They Say They Want Rearmament ....
We-ell, you know ....
Every pundit in the West seems to be talking about rearmament at the moment, and some governments have even promised to do it. But few people have much idea of what it involves, or even what the concept really means. Here’s a quick, and highly simplified guide to what it would mean and require in practice.
To begin with, we need to distinguish between politics and reality, bearing in mind that whatever option states eventually choose will contain bits of both. At one extreme, it’s easy to see how a medium-sized government, under pressure to “rearm”, but concerned about cost and practicability, might decide to react largely politically. So it could announce increases in defence expenditure which might or might not happen and whose real-terms value would depend on factors like inflation (“increase defence spending by 20% over the next five years!”) Symbolic increases in the size of the military could be announced, even if that military could not recruit enough personnel as it was. More reserves and part-time soldiers could make up some of the difference in numbers, without adding much capability. Equipment plans already agreed and funded could be counted towards the total. A few extra aircraft and armoured vehicles could be added to the end of existing orders, to be delivered some time in the next decade. And finally, units could be renamed and repurposed (an infantry battalion becomes an “airmobile” battalion with a new badge and a few helicopters scrounged from elsewhere.) So if your government starts announcing plans of this kind, the questions to ask include: how much of this is new? How much was planned anyway? Are spending increases in real or nominal terms? Are other capabilities being sacrificed or delayed to make way for announced new ones? And so on.
But let’s assume that, politics and presentation aside, a western state decides it actually wants to rearm on a significant scale. Well, the first thing to understand is that rearmament is not, primarily, a matter of spending money and buying equipment. Money in itself can only buy what is available to be bought: demand does not inevitably and instantly create its own supply, whatever Economics departments in Universities may teach these days. And any amount of equipment sitting around in storage is useless with personnel and support.
It’s also useless unless you know what you want to do with it. One point that seems to have escaped most commentators is that the purpose of rearmament is not necessarily just (or even) to have larger and more, powerful forces, it is to have a better capability to do the things you now believe you need to do as part of your security policy in the world as it is. Oh, and that implies having a security policy which is properly worked out, and in turn generates missions and tasks, that require capabilities, that in turn are provided through procurement and other means. If that sounds complicated, well it is, and so fantastic amounts of money are wasted by nations all over the world, not because of the absence of financial controls or budgetary accountants, but because governments spend money on defence without really understanding what they are doing and why they are doing it.
During the Cold War, it was noticeable that certain countries got very good value out of their defence budgets, because they had clear security policies, and developed clear defence policies to support them. So Germany and Sweden both, in different ways, put the majority of their effort into land/air territorial defence. Similarly, the French were ruthless in their prioritising: the nuclear force first, then Africa, then everything else. The British, obsessed with maintaining a “balanced force”, tried to do everything, at a smaller and smaller scale as time passed, winding up of course in their current parlous state. On the other hand, one reason that the US has historically wasted so much of its defence budget is that there is no central control or direction of any kind in Washington, but rather endless competition between powerful organisations which each try to expand into the areas of the others, and fight viciously among themselves. This produces enormous waste and duplication, not least because political strength, rather than strategic logic, determines where the money goes.
Since the end of the Cold War, western countries have drifted away from whatever real coherence in defence planning they then had, reacting to changing fashions and technologies, and being pushed this way and that in the absence of any clear doctrine. So the first requirement now, would be a thorough-going strategic reassessment, based on how the world looked after the end of the Ukraine War, followed by clear and coherent decisions about the practical steps that need to be taken. That, of course, is something that virtually every country has failed to do over the last generation, when the world was a simpler and less threatening place: nevertheless it is an absolute requirement now, and without it, money, as such, is irrelevant. But where on earth do you start?
It will be years before the strategic situation settles down properly, but we can perhaps make a few plausible guesses, on the basis of which we can construct some rearmament scenarios. Let’s assume that at the end of the current war, the area of Russian permanent control is the Russian speaking areas in the east of Ukraine, together with the coast up to Odessa. Beyond that may be an effectively demilitarised and de-populated zone, perhaps with a formal border of some kind. Some sort of Ukrainian state will therefore still be in existence. Very well, what does a representative NATO country actually do then, by way of rearmament? For a start, it’s hard to believe that the Russians have any interest in taking more territory, and certainly not that of NATO nations. So the situation is not like the Cold War, when NATO and WP forces faced each other across fortified borders.
