European defence and security 2012

Speech by Gerald Howarth, Minister for International Security Strategy.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Gerald Howarth


Thank you Caroline [Wyatt, BBC] for that introduction.

Defence and security in Europe is at a critical juncture. As relative economic power moves south and east we are beginning to see the geopolitical impact.

As President Obama indicated in his speech at the Pentagon on 5 January, the Pacific region will consume a great deal more of the attention of the United States.

European countries will have to take more responsibility for collective security whether the challenges are within Europe’s borders, on the periphery, or at a distance. Furthermore, the fiscal position of many countries in the north Atlantic region is driving a reduction in public spending, including in defence budgets. It means European countries have to do more with less.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Whilst there are weaknesses, we should not be blind to our strengths. Our greatest strength is the shared security agenda and shared values embodied in Nato, the cornerstone of our collective security, made up of inviolable sovereign nations.

Another great strength is the range and depth of high technology residing in European defence companies. Our greatest weakness, however, is that, even in Nato, European countries are falling short of the capability, commitment, and resources which the maintenance of our collective security surely requires.

Yet I see this as an opportunity. If European countries can rise to the challenge of deploying meaningful capability, we shall have no stronger ally than America.

To aid us, those institutions and arrangements which are proven and strengthen Europe’s defence and security should receive our full support to make them work even better.

But those which merely duplicate or distract are a dead weight on Europe, draining our increasingly scarce resources while the US looks on increasingly concerned. These themes will dominate your discussions over the next two days, as well as Nato’s Chicago summit in May, and I’d like to set the scene this morning.

Strategic shift

If there was ever any doubt that we live in a volatile world, this was surely laid to rest in the last twelve months. Bin Laden and Gaddafi were removed; we had the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and financial crisis in Europe; we saw long-surviving regimes across north Africa swept away, challenging long held strategic calculations in western capitals.

What will this year bring? What will be the consequences of the political unrest in Syria; dynastic succession in north Korea; an assertive and nuclear determined Iran? How will newly developed economies assert themselves? How will mature economies respond?

Even the United States is being forced to re-think its posture and prioritise like the rest of us. Its defence budget will be cut by at least 500 billion dollars. Its armed forces will be leaner, though (unlike many European countries) fully deployable. And it has chosen to reflect the growing importance of the Asia-Pacific region in its strategic posture.

Of course, US and European vital interests regularly coincide outside the north Atlantic area. This includes the Pacific region where it is in all our interests that the emerging powers become responsible members of the international community and help provide stability to the global system.

But this should not mean that the historic trans-Atlantic alliance is no longer of vital interest to both the US and the rest of Nato, far from it. Nor does the importance of the Pacific region in the coming decades lessen the requirement to co-operate elsewhere. Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan are not to be found in the Pacific.


All of this should compel us to strengthen north Atlantic bonds, in particular, the European strand, rather than weaken them. For the British government, this means Nato above all else when it comes to defence and security.

Nato is the best vehicle to advance our shared security agenda, it is established, proven, and based on shared values. It remains the cornerstone of north american security as well as Europe’s: Nato borders the Pacific as well as the Atlantic.

And it remains the organisation which many other countries look to. When the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1973 on Libya, who did they think would implement it?

When sustained multi-lateral action was required, Nato had the only realistic co-ordinating structure prepared for joint and combined operations. Most importantly, Nato remains a community of allies with values, willing to back principles with power.

But Libya showed that the alliance as a whole, and the contribution of some of the allies, fell short of what Nato’s Strategic Concept demands. Let us be very clear. Despite the limited nature of the campaign, the nations of Europe could not have undertaken the operations over Libya without the US.

It is unsurprising therefore that the United States is asking whether it’s sustainable for the US to subsidise the defence of those who could invest more but choose not to.

Why can Nato only generate a fraction of the capability nominally available to it? And it has reaffirmed wider concerns that a two or multi-tier alliance is starting to emerge with some allies less willing to participate in operations than others.

All three of these issues, finance, capability, and political will, demand a proper response from Europe, using all the tools at our disposal.


First, finance. As the Soviets found to their cost, the lesson from history is that you cannot be secure if you’re broke. In Britain, we see debt as a strategic issue. It’s also undeniable that European defence spending has fallen by 24 billion euros in the last 3 years.

This is set to get worse. We have to prove to a sceptical electorate that the threats to our security are genuine and that we’re making every pound count. In Britain, we’ve already made difficult decisions to bring our fiscal position, including the defence programme, under control. Others will have to follow suit. So in such challenging times, we need to make the case for defence spending.

Even in these austere times, Nato’s 2% of GDP target for defence spending should be achievable. As the former US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, said just before he retired,

If current trends in the decline of European capabilities are not halted and reversed, future US political leaders, those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me, may not consider the return on America’s investment in Nato worth the cost.

So it is frankly depressing that 25 out of 28 currently fail to meet the 2% target, despite reaffirming their commitment to it only last year.

As politicians, we are acutely aware of the need to carry public opinion with us. Spending priorities, in many respects, reflect the politicians’ perceived assessment of public opinion.

Those of us who understand the volatility of the modern world, and the dramatic shifting of the tectonic plates, do have a duty to ensure that those we represent understand the gravity of the situation so that they are in a position to re-prioritise.

All the investment in our schools and hospitals, or indeed welfare, could be set at naught if we fail to provide adequate defence.


