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Don’t Panic: Our European friends can raise NATO’s game

Over the last few weeks a series of speeches have described the Russian threat to peace in Europe. On 10 January, Sweden’s Civil Defence Minister Carl-Oskar Bohlin asserted that ‘there could be war in Sweden’. This warning was reinforced by the Swedish military commander-in-chief, Gen Micael Byden, suggested that Swedes should mentally prepare for this to happen. On 15 January the UK’s Defence Secretary, Grant Shapps, told the assembled audience at Lancaster House that a ‘pre-war’ ‘inflection point’ had been reached.1 Just two days after that, the Dutch Chair of NATO’s Military Committee, Admiral Robert Bauer warned that the era of predictability was over and that NATO needed a ‘warfighting transformation’ as an all-out war with Russia could happen at any stage in the next twenty years.4

What, you may ask, is going on?

The procession of dire warnings have led commentators to ponder whether the UK’s fighting age population are ready, willing and mentally prepared for what they may be required to do. This is nothing new. In the early 1900s the ruling upper strata of post-Edwardian society worried that the social and psychological character of the urban working class had made them unfit to fight a major war.5 Of course, the vast majority of the working classes did not flinch in responding to the call to arms during the First World War. Indeed, it was the middle and upper class students at Oxford University who, in 1933, debated and passed, by 275 votes to 153, a motion proposed by Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad that ‘This House will under no circumstances fight for King and Country’. Whether or not the majority of the current population feels that modern Britain represents their cultural aspirations – and is therefore worth fighting for – is, perhaps, a more prescient concern.6

A battalion set of T-90Ms filmed in May somewhere in southern Russia Source: TV Zvezda

Regarding the scale of the Russia threat, a study, in 2018, compared the size of its economy with that of the American state of Texas. Texas’s economy, with its rapidly growing population, was adjudged the larger. It was noted that Russia’s population was shrinking due to low birth rates. 7 That said, the dictum that you need a strong economy to have strong national defence forces does not seem to apply to hybrid-totalitarian states.8 Nevertheless, there comes a point at which war casualties and economic fragility coalesce. A U.S. Intelligence assessment reported that by December 2023 as many as 315,000 Russian soldiers had been killed or injured in the war in Ukraine, and that the losses in that war had set back Russia’s military modernisation by 18 years. If correct, should we be that concerned about the likelihood that Russia will attack a recently enlarged NATO in western Europe in the next decade?9 What do Byden, Bauer and Pistorius know that overrides the logic of Lanchester’s square law? Perhaps the Americans have told their European friends that when the situation in Ukraine is resolved they will concentrate on Asia and expect the Europeans to defend themselves against a militarily reinvigorated but economically fragile Russia.

NATO’s defence is predicated on the assumption that each country will spend at least 2% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence. After America decided to pivot to Asia, President Barak Obama’s administration hoped that its European NATO allies would embrace the idea of ‘Smart Defence’, where national capabilities and resources were pooled and shared to optimize their effectiveness. This concept appears to have been designed to make up for the absence of some American capabilities in Europe and the Mediterranean.10 Europe’s ability to satisfy this desire rested on the character of their leaders and their willingness to spend their fair share of their country’s GDP on defence. Unfortunately, Obama had a tendency to assess the leaders of Europe’s largest economic and military states by the depth of their experience and their progressive credentials, rather than by their commitment to European security and defence. He thought Angela Merkel ‘was steady, honest, intellectually rigorous and instinctively kind … a savvy politician who knew her constituency’. David Cameron, the United Kingdom’s (UK) Prime Minister, was adjudged to have ‘an impressive command of the issues’ for a man ‘who’d never been pressed too hard by life.’ The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, was so disorganised that he was unlikely ‘to come up with a clear plan for his own country, much less for all of Europe.11

President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron 2010 (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Obama may have admired Merkel, but she didn’t take defence seriously as her focus was on the economy, and she empathised with her population’s ambivalence towards its own military. This despite the recommendations of several European think tanks’ which advised that more needed to be done.12 At the time, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, hoped to build the UK’s future on similarly solid economic foundations.13 In 2015, after Sheriff’s remarks, the broadcaster Andrew Marr attempted to goad Osborne into saying that he would ring-fence defence spending. Osborne told him ‘you cannot have strong national defence without a strong national economy. The two go hand in hand’. 14 That year, Germany’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $3.358 trillion was 14% higher than the United Kingdom’s (UK) $2.935 trillion total. Nevertheless, predictably, the forward-leaning UK, which adjudged itself to be  ‘one of the more capable European military powers’, was content to take the lead ‘as a framework nation for operations in an around Europe’.15