If we look at the map, we see that the geographical situation would scarcely have changed, except that some Ukrainian territory has become Russian. Norway, the Baltics and Finland continue to have frontiers with Russia, as they do now. Depending on where Russian forces stop, there may be some contact with Romania. The changes, in other words, will be primarily psychological, rather than geographical, which is a problem when you want to make changes to your doctrine and forces. From the point of view of Greece or Portugal, nothing will have changed at all. We can expect the overall political atmosphere to be harsh and bitter, and at least as confrontational in principle as the Cold War was, yet the two sides will not be separated by the same fundamental ideological differences. And the West itself will be riven by internal jealousies and contradictions as well as by the different and often opposed economic and political interests of its members.
Creating a collective security strategy to respond to a situation like that may seem a tall order, if not utterly impossible, but it is, in fact, essential if western nations individually are to make plans that are even minimally coherent with each other. To take an extreme case, there is no point in hard-line western countries making plans to deploy their forces eastwards in a time of crisis, unless the countries into which those forces are going to deploy already have plans in place to receive them. So at a minimum, some kind of collective western strategic concept will be necessary. It’s not clear what kind of a state NATO will be in to produce one, and its history with documents of that type doesn’t inspire much confidence, but it’s doubtful if there will be any alternative forum in which to do it. Needless to say, the complexities of trying to produce a common concept based on a “threat” which is ill-defined and at best existential, are enormous, and would tax the resources of the finest brains and the best organisation.
Now then; we are the better part of 1500 words into this text about rearmament, and all I’ve done is to talk about the minimal conditions that would be necessary for it even to take place: and these are essentially conceptual and political, rather than practical. Without a clear idea of what rearmament is supposed to accomplish, you can waste large amounts of money and resources, and achieve nothing.
Let me suggest a possible outcome to conceptual debates: it’s not one I would necessarily recommend (I’m agnostic on these issues) but it would at least have the virtues of being tolerably clear and reasonably coherent. It is an example, in my view, of the minimum acceptable outcome that would actually make some sensible kind of rearmament theoretically possible, assuming that the resources were made available and the practical problems could be overcome.
We would have to start from the recognition that the West is weak where it matters. Thirty years of drift, and a steady movement away from a capacity for intensive land-air combat, and a concentration on counter-insurgency capabilities, have left the West with small, weak conventional forces in places where they might be needed. This would not matter if relations with Russia, the major military power on the continent, were good, but they are execrable, and about to get much worse. Moreover, NATO is sending so much of its own equipment to Ukraine that it is becoming steadily weaker. The US itself now has little actual combat power deployed in Europe.
So the risk is, ironically, a return to the mental atmosphere of the late 1940s: a weak and divided Europe, confronted with a Russia that was still heavily armed. The difference this time is that the Russian economy will not have been devastated by war and that its armed forces will not be low-quality occupation troops, but professionals armed with modern weapons. Unlike in the late 1940s, it’s not clear that a US link with Europe will stabilise the situation: indeed, it might well complicate it and make it worse. Under the circumstances, the fear in Europe would be of political intimidation rather than military conflict as such. If that were the case, then one could imagine priorities like the following being agreed:
Very large increases in armoured and mechanised ground forces, with artillery and attack helicopters.
Very large increases in fighter-ground attack aircraft, capable of surviving against Russian missiles.
Infrastructure and well-rehearsed plans for moving combat forces forward in a crisis.
Substantial programme to create proper layered missile defence system.
Now I would be astonished if, in practice, anything like this were agreed. But at least it provides the absolute minimum conceptual framework for ensuring that rearmament proceeds according to some kind of logic.
