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Red Alert! Concerns grow over Europe’s dramatic military weakness

Despite repeated reassurances that Europe would rally to meet the challenges presented by a resurgent Russia and an increasingly belligerent China challenging European and global security, the once great militaries and industrial base of the continent are a mere shadow of their former glory.

Despite repeated reassurances that Europe would rally to meet the challenges presented by a resurgent Russia and an increasingly belligerent China challenging European and global security, the once great militaries and industrial base of the continent are a mere shadow of their former glory.

Russia’s devastating invasion of Ukraine has shattered many long-held, post-Cold War myths that dominate contemporary Western thinking.

Whether it was the unrestricted liberalisation and “globalisation” of the global economy resulting in a hollowing out of national economic bases, the hubristic belief that liberal democracy had once and for all triumphed over the archaic models of autocratic governance ultimately culminating in the “end of history” as championed by Francis Fukuyama.


Fast forward to today, and we now know that the heady days of optimism and hubris have been shattered with autocratic nations on the march across the globe and the post-Second World War economic, political, and strategic order in retreat, with the world’s formerly great imperial powers not far behind.

Across Europe, whether in the major powers of the United Kingdom, France, Germany or Italy or even the smaller yet equally consequential nations like Spain, Denmark, Finland or Sweden, the increasingly contested and multipolar nature of the world is presenting major challenges to the security of the European continent.

Yet this isn’t a recent development, as each nation effectively abrogated its responsibility, preferring instead to rely on the seemingly inexhaustible might of the United States in the decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union to provide for their strategic and even, in some cases, tactical-level security, after all, we were now living through the “end of history”.

Further reinforced by the collective security provided by the protective umbrella that is the multilateral North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Europe’s once great military, economic and industrial powers were content to live high on the hog, providing niche forces and developing fabulously expensive platforms that could only be procured in small numbers, presenting European industry with a scalability problem should the strategic environment change.

This reality has not gone unnoticed, as many in the defence policy community have recognised the increasing vulnerability of the European powers and a severe disconnect between their repeated public commitments and their capacity to deliver.

Highlighting this is a piece for The Wall Street Journal by Max Colchester, David Luhnow and Bojan Pancevski titled “Alarm Grows Over Weakened Militaries and Empty Arsenals in Europe”, which details the truly appalling state of Europe’s defence capabilities, and concerningly, the implications of this reality.

Setting the scene, the trio explain: “In the decades since the end of the Cold War, weakened European armies were tolerated by governments across the West because an engaged America, with its vast military muscle, underpinned the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and defence policy in Europe. The US accounted for nearly 70 per cent of NATO’s defence spending last year.

“But alarm has grown as America has moved toward a more isolationist stance, and as the understanding of a potential threat to Europe from Russia re-emerges, after nearly two years of bloody fighting in Ukraine.”

No ‘immediate danger’ but trouble on the horizon

Despite Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war of attrition between the two nations, Europe appears to have only partially awoken from its slumber, with progress toward rearming, reshoring industrial capacity and energy security (*cough* Germany *cough*) ultimately presenting an increasingly vulnerable target for future Russian aggression.

Colchester, Luhnow and Pancevski highlight this, stating: “There is no immediate military danger to Europe from Russia, and Western military and political leaders think that Russia is for now contained by its war of attrition in Ukraine.

“But if Russia ultimately wins in Ukraine, few doubt Moscow’s capacity to rearm completely within three to four years and cause trouble elsewhere. Russian President Vladimir Putin has for years mourned the loss of a Russian empire that encompassed Ukraine and other eastern European nations, including the Baltics.”

In the German context, despite the central European nation’s status as a global industrial power and a globally recognised leader in the realms of advanced manufacturing, Germany’s military modernisation in the aftermath of the Cold War has been somewhat lacklustre, resulting in major delays to acquisition programs, faulty equipment, costly overruns for major programs – if all of this is starting to sound a little familiar, don’t worry, you’re not alone.

With the war in Ukraine shedding light on the lack of preparedness across Europe and the broader Western world, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has moved to remedy the predicament, recently approving a €100 billion “special fund” to overhaul the German military and prepare it for the era of great power competition – Scholz details this shift, stating in February: “It is clear that we must invest much more in the security of our country in order to protect our freedom and our democracy.

“The goal is a powerful, cutting-edge, progressive Bundeswehr that can be relied upon to protect us,” critically, while Scholz’s intent is clear: to prepare German military for conflict, the challenges the Bundeswehr faces are legion, with Der Spiegel quoting a report from the commander of the 10th Panzer Division, following a recent exercise, where: “during an exercise with 18 Puma infantry fighting vehicles, all 18 of them broke down. It was a worrisome incident given that the ultra-modern weapons systems are a key component of the NATO rapid-reaction force.”

This is then reinforced by Alfons Mais, Lieutenant General of the German Army, who stated: “The cupboards are almost bare”, and by André Wüstner, chairman of the German Bundeswehr Association, who added: “We continue to be in free fall.”