Of course, what we spend individually is only part of the story. As resources are squeezed, we need to spend more smartly and with a much clearer view on the collective capabilities the alliance requires. Making cuts in capability on the assumption that someone else will take the strain is not a viable long-term strategy.

We simply have to find ways of re-balancing who generates and pays for capability, as well as who demands it. In Libya, the shortage of ISR capability could only be met by the US, and only 12 of 43 air-to-air refuelling aircraft came from other alliance members.

The shortage of strategic lift capability is a real constraint on the deployability of EU battlegroups. Nato’s smart defence and the EU’s pooling and sharing initiatives go to the heart of this issue.

The bottom line is that capability has to be additional and deployable without breaking the bank.

So I welcome Nato’s continuing efforts to remove or disinvest in non-essential capabilities and avoid duplication in national inventories. It should help to reduce waste and prevent an uncoordinated rush to an as yet undefined bottom line. Nato must also highlight the worrying capability gaps across Europe which are being created as a result of budget reductions in almost every country.

But this work fails to grab political attention because it is seen as being too “in the weeds”. We need to raise it up and give it a real political push. So we need to develop a far more clear-sighted focus on what we really need in terms of our core military capabilities to maintain our collective security. And set that against an even more objective and sophisticated assessment of how good we really are now.

Political will

The third issue facing European nations is the political will to commit force.

In Afghanistan, Nato has demonstrated considerable flexibility by incorporating countries from as far afield as South Korea, Georgia, and Tonga. While in Libya, Nato’s swift and impressive agility in incorporating Arab states and other non-Nato countries such as Sweden was pretty remarkable.

We should capitalise on this experience by making it even easier for non-Nato nations to contribute to Nato-led operations, to fight as well as facilitate, often without the caveats which some alliance members insist on.

But with 10 Nato allies choosing to opt out of Libya and only six participating in air strikes, it reminds us that Nato is an alliance of sovereign states. Alliance solidarity, in respect of the Article V commitment, must remain sacrosanct. Outside Article V, I entirely accept the right of individual sovereign nations not to act if they believe their national interests are not served by doing so.

But if Nato is going to remain relevant in the 21st century, is consensus at 28 essential when like-minded allies wish to operate together within the framework of Nato to implement the will of the wider international community? Non-Nato nations can invoke the ‘Berlin-plus’ arrangements to use Nato’s SHAPE HQ and assets on EU operations.

Yet when some Nato allies don’t want to participate in certain operations, those who want to use elements of the Nato command structure (which they pay for and man) are not allowed to do so. Should we consider a ‘Berlin-minus’ arrangement where the few can use alliance assets on behalf of the many?

Other defence and security arrangements

I’ve focused on Nato this morning, as I firmly believe in its enduring role as the bedrock of European defence and security. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the other components of multi-layered defence. We should encourage bi-lateral partnerships and regional groupings to flourish, not least where doing so could add value to the capabilities of the alliance as a whole.

For example, the newly-formed northern group of nations, which includes the Baltic and Nordic countries, Germany, Poland, and the Netherlands, as well as Britain, is part of this process for us. So is the UK-France Treaty, which commits us to working together, and we would encourage others to do the same.

And if we are to meet the challenges of a volatile world, we need the full array of economic, developmental, and security levers at our disposal. This means a deployable and interoperable military capability married to a comprehensive approach which is designed to encapsulate the civil and military engagement which I have just mentioned.

Here the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), can complement Nato through its unique set of stabilisation tools, and in promoting further capability development. This allows it to play a useful role in crisis management.

But talking up the EU as an alternative route and adding additional new structures does not address diminishing defence budgets. And there is absolutely no point attempting to duplicate structures which already exist or capabilities we already have.

With 2 million men under arms in Europe, more manpower is not the issue. What Europe needs is manpower and capability it can deploy. Focusing on process and institution building while struggling to find a medic to support the European training mission for Somalia does not cast EU priorities in a positive light, to put it mildly.

The European Defence Agency has a role in driving forward the EU pooling and sharing initiatives which I endorsed at the Steering Board on 30 November. I pay tribute to Claude-France Arnould’s efforts in these areas, in particular, the EDA helicopter training programme to which Britain has signed up.

I know that, under her leadership, the EDA will concentrate on practical programmes such as this. These are good examples of collaboration within a small multi-lateral agreement to deliver capability with real operational benefit. But co-operation with Nato, not competition, should be the watchword on every European’s lips.


Ladies and gentlemen, this is indeed an important moment for European defence and security. European countries need to bring more to the table if Nato is going to remain relevant in what many are calling the “Pacific Century”.

Bob Gates was clear about this when he said,

In the past, I’ve worried openly about Nato turning into a two-tiered alliance: between members who specialise in ‘soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking tasks, and those conducting the ‘hard’ combat missions. Between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of Nato membership, be they security guarantees or headquarters billets, but don’t want to share the risks and costs. This is no longer a hypothetical worry. We are there today. And it is unacceptable.

We know more money is not going to be the answer. The challenge is to maximise the capability we can squeeze out of the resources we have.

We must ensure that Nato’s smart defence and EU pooling and sharing initiatives are mutually reinforcing. As our new Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, has said,

We must prioritise ruthlessly; specialise aggressively; and collaborate unsentimentally.

The United States will be watching us closely. So too will our adversaries. The Chicago Summit provides the perfect opportunity to show them all that, when it comes to defence and security, Europe remains committed, capable, and solvent.

Published 23 January 2012