increasing European defense spending now will not make up for decades of underinvestment

The West has to drastically “reset” its approach to dealing with aggressors following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. “Geopolitics is back,” she recently told an audience at London’s Mansion House in what has been reported as a major foreign policy speech. “We must be assertive. The aggressors are looking at what has happened in Ukraine. We have to make sure they get the right message.”

NATO members seem to agree to this in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with many countries now planning to spend more on their defense budgets. But decades of underinvestment in defense have left the West vulnerable. And the billions of dollars of military aid that some of these countries have already sent to Ukraine highlights many of the problems.

In NATO, defense spending is now on the rise. Immediately after the invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a €100 billion fund to upgrade the country’s armed forces and pledged to maintain a defense budget of 2% of GDP in the future. Denmark says it will reach the 2% target by 2033, having historically spent well below the NATO average on its defence.

Sweden and Finland, currently discussing whether they should join NATO, are also increasing their defense spending. Finland’s defense budget was around 1.5% of GDP in 2020, but the government announced a one-time injection of €2bn (£1.7bn), or 70% of the existing budget, after the invasion Ukrainian Russian. Sweden has announced its intention to reach the 2% target as soon as possible.

Decades of underinvestment

Truss said: “We are correcting underinvestment generation.” But it is more than a generation when it comes to NATO in general. Spending has been steadily cut despite warnings.

In 2018, then-US President Donald Trump commented that European NATO members were not spending enough on defense and suggested that the US might leave the alliance. But the US has felt for decades that the European NATO members do not bear enough of a burden to protect Europe, since it spends far more on defense as a percentage of GDP than they do.

Since 2014, NATO has specified that members must spend 2% of GDP on defense. Truss said in his speech that this should be a floor instead of a ceiling. That will be hard for some NATO nations to swallow. Most were significantly below the 2% target in 2019.

In the UK, defense spending fell from just over 6% of GDP in 1955 to 4.1% in 1990. This reduction occurred during periods of heightened Cold War tension. Other countries contributed even less. During the 1970s and 1980s, various US and British units were deployed to Denmark because NATO command knew their forces were inadequate even for the task of self-defense.

The fall of the Soviet Union and the associated peace dividend led most Western nations to cut defense spending by almost half. The UK defense budget fell further to 2.25% in 2004 and stood at 2.1% between 2015 and 2019, after Ukraine was invaded and Crimea annexed.

Preparing for conflict: UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels, January 2022.
EPA-EFE/Olivier Matthys/swimming pool

In fact, arguably the 2% spending for Britain was only achieved after some “creative accounting” in the MoD budget. This evidence casts doubt on Truss’s comment that “we have shown that we are prepared to prioritize security and respect for sovereignty over short-term economic gain.”

Come as you are wars

To save money, Western governments have cut defense spending and relied on a limited number of weapons systems and military hardware. This makes sense to most people in peacetime. But it does mean that any major conflict must be won quickly before the ammunition supply runs out or all weapons systems are worn out or destroyed.

We see a discussion among military commentators about how much main battle tank (MBT) losses the Russians have suffered, and whether they can continue operations at this rate and replace their losses. But the same iron laws of supply and demand apply to NATO equipment and its manufacture.

Defense manufacturer Raytheon reports that it is unable to increase production due to a very limited stock of material for its Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. While Stingers are old technology, the problem will be found with newer weapon systems as well.

The most talked about weapons, the next-generation light anti-tank weapons (NLAW), were developed by the Swedish company Saab in a joint venture between the Swedish and British defense ministries. Although general production figures are not public, the initial NLAW project in the British Army was for the acquisition of 14,002 units.

The United States has sent 7,000 Javelin anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) to Ukraine. This is a third of the US stockpile of the missile. While the use of legacy missile stocks allows NATO members to update their stocks with the latest versions, usage outpaces production. The lack of investment and the false logic of preparing for a “come as you are” war has come home to rest.

Concluding her speech, Truss said: “We thought we had learned the lessons of history and that the march of progress would continue unchallenged. We were wrong.” How much will the West learn from the invasion of Ukraine and, more importantly, will the lessons of history hold this time? There is no evidence to suggest that they will.

Leave a Comment