BREXIT, Security and The European Toy Soldiers

Opinion Piece


Image by Lukasz Kisiel via Behance

One of the key issues raised by those who campaign to keep Britain within the European Union is that its security is enhanced by remaining in the EU. It is mooted that the military and intelligence assets within the EU add to British security by providing for the formation of a European Army and a proposed European intelligence service which will work alongside the EU army. This is a proposition which flies against any historical analysis and is founded on the delusional idea that Europe actually has adequate armies or has any important intelligence to share. The operational armed forces which Europe does have are primarily British and the intelligence Europe receives is largely as a result of the sharing of information gained from Britain as a result of co-operation between British intelligence at GCHQ in Cheltenham and the U.S. intelligence agencies and those of Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

As described in an important article by a respected research organisation[i] “The British Armed Forces comprise the Royal Navy, a blue-water navy with a comprehensive and advanced fleet; the Royal Marines, a highly specialised amphibious light infantry force; the British Army, the UK’s principal land warfare force; and the Royal Air Force, with a diverse operational fleet consisting of modern fixed-wing and rotary aircraft. The country is a major participant in NATO and other coalition operations and is also party to the Five Power Defence Arrangements. Recent operations have included Afghanistan and Iraq, peacekeeping operations in the Balkans and Cyprus, intervention in Libya and again operations over Iraq and Syria. Overseas defence facilities are maintained at Ascension Island, Belize, Brunei, Canada, Diego Garcia, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Kenya, Bahrain and Cyprus… It’s a recognised nuclear weapons state and its defence budget ranks fifth or sixth in the world. The country has been a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council since its inception and has been a member state of the European Union since 1973.”

In this November 2015 study, researchers at European Geostrategy broke global powers down into four categories: Super Power, Global Power, Regional Power and Local Power. The United States took the top slot as the world’s super power, while Britain took the only Global Power slot, bringing her in second behind America. Regional powers include France, China, India and Germany, while local powers were those such as Italy, Brazil, and Turkey.

global power

Europe’s security does not rest on the abilities of the feeble and run-down military establishments of Europe (except for Britain) but on NATO; that is a euphemism for Europe free-riding on the U.S. and Canadian taxpayers.

It has been cited in the campaign to remain in the EU that somehow European unity has maintained the peace in the continent since the end of the Second World War. This is a preposterous self-delusion. Europe’s peace was maintained because half of Europe was occupied by the US and the other half by the USSR until 1990.The US and the USSR had the good sense to keep their European allies in check because of the danger of Mutual Assured Destruction which would result from the two major nuclear powers moving beyond a cold to a hot war. It had very little to do with Europeans.

European nationalisms have had very little time to establish themselves. Europe was, is and forever will be a cockpit of petty nationalisms and rivalries where the concept of national sovereignty is important but is of recent origin. There is a popular fantasy in which people refer to European nations as if they have been around for a long time. This is patently untrue; the landmass has been there but the united organised sovereign European nation state is of relatively recent origin. Much of what is now counted as Europe did not exist until well after the end of Napoleon’s Grand Tour of the continent.

Holland and Belgium weren’t established until the mid-1820s; Germany until Bismarck in the 1860s was a hotbed of petty princedoms; Italy didn’t come into existence until the early 1870s. Most of what is now Eastern Europe and the Balkans was made up of small regional entities owned and operated by some more powerful local political entity. When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote, “workers have no country” they were not only writing rhetorically. For most workers in Europe this was a fact. They were occupied nations; sometimes by a foreign power; sometimes by an imposed twiglet of the Hapsburg-Hanoverian family trees. This included the waning days of the Holy Roman, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires. These independent nations barely surfaced until after the First World War, only to be subsumed again in the maelstrom of World War II. These maxi and mini-states of Europe emerged from World War II as international basket cases; in ruins. It wasn’t until almost three years into the Marshall Plan that they were able to afford a foreign policy. Only Britain and Russia (the two nation states not to fall to Napoleon) and the rump state of France proceeded to their own political reorganisations unaided. These maintained some continuity with the past, even if this vision of the past was economically sustainable only through the exploitation of their foreign colonies.

The post-war nations of Eastern Europe defaulted to their original status as nations occupied by a powerful neighbour, the Soviet Union, until the early 1990s and Germany was not reunited until 1990.

And today in these reconstituted states of Europe there is little respite from the very tribalisms and divisions that have always plagued them. Europe has never fully resolved the questions raised by the Thirty Years’ War. The ethnic splits that divide countries like Germany, Belgium, Ireland, Holland and others mirror their Catholic-Protestant schisms. The Balkans are divided at the margins of the Ottoman Empire where Muslims and Christians face each other across a great divide.