Smart Defence could only work if European nations spent what they were expected to spend on defence, but reliance on NATO’s principal of collective defence conditioned them to expect open-ended American support. It spawned an attitude of complacency, which together with the desire to be re-elected, resulted in defence spending attracting a relatively low priority. It was events in Libya, in 2011, that exposed the scale of the fault lines. Although the political will existed to prevent the expected massacre of civilians in Benghazi, it fell to French and UK forces to act quickly. 16 It was evident that many European nations, France and the UK included, did not possess all of the capabilities necessary to play a worthwhile part in the intervention. Obama, found the willingness of the French and British to commit to military activity that they were independently incapable of undertaking very irritating.17 He refused to take Cameron’s telephone calls for a while and when he reluctantly agreed to provide the resources requested he attached conditions.19 A year later, Philip Hammond, the UK Defence Secretary, acknowledged that Libya had ‘cruelly exposed the imbalances and weaknesses in NATO and thus the scale of the task facing European NATO nations’. He made clear that he wanted European defence expenditure to increase markedly, and that Libya had exposed the countries that ‘could but wouldn’t; and those who would but couldn’t.20 Diplomatic attempts to chide the other European powers into spending more on defence failed dismally.

Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, decided to tackle the issue head on, but his blunt, brutish and weird negotiating tactics were widely misinterpreted as an assault on NATO itself. As far as most of the media was concerned, Merkel was the adult and Trump a badly behaved and ill-informed child.21 The photograph, released by Merkel’s spokesman after the June 2018 G7 summit, epitomised attempts to depict her intellectual superiority over the undiplomatic, rude, recalcitrant and naïve American President.

It is unclear whether a behind the doors agreement had been brokered for the Europeans to increase their defence spending to 2.0% by 2025 but if it had Trump sensed that the agreement would be quietly ignored. So, in July 2018, at the NATO Summit in Brussels, he demanded that the Europeans spend what they ought to spend as soon as practically possible. Haranguing Merkel in public, he accused her of being ‘totally controlled by Russia’ because of her decision to expand German reliance on Russian gas. ‘What good is NATO if Germany is paying Russia billions of dollars for gas and energy? The U.S. is paying for Europe’s protection, then loses billions on Trade. Must pay 2% of GDP IMMEDIATELY, not by 2025.’ One NATO leader described this outburst as a ‘bizarre spectacle’. A Guardian journalist reported that what Trump had done would ‘please Vladimir Putin, who has long pursued a strategy of creating division in NATO’.22

Yet Trump’s underlying message echoed what Hammond had said. Both men wanted NATO’S defence to be properly funded. Hammond’s diplomatic approach had been ineffective, but Trump’s caused outrage. Merkel, was universally admired by the international press corps and lauded as a strong and intelligent women. As the table below makes clear, she had no intention of raising defence spending as a proportion of GDP. She would ignore Trump, in much the same way as she had ignored Obama and Hammond on the topic of defence spending. 23

Events have a habit of making fools of those who think they are well equipped to differentiate between the righteous and the wicked.24 Merkel left office two months before Russia invaded Ukraine and European reliance on Russian gas became overtly apparent.

Sanders has consistently worried about the decline in the size of the British Army. Nonetheless, his claim that Britain [Why Britain, why not NATO?] cannot rely on its naval and air power but must instead have an army of at least 120,000 soldiers to fight and win wars. His intervention, I believe, should be seen as part of the enduring internecine fight for resources.25Meanwhile, Edward Stringer, a retired Air Marshal, argued that Britain [again Britain, not NATO?] needs to react to Houthi attacks in the Red Sea by dealing with their ‘puppet-master’ Iran. If, as reported elsewhere, a billion-dollar weapon deal was signed between Russia and Iran, to produce 6,000 of a Geran-2 variant of the Shahed-136 attack drone, the links between the Russians, the Iranians and the Houthis are clear for all to see.26

Stringer’s policy recommendations followed the usual script adopted by retired senior officers: recommending that the UK’s military capabilities be bolstered.27 One thing Sanders and Stringer agree on is that drones will play a major role in future wars. Indeed, Sanders thought that the gaps in the UK’s inventory of drones, artillery and ammunition should be filled sooner rather than later. Given the way drone warfare has evolved he could have mentioned the need to prioritise equipment to protect our forces from drone attacks, so they have the freedom to operate without incurring morally dispiriting losses. Another 40,000 troops is unlikely to be the answer to this conundrum. Surely, given drones are relatively cheap to produce our defence against them must also be affordable. Expensively exotic missiles to destroy cheap drones are surely not the best way forward in the long term. In this context, directed energy weapons, such as those exhibited by the Project Dragonfire team, offer a potentially affordable solution in terms of cost per shot.

