A Tale of Two Allies

A Tale of Two Allies
U.S. Army Photo by SGT Juan F. Jimenez
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With the NATO summit just hours away, it is useful to assess the state of two key allied militaries: Germany’s and the United Kingdom’s. These two countries have historically been central to the alliance’s strategic credibility—and remain so today—but each faces a gap between what it claims it wants to do and the resources necessary to meet those goals.

When the British Government issued its Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in 2015, it represented a significant change from the prior review, completed in 2010. Laying out greater ambitions for what role the UK would play on the world stage, the 2015 SDSR reversed what many saw as the 2010’s retreat to a posture of “Little England.”

The SDSR still stands, but the resources necessary to meet its ambitions are slowly slipping away. As a recent letter to Prime Minister Theresa May from former senior military officers and security specialists succinctly states: “funding is simply not there to give it substance.”

This funding shortfall came about, in part, because the original plan—which included procuring a host of new weapon and defense platforms, such as maritime patrol aircraft, attack helicopters, nuclear-armed strategic submarines, and F-35s for its new aircraft carriers—rested on overly optimistic assumptions about how much the Ministry of Defence could save by instituting greater internal efficiencies. Compounding the problem, the Ministry’s “rainy day” fund of approximately $14 billion, intended to help it meet new emerging threats, has been largely eaten up by current needs. And, finally, there is the issue of the pound and the possible, negative effect of Brexit on its long-term strength relative to the dollar. With a goodly amount of the new British defense equipment coming from the United States, the MoD may well have less dollar buying power in the future and, in turn, will need to make cuts to its planned procurements.

To close the funding gap, the government could ask the defense ministry to free up more resources by cutting personnel and monies for support and training. But this would be to “rob Peter to pay Paul;” British forces are already extremely thin in force structure, and readiness accounts are stretched to the limit. 

May’s government has promised to continue meeting the NATO defense spending target of 2% of GDP and to continue increasing military spending by 0.5% annually until 2022. But those commitments likely will still leave the government short of what it needs to fulfill the Strategic Defence and Security Review’s plans.

In similar fashion, last summer, Germany issued its White Paper on Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr, which called for a stronger and more engaged Germany. However, in contrast with Prime Minister May’s commitment to stay above the 2% floor, Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has only promised to head her government in that direction and perhaps reach it sometime in the middle of the next decade.

Germany’s current defense burden stands at a quite modest 1.22%. Not surprisingly, the country’s forces have been described by the parliamentary ombudsman as recently as last year as “overstretched and underfunded.” Increasingly deployed outside of Germany and now taking the lead in Lithuania to deepen the alliance’s deterrent posture there, German soldiers complain about such basic things as the reliability of its rifles and having to use broomsticks instead of actual machine guns for a training exercise, and German airmen face chronic readiness problems across the Luftwaffe’s fleet.

In response, Berlin has been adding to its defense budget: 2 billion more euros this year over last and an expected 1.4 billion more for 2018. And, already, the portion of Germany’s total defense budget that goes to equipment procurement has increased from 13.5% in 2015 to today’s 16.2%. Nevertheless, it still falls short of the 20% mark recommended by NATO to sustain a properly outfitted military. And while the German government has announced it will bring 104 Leopard II tanks out of storage and outfit them with new guns and armor to deal with the threat from Russia’s heavily mechanized land forces, the German army will not see the final delivery of the tanks until 2023.

Germany could do more and could do more quickly. Berlin, for example, will see government revenues increase by nearly 8 billion euros this year and over 50 billion over the next four years. But, with a national election this fall, the extra monies will likely go toward either tax cuts or more domestic spending.

So, when the Alliance meets on Friday, it will see the tale of two key allies. On paper, the UK remains committed to playing an outsized role globally, but its resources make doing so less and less likely. Meanwhile, Germany has sufficient resources to increase its capabilities to match its declared responsibilities but is still reluctant to put its money where its mouth is.

NATO is far from being “obsolete” as candidate Trump declared, but Germany and the UK are in danger of falling short of what they must do to ensure that it does not.

Gary Schmitt is director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies, American Enterprise Institute.

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