It is wickedly ironic that the seat of European unity is installed in Brussels (a French-speaking enclave in a Flemish region) where language-ethnic riots are not infrequent and whose country operates a parallel ethnic track in every ministry and agency.  For example, there is a Flemish-speaking foreign service and a French-speaking foreign service. Promotions, etc. are made by “track” and in strict proportions. There are similar parallel divisions in every government agency, ministry and many municipalities. On reflection, Belgium probably is a good mirror of European unity.

In 1949 it made some sense to create an alliance to preserve the unity of the wartime alliance in the face of the perceived Communist threat in Soviet-occupied areas of Eastern Europe and the outbreak of the Korean War. The unequal relationship between US military might and economic muscle and the pitiful remnants of the Western European armies and a “degraded” European infrastructure was tolerated by US planners because they knew that if a vacuum was left there were candidates ready to fill it. The goal, according to Lord Ismay, the first NATO Secretary General was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”.

When the Europeans were left on their own to pursue a military strategy after the end of the Cold War they were incapable of doing so. Their first attempt was in the hostilities in the wake of the break-up of Yugoslavia. In the early days of the war in Croatia and later Bosnia it was the Europeans who insisted on excluding the US (except financially) from its military and political planning. Egged on by Genscher’s insistence that Croatia and Slovenia should be free, the leadership of Croatia (Tudjman and his Ustash cronies) was emboldened to declare its independence from the Yugoslav Federation based on territory that included many ethnic Serbs. These Serbs had already had a long experience with ethnic cleansing conducted by the black-shirted SS battalions of Croatian Ustashi of Ante Pavelic.  The Serbs needed no reminder of their welcome in an independent Croatia. They turned to Russia and asked for assistance. Russia and US politicians and military leaders discussed this amongst themselves and felt that a common resolution was possible. However, before anything was undertaken, the Europeans in NATO vetoed this initiative. They reiterated that “Croatia is a European problem” and had to be dealt with by the Europeans if they were ever to maintain any credibility as a politico-military force.  Lord Carrington and David Owen were dispatched to bring to the Balkans their skills in diplomacy developed in the debacles of Rhodesia and Portadown. They were able to achieve what everyone expected and feared and soon it was the responsibility of the US and the Russians to bring the parties to table and establish the fragile Balkan peace despite the Europeans. This was repeated in Kosovo.

The Europeans again wanted to show they had some independent military capability.  The amount of bombs, missiles and other tactical devices used in the first two weeks of the Kosovo campaign exceeded the total arsenal storage of the totality of the European Community. The amount spent per day on the bombing of Kosovo, including indirect costs, amounted to over $12.5 million. It would have been far cheaper to buy Serbia than to bomb it. NATO could have offered each Serb $10,000 a head plus moving costs and still saved money. Under NATO rules the US was obliged to pay two-thirds of these costs.

This was just as true in Libya. The Europeans (calling themselves NATO) quickly ran out of ammunition, bombs and money. The US spent almost $1.5 billion in the first wave of attacks by the French and British. As Secretary of Defence Gates said in his speech, ““Despite more than 2 million troops in uniform – not counting the U.S. military – NATO has struggled, at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25,000 to 45,000 troops — not just in boots on the ground, but in crucial support assets such as helicopters; transport aircraft; maintenance; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and much more.” He went on ““We have the spectacle of an air operations centre designed to handle more than 300 sorties a day struggling to launch about 150. Furthermore, the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country – yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.”

The notion of costs and contributions, highlighted by the European failure in Kosovo to match its budgets with its ambitions, is the root of the current problem. Europe, despite its elaborate plans for a European Defence Force, has refused or been unable to pay for the maintenance of a national military. Defence spending has dropped from an already low level by around 15% in the last ten years. This general statement masks the fact that the biggest cuts have been in the adequate provision of transport aircraft. Most of the transport of military personnel has had to be done by the US. Left on their own the Europeans would have to walk, paddle or catch cabs to the frontline.

This is not to say that the Europeans, especially those in the Common Market/EU didn’t make arrangements for a European Force. In the early 1950s, France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries made an attempt to integrate the militaries of mainland Western Europe, through the treaty establishing the European Defence Community (EDC). This scheme was vetoed by the French Gaullists and the French Communist Party. The Europeans tried again in 1954 with an amendment to the Treaty of Brussels. They succeeded in replacing the failed EDC by establishing the political Western European Union (WEU) out of the earlier established military Western Union Defence Organization. Out of the 27 EU member states, 21 were also members of NATO. In 1996, the Western European Union (WEU) agreed to create and implement a European Security and Defence Identity within NATO. After the passage of the Lisbon Treaty these functions were passed to the EU.