A multinational combat crossing of the River Weser in 2016 involving 23 Amphibious Engineer Troop Royal Engineers Credit: MOD.

Before the UK considers spending any more of its GDP on defence it is worthwhile looking again at what our European NATO counterparts spend on their defence. The figures from 2022 suggest that many of them are unlikely to spend the required 2.0% of GDP anytime soon. Is it reasonable for the European Union members of NATO, who leaders were uncompromising and sometimes patronising when dealing with their UK counterparts during the Brexit negotiations, to expect the UK to spend proportionately more blood and money to fill the Smart Defence gaps they have allowed to develop?28 Admittedly, the table below only shows the percentage of GDP spent on defence, not the actual amount of money provided. Nevertheless, it suggests that, apart from the UK, the countries nearest Russia take their defence more seriously than those that are further away. It may well be politically difficult for a German government to spend more on defence, as their economy in 2023 was the worst performing major economy in the world.29 If war is really imminent this should not give Germany an excuse for missing the 2.0% target. The sheer size of the German economy means that if 2.0% of its GDP were spent on defence it would, gradually, become Europe’s military powerhouse.

At the time of writing, only America and the UK are involved militarily the Red Sea in response to Houthi attacks on international shipping? Is it right that the UK should be the only European NATO nation taking part in action that aims to benefit all European nations? Is this another case of countries that ‘could but wouldn’t; and those who would but couldn’t’? So, before we rush to do satisfy what Sanders’s and Stringer’s want us to do we should perhaps ask if the recent statements made by Byden, Bauer and Pistorius were really designed to remind Europe’s political leaders to satisfy NATO spending targets.

Ultimately, the UK should exert whatever pressure it can on our European allies to get them to spend more on defence. If they did so in the spirit of Smart Defence it would go a long way to dissuade Putin from attempting to bring the Baltic States back under Russian control after the war in Ukraine ends. Privately, we could let the Europeans know that, until they spend their fair share on Europe’s defence, our willingness to fill the gaps they have allowed to open might be conditional on some sort of economic quid pro quo. The tone of the Brexit negotiations should embolden our politicians to do this; Hammond-style diplomacy failed. In October 2023, Christian Lindner, the German finance minister, suggested “new steps” were needed in Britain’s post-Brexit trade relations with the EU. 30 Apparently, Germany’s latest Heckler & Koch G95A1 assault rifle does not shoot straight when using military standard ammunition. 31 Perhaps we should also remind Pistorius that we have a defence industry ready and willing to accommodate the large defence orders Germany should be making. That would be a good start.

David Stubbs

In his RAF career David Stubbs served as rear crew on maritime patrol and airborne early warning aircraft. During his exchange tour with the United States Air Force (USAF) he deployed to Turkey to fly in operations over northern Iraq. After returning to the UK, he deployed again to oversee operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, at Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia. After completing another tour, as a flt cdr on the E-3D, he deployed to Afghanistan before teaching at the RAF’s Air Warfare Centre, on the Higher Air Warfare and Air Battle Staff courses. After completing a Master of Arts in Air Power: History, Theory and Practice at the University of Birmingham, a version of his thesis was published in the Journal of Military History. Articles and a chapter have followed in the RAF’s Air Power Review, Canadian Military History, Journal of Military History and in the book ‘The Culture of Military Organizations’.