For the United Kingdom, the situation is equally dire, when earlier this year, a senior US general had pointed warning for the United Kingdoms then-defence secretary Ben Wallace: “Bottom line ... its an entire service unable to protect the UK and our allies for a decade.” This was further compounded by a series of concerning details outlined about the state of readiness of the British Armed Forces, namely:

  • The British Armed Forces would run out of ammunition “in a few days” if called upon to fight.
  • The Royal Air Force lacks the ability to defend its skies against the level of missile and drone strikes that Ukraine is enduring.
  • It would take five to 10 years for the Army to be able to field a warfighting division of some 25,000 to 30,000 troops backed by the required tanks, artillery and helicopters.
  • Thirty per cent of the UKs forces on high readiness are reservists who are unable to mobilise within NATO timelines.
  • The majority of the Armys fleet of armoured vehicles, including tanks, was built between 30 and 60 years ago, and full replacements are not due for years.

Perhaps the most concerning part of this warning, the US general reportedly told Wallace: “You haven’t got a tier one [force]. It’s barely tier two [force].” This is particularly concerning for the United Kingdom, when the US, Russia, China, and France are ranked as “tier-one” powers, while Germany and Italy are examples of “tier-two” powers.

For Colchester, Luhnow and Pancevski, this all comes about as a result of the reality that “much of Europe’s industrial capacity to make weapons has eroded over years of budget cuts, and turning that around is a challenge at a time when most governments face budget constraints amid slow economic growth and aging populations, as well as large political opposition to cutting back on welfare spending to fund defence”.

This is further reinforced by the trio when quoting former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who explained: “Although NATO countries’ combined economic and industrial might dwarfs that of Russia and its allies, we are allowing ourselves to be outproduced ... Ukraine is now in a war of attrition, if we do not get serious on ammunition production the threat of war will likely come closer to us.”

A long history of failing to deliver

Now, two years into the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Europe’s combined industrial capacity is still failing to deliver on the stated promises of the continent’s political leaders in support of Ukraine’s now stagnating resistance against Putin’s Russia.

This has particularly dramatic consequences as America’s own capacity to supply essential materiel to Ukraine becomes increasingly constrained by the broader deterioration in global security and the United States is called upon to provide support to US allies and/or becomes embroiled in direct confrontation with a peer, or near-peer competitor, say Taiwan?

Colchester, Luhnow and Pancevski detail the implications of this, stating: “European nations have pledged billions in aid to Kyiv but have said they face economic constraints and production limits on weapons. If the US pulls back from providing the bulk of aid, Europe doesn’t have the stockpiles to make up the difference, nor can it resupply Ukraine and rebuild its own forces at the same time. The head of NATO’s military committee, Dutch Adm. Rob Bauer, said this year that Europe could now ‘see the bottom of the barrel” in terms of what it could offer Ukraine.

“The European Union looks unlikely to keep a promise to supply a million desperately needed artillery shells to Kyiv by this spring, achieving only around a third of that so far. North Korea, an impoverished dictatorship with a population of 25 million, has shipped over a million shells to Russia in the same period, according to Western officials and Russian government statements.”

The trio further state, perhaps most concerningly for the geopolitical and strategic circumstances on the European continent: “Ukrainian officials have said that if aid dries up completely, they will be unable to continue an already struggling military campaign to retake lost land and may be unable to hold back Russian units supported by a far larger country with superior reserves of manpower.”

As previously mentioned, this isn’t an overnight phenomenon, rather the long-term and steady decline of Europe’s defence spending is now delivering disastrous results for the continent’s defence, something the Colchester, Luhnow and Pancevski detail: “Military spending among NATO countries fell from about 3 per cent of annual economic output during the Cold War to about 1.3 per cent by 2014, according to NATO data. Things began to change after the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, but only slowly. In the past decade, EU defence spending rose 20 per cent, according to the European Parliament. Over the same period, Russia and China boosted their defence budgets by almost 300 per cent and close to 600 per cent, respectively.”

This glaring funding gap has a disastrous effect on the military capability of the European nations, particularly their capacity to go it alone, should the United States not be capable or willing to get involved in and directly fight Europe’s wars.

Colchester, Luhnow and Pancevski stated: “Today, Russia, China and India are all ranked as more potent military powers than the UK, the highest-rated European military, while South Korea, Pakistan and Japan are ranked above France, the second-highest rated European power, according to Global Firepower, a website that uses public data to publish an annual ranking of military strength.”

Closer to home, this presents significant challenges for Australia as we grapple both politically and societally with a world that no longer reflects the heady days of the 1990s and early 2000s and is more reminiscent of the world our grandparents and great-grandparents inherited.

Responding to this will ultimately require a dramatically different approach to the status quo that has dominated Australian policymaking over the past four decades, lest we slide into obscurity and decline in a similar manner to that of Europe.

Final thoughts

As we grapple with the challenges presented by the rapidly evolving global geopolitical order, enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic, and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities and commitment to supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.

Equally, the Australian public needs to be educated on the challenges we face in our region and, more broadly, the post-Second World War order upon which our wealth and stability are built, because without it, many Australians will blindly simply go with the flow and watch as we fade into the pages of history.

Australia is consistently told that as a nation, we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the longstanding strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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