On 20 February 2009 the European Parliament voted in favour of the creation of Synchronized Armed Forces Europe (SAFE), directed by an EU directorate, with its own training standards and operational doctrine.  The EU is pushing for a unified European Defence Force, notionally within NATO but separate in terms of action. That is a polite way of saying the Europeans want an autonomous defence force but that the US should contribute two-thirds of the cost. In fact, the US is now paying 74% of these costs.

The US operates over a thousand military bases around the world at a cost, not including Iraq and Afghanistan, over $102 billion a year. The US has 227 bases in Germany alone which cost a great deal to maintain – money paid largely to the German hosts. These include Army bases. Air Force bases; Marine bases and the AFRICOM Headquarters in Stuttgart.

Until very recently. there has been only a decline in European self-defence capabilities. In a recent study (February 2016) “Alliance at Risk Strengthening European Defense in an Age of Turbulence and Competition” a detailed study of the European failings and shortfalls were highlighted.[ii]Europe’s leading armed forces are so hollowed out they are incapable of conducting major rapid-response operations. The US spends 3.6 per cent of its economic output on defence; Germany spends a pitiful 1.2 per cent. And what little Germany does have tends not to work. When Angela Merkel made the grand gesture of sending weapons to Kurdish rebels fighting Isil, her cargo planes couldn’t get off the ground. At the time, the German military confessed that just half of its Transall transport aircraft were fit to fly. Of its 190 helicopters, just 41 were ready to be deployed. Of its 406 Marder tanks, 280 were out of use.[iii] Last year it emerged that fewer than half of Germany’s 66 Tornado aircraft were airworthy

Not only is the budget below German’s security needs, it is being spent primarily on personnel, not equipment or repairs. This has resulted in an army that can only fight for 41 hours a week and not on the weekend. German soldiers taking part in a four-week Nato exercise in Norway earlier this year had to leave after just twelve days because they had gone over their overtime limits. However, the troops are comfortable. The German Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, has used the military budget to introduce creches for children on the bases, along with flat-screen TVs. Postings are limited to match school term dates.

She has been accused of prioritising the wrong issues at a time when the military is facing equipment shortages that have seen soldiers training with broomsticks instead of guns. Under the latest reforms, in force since January, the military working week has been reduced to 41 hours and troops can no longer be paid for working overtime. Instead they must be compensated with alternate time off. The new rules forced training camps to close at 4.30pm and left soldiers stranded on base.[iv] [This is not a new phenomenon for European armies. In 1969, while visiting the national union centre in Holland, I met the leaders of the Dutch Army trade union. They were about to go on strike to secure hairnets for soldiers for those who didn’t want to spend their free weekends with Army-cut short hair].

The French military has overrun its military budget on numerous occasions, although it has many troops stationed in Africa maintaining African despots in power. It’s budget, too is well below the NATO limit of 2%. Even when it does make its investments in equipment the process has, at times, been an elaborate charade. The best example, perhaps, is the pride of the French Navy, the nuclear aircraft carrier Charles DeGaulle.

During its construction, the ship ran into huge cost overruns. Work on it was stopped four times. By the time it was completed the rules for radiation shielding had changed and it had to be refitted with radiation shielding to protect the crew. Moreover, the ship’s flight deck had to be extended by about fourteen feet to accommodate the Hawkeye as the type of plane the carrier would carry had changed over the long time of construction. The propulsion system was even worse.  When it went to sea it vibrated so heavily that the propellers snapped.

When they went to repair it they found that the blueprints for the propellers had been lost in a fire, which meant that the ship had to be refitted with hand-me down screws from Foch andClemenceau. That cut her speed down from twenty-seven knots to about twenty-four knots—which was unfortunate since she is already considerably slower than her predecessors which steamed at thirty-two knots. She went for a refit in 2007. In 2010 when she set out for the Mediterranean it took only one day out of port for there to be an electrical fault and tugboats had to put her in position. She is now mainly functional.[v]

The list of European military frailties is long and serious. However, it is not only a matter of budget, it is also the value of what is being bought with the budget. The nature of modern warfare is much more sophisticated that tin soldiers with guns arrayed on a battlefield shooting at each other. In the last decade there have been significant developments in military technology which have revolutionised the military capabilities of and the manner in which militarily-developed nations conduct their military affairs. The very nature of the conduct of military warfare has changed as well as a dwindling number of states with the capability of conducting modern warfare. The sophistication of the weapon systems brought into service has been so dramatic that very few nations have access to the last two or three generations of weapons systems and have shown neither the will, the cash nor the wit to produce their own.

