In February 1941, when Britain stood alone against the fascist dictators, Churchill had a request for America.
“Give us the tools,” he said, “and we will finish the job.”
And America did. From meat and wheat to 17,000 Sherman tanks for Britain and 15,000 aircraft for Russia, the US provided the economic backbone of the Allied war effort. By 1945, America had more than fulfilled Roosevelt’s vow to become the “arsenal of democracy.”
But what other arsenal was there? The Soviet Union couldn’t meet its own military and civilian needs without US Lend-Lease. Though managing to dispatch some arms to Russia, Britain could not have concluded the war without American aid.
Today, the US is again an arsenal — this time providing the bulk of military aid for Ukraine in its struggle against Russian aggression. But this time, America is not alone. Europe can also provide arms to stop Russian aggression. In theory, anyway.
In 1943, Europe’s economy had been hijacked by the Nazis. In 2023, four of the world’s 10 largest economies (Germany, the UK, France, and Italy) are European, as are four of the top eight arms-exporting nations between 2017 and 2021.
Sweden manufactures its own jet fighters. Norway makes anti-ship missiles. Even eastern Europe has considerable potential: all those old Cold War munitions factories in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and other former Soviet satellites can produce ammunition for the Soviet-designed weapons still used by Ukraine (and have provided maintenance and repair workshops for the Ukrainian military.) Indeed, with the European Union (EU) alone boasting a nearly $17 trillion economy, Europe should be able to satisfy Ukraine’s defense needs as well as its own.
The problem is a lack of integration. In the 1940s, America’s unique ability to become an arms cornucopia wasn’t simply because it was a big country with a big economy. The Nazi empire stretched from North Africa to the gates of Moscow, and still couldn’t match American production.
What America really enjoyed in World War II was the luxury of efficiency. Germany, Britain, and Japan had to disperse their factories to avoid bombing raids. Protected by two vast oceans, the US could concentrate production in enormous facilities such as the Willow Run plant in Michigan that could roll out an entire B-24 bomber every hour. American planners could set production targets without worrying that supply chains would be interrupted by bombers, submarines, or guerrillas.
Why can’t Europe be equally efficient? No one is bombing the Ruhr or blockading Liverpool anymore. Yet defense production is fragmented across numerous nations whose weapons require differing ammunition and spare parts. Nor are these items manufactured in sufficient quantities to meet domestic or Ukrainian requirements.
Ukrainian troops, mechanics, and supply officers are already forced to cope with a bewildering array of tanks and artillery from multiple European nations. Even items that should be compatible aren’t. For example, 155mm is a standard caliber for NATO howitzer shells, but Ukraine has discovered that some 155mm shells don’t work properly with some 155mm guns.
These problems aren’t new. Inefficiency, redundancy, and lack of investment in European defense were issues during the Cold War, as was a reliance on the US to shoulder much of NATO’s defense burden. The US has already pledged to beef up the defense industrial base, including boosting artillery shell production six-fold and spending $1bn annually for the next 15 years to modernize ordnance plants. Yet much of this new output will be diverted to the Pacific as the US focuses on China. And in the long run, American taxpayers will probably resent any attempt to make America the sole arsenal of democracy again.
All of this means that if Europe wants to keep Russia at bay, it will need both the capacity to arm Ukraine and to rebuild its depleted armies. The question is whether Europe can afford to do this when Britain, France, Germany, and Sweden each manufacture their own individual models of tanks, artillery, and jets.
Instead, Europe could choose to rationalize defense production and procurement. Bigger nations with large defense industries, such as Britain, France, and Germany, could concentrate on making complex items such as jets, tanks, and artillery. There is already precedent for joint European projects, such as the four-nation Eurofighter Typhoon, the earlier Panavia Tornado, and the advanced missiles made by MBDA, owned by French, Italian, and UK companies.
Smaller countries could produce ammunition and other equipment. For example, Eastern European factories can make munitions for Ukraine’s Soviet-era weapons. As Ukraine switches to Western tanks and artillery, these factories could be gradually retooled to supply them.
The EU’s agreement to provide €1bn ($1.07bn) for urgent ammunition manufacture through joint procurement contracts through the European Defence Agency— everything from small arms rounds to 155mm artillery shells — is a promising start, indicating that the continent’s leaders at least recognize the need for swift action.
The real problems may come with more advanced military systems where national pride and politics play a bigger role. Turning Europe into a continent-wide arsenal won’t be easy. The joint Franco-German-Spanish Future Air Combat System project, for example, won’t field an actual jet until 2040. Its British-Italian rival, the Tempest, will now merge with Japan’s F-X program, which is due to be in service by 2035.
These are incredibly expensive and difficult projects, where national aims often clash. But Europe has the tech and the money if it can find the willpower. As the BAE chief executive noted when asked if the two big European combat aircraft projects might join together, he said: “I wouldn’t rule out one thing or another. At the end of the day, these are political decisions.”
That’s exactly right. To be an arsenal of democracy, Europe must of course have the tools. But it must also accept the need for cooperation, otherwise, the price tag will be too high.
Michael Peck is a defense writer. He can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.