Comparison of European armies: Size is again in demand

Europe magazine

Status: 06/18/2022 14:11

Many EU countries have long saved on defense spending. All this was changed by the war in Ukraine – this is also evident at the arms fair in Paris. But what about the European armies? And what about the Bundeswehr?

Author: Tobias Dammers and Franziska Wellenzohn, ARD Studio Brussels

“Size matters” – size matters. It is decorated with a US Army helicopter in front of the Eurosatory halls, one of the most important arms fairs in Europe. An event in northeastern Paris where gun manufacturers and buyers meet: 1,800 exhibitors from dozens of countries, including representatives of many Ministries of Defense, have arrived. Because the current need for ammunition and weapons is great, even in the European Union.

Tobias Dammers

Franziska Wellenzohnová

In terms of personnel, France has the largest army in the EU – with more than 200,000 active troops. This follows from the current calculations of the think-tank International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). In second place is Germany with 183,400 troops.

The smallest armies are Malta (1700) and Luxembourg (410). Greece is in fourth place. In relation to the population, there are by far the most soldiers: 1.34 percent of the Greeks serve in the army. For comparison: In Germany it is 0.23 percent.

According to the IISS, Greece is also ahead in other conventional statistics: The country has the most “main battle tanks” in the EU, ie heavy battle tanks. However, many of them are older models. In total, the institute has over 1,200 heavy Greek battle tanks, in Germany there are 284.

Comparison of EU armies

Tobias Dammers / Franziska Wellenzohn, WDR, Europamagazin 12:45, June 18, 2022

Bundeswehr: Technical problems, but good training

At a time when, for example, drones and artificial intelligence are becoming increasingly important, armies cannot be compared solely on the strength of troops and tanks, says military expert Gustav Gressel of the European Council on Foreign Relations: Because “not everything come into the field ’.

Gressel also measures the operational readiness of armies by how synchronously they can act in the field – in technical and human interaction. The Bundeswehr has “capabilities gaps”, such as technical problems with radio equipment and drones.

But the Bundeswehr scores with its training and experience of its officers. Overall, Gressel sees the Bundeswehr’s operational readiness “in the middle of the field” in Europe.

However, according to Gressel, Germany would not be able to take care of its own security without NATO. A key country in the EU is France: the only EU country with a nuclear bomb.

He is repeatedly put into play for delivery to Ukraine: the Marder Bundeswehr armored personnel carrier

Image: dpa

An insidious 2% target

What almost all European armies have in common in recent years: it has been saved. Indeed, two percent of annual national economic performance has been agreed within the NATO alliance. Few EU countries will achieve this.

In 2020, Greece took first place in the EU and spent the largest share of 2.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Latvia followed with 2.5 percent.

Germany is in 16th place: it has invested 1.1 percent of its economic output. Malta and Ireland had the lowest military spending as a share of GDP.

Military expert Gressel considers multiple structures within the EU to be inefficient. The budget of each small army in each Member State also finances the costs of the Ministry of Defense, the officer’s school and the basic maintenance of the material. There is too little left to invest in combat battalions or research.

Far behind in global comparison

Overall, EU countries are at least investing more than before. According to the EU commission, they have increased their defense spending by 20 percent since 1999.

But it is not much in an international comparison. In the same period, the US increased investment by 66 percent, Russia by 292 percent and China by 592 percent.

In absolute terms, however, the United States continues to spend the most money on armaments: according to the IISS, around $ 754 billion last year – about the same as the next 13 countries in statistics combined.

Following the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Germany, like other EU countries, announced that it was investing billions in modernizing its army.

New tank from Germany

A new European willingness to invest in armaments has already arrived at the Paris Arms Fair, such as the Rheinmetall Group in Düsseldorf. According to CEO Armin Papperger, Rheinmetall has already received its first contracts and plans to hire 3,500 new employees.

According to Papperger, a large part of the German population understood “that security is not free”. It used to be “suppressed”.

In Paris, Rheinmetall also presents one of the biggest surprises of the fair: the new KF51 main battle tank, the “Panther”. It is a modernized successor of “Leopard 2”, which is repeatedly demanded for the fight with Russia and the representatives of Ukraine.

It should replace “Leopard 2”: the main battle tank KF51


Advantages of cooperation

The European Commission demands that investment in armaments in the long term flows primarily into innovation. Otherwise, “there is a great danger that we will become irrelevant,” sums up EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. In addition, armaments should be “coordinated” and purchased together at European level and no longer separately from each country.

Hannah Neumann, spokeswoman for the Greens’ peace policy in the European Parliament, supports this idea. In particular, urgently needed ammunition and weapons must be distributed in a strategically sensible way in the EU – and not as part of a separate national effort. However, he sees a “very acute danger” that in the current situation, each Member State will look to its own needs.

This could lead to two problems at the same time: the arms industry could ultimately benefit more from the EU’s over-competition in the defense market. A: As a result, economically weaker countries could no longer afford much-needed goods.

You can see this and other reports in Europamagazin – on Sunday at 12:45 in the first.

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