  1. Grant Shapps, Defending Britain from a more dangerous world, 15 January 2024.https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/defending-britain-from-a-more-dangerous-world
  2. Constance Kampfner, West must plan for war with Russia within 20 years, says admiral https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/west-must-plan-for-war-with-russia-within-20-years-says-admiral-jjr7rs750 [/Note]  Three days after that, on 20 January, the German defence minister, Boris Pistorius, warned that a Russian attack on NATO could occur in the next five to eight years. 2Arpan Rai, Germany warns Putin could launch attack on Nato in less than a decade https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/nato-war-with-russia-admiral-bauer-b2481278.html [/Note] And just four days later, the outgoing head of the British Army, General Sir Patrick Sanders, argued that Britain should train a “citizen army” ready to fight on land in the future.3Jonathan Beale and Doug Faulkner, Britain must train citizen army, military chief warns, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-68086188#[/Note] On Sky TV the next day, General Sir Richard Sheriff, who in 2015 claimed that the UK could barely wave a tiny stick around the world, weighed in to suggest that it might be necessary to ‘look carefully at conscription’.[Note]Sunita Patel-Carstairs, Time to ‘think the unthinkable’ and consider UK conscription, says Britain’s former top NATO commander, 25 January 2024, https://news.sky.com/story/time-to-think-the-unthinkable-and-consider-uk-conscription-says-britains-former-top-nato-commander-13056148.
  3. Correlli Barnett, The Lost Victory: British dreams and British Realities (London: Pan Books,1996), 16. Tammi Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 13-15.
  4. Tim Stanley, Would I die for Britain? No Thanks, The Spectator, 27 January 2024, https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/would-i-die-for-britain-no-thanks/
  5. Frank Holmes, Which Has the Bigger Economy: Texas Or Russia? 17 April 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/greatspeculations/2018/04/17/which-has-the-bigger-economy-texas-or-russia/
  6. Andrei Kolesnikov, Putin’s War Has Moved Russia From Authoritarianism to Hybrid Totalitarianism, https://carnegieendowment.org/2022/04/19/putin-s-war-has-moved-russia-from-authoritarianism-to-hybrid-totalitarianism-pub-86921
  7. Jonathan Landay, U.S. Intelligence assesses Ukraine was has cost Russia 315,000 casualties – source, 12 December 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/us-intelligence-assesses-ukraine-war-has-cost-russia-315000-casualties-source-2023-12-12/
  8. https://2009-2017.state.gov/secretary/20092013clinton/rm/2011/11/176999.htm  https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/opinions_83096.htm?selectedLocale=en
  9. Barak Obama, A Promised Land (London: Viking, 2020), 526-7.
  10. Francois Holsbourg, Wolfgang Ischinger, George Robertson, Kori Schake and Tomas Valasek, All Alone? What US retrenchment means for Europe and NATO, Centre for European Reform. Lisa Aronsson and Patrick Keller, British-German Defence Co-operation in NATO, Royal United Service Institute.
  11. David Cameron, For The Record (London: William Collins, 2019), 178.
  12. Andrew Marr interview of George Osborne, Andrew Marr Show, BBC 1, 08 February 2015.
  13. DCDC, Joint Concept Note 3/12, Future Air and Space Operating Concept.
  14. House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options, Third Report of Session 2016–17, HC 119, 6 September 2016,10.
  15. Obama, Promised Land, 527, 658.
  16. David Cameron, For The Record (London: William Collins, 2019), 279-281. [/Note] Merkel, of course, ‘stepped back’.18Ibid., 270.
  17. Philip Hammond, Speech at the 2012 RUSI Air Power Conference.
  18. Lauren Gambino, ‘That’s not how it works’: Trump’s grasp of Nato questioned, 19 March 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/18/trump-merkel-nato-germany-owe-money-tweet
  19. Ewen MacAskill and Pippa Crerar, Donald Trump tells Nato allies to spend 4% of GDP on defence, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/11/donald-trump-tells-nato-allies-to-spend-4-of-gdp-on-defence, 11 July 2018.
  20. Obama, Promised Land, 526-527.
  21. I am embarrassed that the lyrics of the Heaven 17 song We Don’t Need That Fascist Groove Thang: “Regan is President Elect, fascist god in motion, Generals tell him what to do, stop your good time dancing, train their guns on me and you, fascist god advancing,” reflected my left-wing political opinions as a student.
  22. David Stubbs, Defence Facts of Life: The Aspiration/Reality Mismatch, 9 May 2019, https://wavellroom.com/2019/05/09/defence-facts-of-life-the-aspiration-reality-mismatch-long-read/
  23. Dalton Bennett and Mary Ilyushina, Inside the Russian effort to build 6,000 attack drones with Iran’s help, The Washington Post, 17 August 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/2023/08/17/russia-iran-drone-shahed-alabuga/
  24. Edward Stringer, We need to deal with the Houthis puppet-master: Iran, The Spectator, 23 January 2024. Sir John Jenkins KCMG LVO, Air Marshal Edward Stringer (Ret’d) CB CBE, Harry Halem and Jay Mens, The Iran Question and British Strategy, Policy Exchange, July 2023.
  25. Greame Demianyk, Donald Tusk Mocks Theresa May Over Brexit with Instagram Post About Cake and Cherries, 20 September 2018, https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/donald-tusk-instagram-brexit-may_uk_5ba3ee14e4b0375f8f9b454f
  26. Martin Arnold, Germany was the worst performing economy last year, The Financial Times, 15 January 2024. https://www.ft.com/content/792a1a09-701c-4c9d-aa77-0d9575d5bda9
  27. Faisal Islam, Brexit: ‘Call us on trade, says German finance minister Christian Lindner, 14 October 2023.
  28. Jorg Luken, New German rifle does not shoot straight, The Daily Telegraph, 27 January 2024, 3.

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