July 29, 2010:
It was recently revealed that the average age of Belgian military personnel on active duty was 40. That's nearly a decade older than in the American military. Following that, it was discovered that 60 percent of Belgian soldiers were overweight, and 15 percent were obese. Both of these revelations were no surprise to anyone living around a Belgian military base. There are 47,000 personnel in the Belgian military, and 63 percent of the defense budget is spent on salaries for this all volunteer force. Belgium is reducing the size of its armed forces, and next year, 1,150 troops will take early retirement (voluntarily or otherwise.) The chubby troops have been ordered to lose weight. But the Belgium armed forces has other problems.
Earlier this year, the Belgian armed forces was embarrassed when it was revealed that their military bases were not well guarded. That was discovered when a group of Belgian anti-military activists sought to protest the storage of a dozen or so American nuclear weapons stored at a Belgian air base. The activists decided to enter the sprawling air base and write some slogans on the concrete buildings where the bombs were stored. They had to climb a fence, and then approach the nuclear weapons storage building from a direction known to be infrequently patrolled.
Base security eventually noticed the presence of the activists and made arrests, using their unloaded (for safety reasons) weapons. The officers in charge of security later complained that they didn't have enough people to prevent such unauthorized visits on the 450 hectare (1100 acre) base. The weapons are still stored there for treaty (the START agreements) reasons (as a bargaining chip in future disarmament negotiations.)
Most European nations treat their armed forces as a jobs program, and keeping people employed is more important than readiness or accomplishing any military task. Belgium spends about $108,000 on each of them per year. Since the end of the Cold War 19 years ago, the main activity of the forces was to shed a lot of the expensive weapons, and training, needed to confront the Soviet invasion that never came. With the Soviet threat gone, and the Islamic terrorists seen as a pale substitute, even base security became less strict.
It's not much better next door in France. Several years ago, military readiness documents were leaked to the media, revealing what a lot of people in the military already knew. That is, the French armed forces was largely a hollow shell. Most of the money went to the payroll and procurement, and not enough to maintenance. As a result, half the armored vehicles, and over half the aircraft, were not fit for service. Spare parts, and maintenance personnel were in short supply. This can be most easily seen by comparing how much is spent each year per person in the military. In the United States, it's $350,000. In Britain (which also has maintenance problems), it's $194,000, while in France it was $84,000.
In Europe, the money goes mainly for show. Lots of troops, with modern weapons that look good, but break down if you try and use them. The leaked French report listed numerous breakdowns during operations against Somali pirates. It was only the skill of the troops, and luck, that prevented this from turning into a disaster. France has since tried to restore some military capabilities, but in Belgium, there's no such incentive. Aside from some peacekeeping missions, Belgian forces have a hard time just keeping political activists from sneaking onto their bases.