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Europe Learns How To Fight Again
by James Dunnigan
October 1, 2011

The decade after September 11, 2001 changed the armed forces of Europe in unexpected ways. Now the Europeans have more capable and professional forces than they have had for many decades. None of this was expected.

In 1991, with the end of the Cold War, Europe was, for the first time in nearly a century, truly at peace. There was no military threat. There were some Islamic terrorists, but that lot didn't have an army. They were a public safety, not a military, threat. It was a unique situation in European history, and European generals and politicians had a hard time are trying to get their heads wrapped around it.

There were potential military threats, but nothing in the immediate future that required a large force. There was peacekeeping, and that's what the Europeans were trying to organize for. That, however, was found to cost a lot of money. The post-Cold War military budgets could not support the traditional type forces, and the new peacekeeper ones, as well. But the idea of disposing of ancient military traditions and organizations was, well, hard to accept. But that’s what happened.

All this post-Cold War euphoria began to unravel a few years into the 1990s, when war broke out in the Balkans (as multi-Ethnic Yugoslavia came apart). Now some European nations found themselves involved with military operations for the first time since World War II. When that happened, deficiencies become very obvious. It happened again, when forces were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq. Later, the problem reappeared when European peacekeeping forces went to Darfur and Chad. European nations found their troops were not in shape, not trained and not equipped for combat. After over a decade of these hassles, the Europeans have adapted, sort of.

For example, three years ago, the German parliament was in an uproar over a report depicting German soldiers as physically unfit for military service. It was found that 40 percent of the troops were overweight, compared to 35 percent of their civilian counterparts (of the same gender and age). The investigation also found that the troops exercised less (including participation in sports), and smoked more (70 percent of them) than their civilian counterparts. The military encourages sports and physical fitness, and discourages smoking, but those efforts did not appear to be working.

When other Europeans looked around, they found that it was not just a German problem. It was worse than that. Most European military organizations were basically make-work programs. It's long been known that many European soldiers are not really fit for action. They are mainly uniformed civil servants. One reason many are not ready for combat, or even peacekeeping, operations, is that they don't have the equipment, or the training. And that's because up-to-date gear, and training, are expensive. A disproportionate amount of money is spent on payroll. That keeps the unemployment rate down more effectively than buying needed equipment, or paying for the fuel and spare parts needed to support training.

Britain is the only real exception, with armed forces capable of going into action at any time. But even that capability is under attack, as British politicians try to emulate other European nations, and save money by creating hollow forces that are there, but cannot really do much.

Britain would become more like other large European states, with a small force capable of going overseas, and little more. In this respect, Britain would become more like France, which has some special units (like the Foreign Legion and Paratrooper units) ready for overseas emergencies. Most nations have small special operations (commando) units. But most European troops were not capable of fighting back in the 1990s. That’s changed a lot since September 11, 2001.

European NATO troops that went to Afghanistan (where most of them went, Iraq being politically incorrect for most Europeans) quickly adapted. Money was found to properly equip the troops. Some governments went further and ordered their troops to avoid combat as much as possible. In some cases, the troops rarely left their heavily defended camps. All this was to avoid too much attention being paid to how much better U.S., British, Canadian and Australian (the “fighting nations”) were prepared for combat. Despite this, everyone quickly learned that you cannot bluff your way through military preparedness. That kind of pretending always ends badly when the shooting starts.

Faking military preparedness is a hard habit for Europeans to break. That’s because, from 1945 to 1991, the United States was available whenever Europeans needed some real military muscle. So confident were the Europeans, that they often heaped abuse and scorn on the U.S. and the American military, certain that the Americans would still show up if Europe ever faced a threat. But in the last decade, the Europeans found that, at least in military matters, the Americans had not only become the masters, but were increasingly unhappy with European doubletalk and ingratitude. It’s been suggested that Europeans ought to pay more attention to defending themselves. That change is still sinking in, and is not being received with much enthusiasm. But European nations did scrape together enough forces to help the Libyan rebels overthrow the local dictator (although the U.S. was still needed for a lot of the logistical and technical support). It’s a start.

 


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