Ramping up Europe’s production of weapons and munitions will take years for the US, even with its large defense industrial base. For Europe, where defense production is fragmented among numerous nations, the process will be even harder.
Yet there may be a bright side to this. Much like renovating an old house, Europe’s defense build-up offers a fresh start. Rather than simply buying more of what they already have, European armed forces could choose to tailor their acquisitions to the lessons of the Ukraine conflict.
So what are those lessons? The problem isn’t just that nations prepare to fight the last war. hey also have trouble understanding what the last war really meant. In 1943, experts swore that tanks and aircraft were the decisive weapons of the future. By 1973, some experts were declaring that cheap guided missiles had made tanks and aircraft obsolete.
The Russo-Ukraine war is not an easy conflict to parse. Missiles and drones have indeed proven crucial, but not decisive. In fact, it is old-fashioned howitzers and multiple rocket launchers — firing a mix of guided and unguided munitions — that are dominating the battlefield. Both sides have employed large numbers of tanks, jets, and helicopters in the largest battles in Europe since World War II. Yet the conflict is mired in World War I-style trench warfare. As for relying on foot soldiers, Ukraine’s army has accomplished wonders using agile light infantry tactics (although it would gladly take all the armored vehicles, jets, and cannons that the West is willing to give.)
Perhaps it is easier to start with what Europe doesn’t need, or at least doesn’t need as much. Naval power is always useful. But if the primary threat to Europe comes from a land power like Russia, then new tanks would be a more valuable investment than new submarines.
The same applies to expeditionary forces equipped with light armored vehicles for peacekeeping and humanitarian missions in regions such as Africa. There are valid political-military reasons for these interventions. But these peripheral theaters are not existential when compared to facing Russian armies on Europe’s borders. For that mission, tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and heavy artillery are more suitable than fast but vulnerable armored cars.
So far, the lessons of Ukraine suggest that the meat-and-potatoes of mass warfare in Europe is fundamentally the same as in 1945. Tanks, armored troop carriers, artillery, and aircraft remain the decisive arms for fire and maneuver on and above the battlefield. They need to be backed up by 21st-century force enablers: cyberwarfare, data-networked command systems, satellite communications, and especially drones. Yet none of these technologies can replace boots, tracks, and wheels on the ground.
There’s some good news in this for European nations, many of which have militaries organized and equipped for conventional mechanized warfare. But not so good for a country like the Netherlands, which got rid of all its tanks in 2011 to save money – and now leases 18 Leopard 2 from Germany.
This cost-cutting arguably could make sense if Dutch troops could rely on bigger European nations to provide tanks to support their fleet of CV-90 and Boxer infantry fighting vehicles. Yet Britain only has 227 Challenger 2 tanks, and Germany around 300 Leopard 2s, and some of those have been sent to Ukraine (how many of the remainder are mechanically fit to fight is another question.)
Merely reconstituting a 1945- or a 1985-style military is neither feasible nor smart. Russia has painfully demonstrated what happens when a 20th-century army attempts to fight a 21st-century war. Ultimately, European governments will have to make some guesses.
For example, manned aircraft and helicopters haven’t been a major factor in Ukraine. Is this because modern air defense systems constrain airpower, or is it because Ukraine’s air force is small and Russia’s air force is inept? The answer could determine how many $100m F-35 stealth fighters should be purchased (11 European nations have now ordered 550 of the aircraft), or whether more tanks and artillery are needed. And whatever equipment is bought must be supported by adequate stocks of spare parts and munitions.
How to slice up the defense pie will also depend on how big the pie is. Most NATO nations — including France and Germany — have yet to meet the alliance’s goal of spending 2% of GDP on defense. As Europe wobbles on the brink of economic recession, boosting defense budgets will become even harder.
Yet it is clear that Europe’s existing armed forces and defense industrial base are neither sufficient to sustain Ukraine, nor to meet domestic requirements. Nations must beef up their military capabilities – and that requires choosing how to fight the next war.
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.