With the massive expansion of the U.S. military budget there have been substantial investments made in improving weapons and their delivery systems; both in terms of their lethality and the sophistication of their command and control systems. An important result of these new systems has been the ability of these systems to reduce the dangers to the armed forces engaged in pursuing their military assignments while also augmenting their battlefield lethality. The future of high-tech military involvements will see a falling away of the hands-on human component and a switch towards battlefield robots and remotely controlled weapons systems using network-centric warfare systems.

Humans on the ground or in the air or on the sea with guns in their hands are gradually becoming a Third World business. Modern warfare is increasingly being conducted by machines or devices on the battlefields, in the air, beneath the waves and in space This robotisation of the military capability has reduced the need for people killers on the ground but has generated a growing need for engineers, technicians, mechanics and cyber specialists; often operating far from the sphere of conflict. Increasingly warfare involves air and sea drones of increasing sophistication, electro-magnetic pulse weapons, targeted laser heat rays, cyber warfare with killer viruses and a growing ability to use satellites for military purposes, sustained by an exponential growth in the military utilisation of solar power.

This new technology has created a need for developing secure defensive cyber-control programs to protect the security of the command and control systems which integrate the command systems with the sophisticated electronic weapons of war. Being able to protect the cyber communications and to secure command and control networks from external penetration is now one of the most crucial aspects of modern military operations.

This modern warfare, and the protection of Europe, can only be effectively realised through NATO. This is why the U.S. is deploying combat brigades, equipment caches and sophisticated anti-missile missiles across Eastern Europe. There is nothing in the prospects of a European Army that even approximates this capability. European air power, for example is puny and at best fourth-generation. Air dominance and control is at the heart of modern warfare. The largest and best equipped air force in the world is the U.S. Air Force; the second largest air force in the world is the U.S. Navy Air Force; the third largest air force is the U.S. Army Airforce. The thought that Putin and the Russians will quake in fear at a European Army without U.S. power behind is not even a funny joke.

The creation of a European Army is the natural step for those proceeding towards a federal Europe. It is a political statement not a statement based on self-sufficiency or capability. Angela Merkel said that Cameron’s renegotiation on reforms of the EU were dependent on Cameron allowing her to promote an ambitious blueprint to integrate Europe’s armed forces. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said Britain wold get a deal if it gave the green light to a raft of powerful new EU institutions. He stated “If you want favours, you have to give favours. If Cameron wants a ‘flexible Europe’, he must let other members integrate further. Yes – opt out, opt out, opt out – and then shut up.” This was raised repeatedly in the negotiations in Brussels.

So, if Cameron is crowing about opting out of further integration in the EU he has conveniently forgotten that the Europeans are happy to integrate their armies without the British Army. Britain would be marginalised within NATO and the U.S. would have to turn to Berlin and Paris for its NATO allies.[vi] This is what Barak Obama was complaining about when he criticised Brexit. He didn’t want to have to reply on the European Army as his first line of defence. Equally the Poles and the Baltic States have rigorously objected to an integrated European Army because, for them, their national security requires real deterrence; something not likely to be provided by a European Army. The experience of European failure, vacillation and impotence in the Ukraine makes the case against it compelling.

It is a false and dangerous argument to make that Brexit will leave the UK isolated (let alone Cameron’s assertion of a Third World War). It will be Europe who will be isolated and insecure. Years ago there was a wonderful headline in the British press, before it joined the EU. It said “Fog In The Channel – Continent Isolated”. It presaged the current state of European defence.

[i] George Allison, “Study finds UK is second most powerful country in the world” ,UK Defense  November 4, 2015
[ii] Dr. Jorge Benitez, Alliance at Risk Strengthening European Defense in an Age of Turbulence and Competition. Atlantic Council February 2016
[iii] Fraser Nelson, “America is tired of being the world’s protector. We have been warned”, Telegraph 6/6/16
[iv] Justin Huggler,,”German army forced to lay down weapons due to ‘overtime limits’, Telegraph 10 April 2016
[v] Dave Majumdar, France’s Charles De Gaulle Aircraft Carrier: The Good, the Bad and the Nuclear, November 18, 2015
[vi] Peter Foster and Matthew Holehouse, “Merkel ‘expects Cameron to back EU army’ in exchange for renegotiation”, Telegraph 12/9/15


For more in depth articles on Brexit read:

The UK Within the EU: For or Against

Brexit: The Game is Afoot