could benefit from their real-world experience operating cutting edge technologies.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the United States Army and conducted by the RAND Arroyo Center.

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