During the last 20 years, western militaries have followed a transformational agenda. Ever since the early 1990s, military “overweight” has been shed as direct military threats to western security and strategic interests evaporated. During the post-Cold War era, and relying on the so-called “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA), military transformation became a tool to redefine war and the guidelines for developing national armed forces in the West. Trashing Army Corps, Divisions and Brigades, slashing fighter jets and Navy vessels and reducing military manpower by the millions, western militaries, particularly in Europe, have become more usable, but less resilient and capable to operate according to the demands of large-scale high-intensity warfighting. This is particularly true if one takes the rising military capabilities of China and Russia as a yardstick.
The recent events in the East and South China seas, as well as Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria, have all surprised western strategic decision-makers. After two decades of outright western (read: American) defense policy supremacy, peer competitors have emerged, and they have started to challenge the western-defined post-Cold War era international security architecture. What was expected to be all about common security threats in an interdependent world with a non-zero-sum approach to security, has turned into fierce competition between western states on the one hand and China and Russia on the other. And in-between a range of lesser, but still notable, actors are causing more problems than used to be the case during the 1990s and the following decade.
What has been particularly significant in the latest development of events has been the speed with which the West is losing its edge on international security affairs. China’s “new” artificial islands and the militarization of the East and South China seas, to be followed by rising competition in the Indian Ocean, and Russian annexation of Crimea and the following military operations in Eastern Ukraine and Syria have confronted western states during the last few years. In addition, Afghanistan is lost, Libya is failing, and Iran is on a roll in Iraq and Syria. These countries have all been at the epicenter of western security and defense policy agenda for years. Also, North Korea has been able to destabilize the western security approach with its million-man military forces, nuclear weapons and developing ICBM capability.
While all of the above has been happening during the last days, weeks, months and years, western states have been continuing on their transformational approach to military forces combined with the willingness to continue effectuating military savings and formulating austerity measures strangling western militaries and their capabilities. Particularly in Europe military forces are becoming dysfunctional, vis-à-vis the international security environment. Small professional forces – the size of few battalions, two brigades at the most – are not well equipped to deal with the rising tide of large-scale military risks and threats that are not only on the horizon but are already here.
Why it’s on our radar: After watching the dismantling of the U.S. military that President Ronald Reagan built following the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, I was never a supporter of downsizing on the premise that we would never again face a near-peer competitor on the battlefield. Why? Because we have never lived in a static world, and because power vacuums are historically filled by someone.
Granted, at the time of the first Gulf War the Soviet Union was disintegrating at the time and China’s military was large but antiquated — and these two countries represented the biggest threats to U.S. national security. Military analysts rightfully concluded they would not soon challenge American military supremacy.
And they didn’t present a major challenge to our supremacy for a number of years. But again, because we do not live in a static world, many analysts believed it was only a matter of time before someone would again rise up and challenge U.S. military power and influence, and that time has obviously arrived.
The problem for Europe is that after losing generations to two world wars in the last century, its people have been inculcated to reject any sort of real military capability, perhaps out of fear that some aggressive European leader would once again emerge to threaten the destruction of the continent.
Well, one has: His name is Vladimir Putin. Only, Europeans have convinced themselves that he’s not really a threat, but he is — or he can be, given the right set of circumstances.
China is another matter altogether, but the Chinese military is on the cusp of greatness and technological prowess; coupled with a strong economy and a large population, that makes for one tough opponent. Together, Russia and China represent more than “peer” competition for all of Europe, even with U.S. assistance.
Great power war has largely been dismissed due to the presence of nuclear weapons. But at what point does a leader like Putin press his advantage before a weakened European continent? If the Europeans are too war-weary to field an adequate military out of fear another great war would decimate the continent, what makes anyone think the European powers that possess nuclear weapons (Britain and France) would use them — and assuredly invite a devastating counterstrike?
Muscular militaries able to pound it out on the ground, in the skies and on the high seas in heavy combat will always be needed — if nothing else, to deter someone else from attacking. The world is not static. Power vacuums get filled.
The Europeans had better figure that out sooner rather than later.