This kind of thing has happened in the past. A useful example is British air rearmament in the late 1930s, which was actually built around a clear strategic concept. The British government feared another war in Europe, but also believed that the return of conscription and the despatch of large forces to Europe would not be acceptable politically. And the greatest threat to an island nation was seen as air attack. Thus, the British developed a policy of expanding the Royal Air Force, developing new bomber aircraft with longer ranges, and subsequently developing new fighter aircraft as well, together with the world’s first radar system. This involved not just a massive programme of airfield renovation and construction (some 60,000 workers were employed full-time for years), but government-funded scientific and engineering development, construction of new factories ‘(including “shadow factories” which could be converted to war production if required) as well as huge new facilities for ammunition storage and production, flying training, operational command and control and administration and accommodation. It is reasonable to say, of course, that the technical expertise and organisational capability to carry out such a program no longer exists in Britain, nor for that matter in the West as a whole. But it does give a small indication of what “rearmament” means in practice.
So let’s take these four requirements: fantasising, perhaps, that the kind of authoritative strategic guidance required for effective rearmament programmes actually existed. Now there are some general points to make first. We have assumed that some kind of strategic concept for rearmament is available, and we have seen from a real example, that rearmament means a great deal more than buying equipment. There are massive personnel, infrastructure, logistic, scientific, technological and industrial issues as well. Let’s look at a few of the consequences as they would exist today.
Rearmament in the sense of this discussion means more than replacing old equipment with new equipment: indeed, it might well mean keeping old equipment in service when it should really have been scrapped. Most of all, it means extra military units: the RAF, in various expansion plans, formed a hundred new squadrons before 1939. And the first requirement is therefore extra personnel. In practice, this will require the reintroduction of military service in some form to fill the lower echelons. At the margins, it is possible to expand peacetime militaries somewhat, by vigorous recruitment. But militaries in most western countries now struggle to attract and retain enough applicants for their small professional forces. For example, depending on definitions, 10-20% of 18-25 year olds in most European countries are severely overweight or obese. (In the United States it is worse). Many of those already have illnesses like diabetes which are linked to weight and life-style. In addition, as professional militaries contract and become ever more distant from the population, young people find a military career less attractive. And smaller militaries mean worse career opportunities, and encourage the more able to leave. Most militaries are already struggling to pay their personnel enough to retain them, given the disadvantages of service life. Likewise, it is often particularly difficult to recruit and retain the people you actually need the most. This refers not just to glamour jobs like jet pilots, but to people like telecommunications technicians and field medical staff. Yet, of course, military service, even with reserve obligations in later years, cannot provide you magically with experienced officers and NCOs in shortage areas: these you will have to recruit on the open market in any case.
So in practice rearmament will mean both the return of military service (probably selective), and a considerably expanded officer and NCO corps, which will have to be recruited from scratch, and will take a decade to have any real presence. This will, of course, mean considerably expanding the recruiting, training and administrative systems of the military, and experienced trainers will have to be found from somewhere. The general de-industrialisation of western societies is a problem here as well: during the Cold War it was possible to conscript workers from electronics factories to be radar technicians or to repair thermal imaging sights on tanks. For the most part that is no longer possible. Likewise, in most western countries the number of science and technology graduates from universities is reducing, so the pool from which technical officers can be recruited is actually diminishing. In all likelihood, it will be necessary to set up special institutions to train engineers at technician and graduate level, although where the instructors will come from is not obvious.
But let us assume that these problems can be overcome, and that between intensive recruitment efforts and the return of selective military service, there is a large enough pool to draw on to fill out whatever force structure is decided upon. So how do you get the force structure, assuming that you don’t just shrug your shoulders and buy a few more of everything you already have?
Well, let’s go back to the missions and tasks. Assume a hypothetical NATO concept for a Force capable of moving East in the event of a crisis, and that on that basis, NATO asks your country for three mechanised brigades, with more artillery and air defence assets than at present, and two squadrons of attack helicopters. (We’ll assume that permanently stationing forces forward in other countries is just too politically and financially unrealistic. In Cold War Germany, the British, US and other forces essentially remained in the former Wehrmacht facilities they had taken over as occupation forces. That’s not going to happen in, say, Poland.) But of course if it comes to fighting, you can’t leave your own country undefended, so you want to retain two mechanised brigades for home defence, as well as substantial territorial defence forces. In addition, moving hundreds of vehicles through your country, most on heavy transporters, will create traffic management and security problems the like of which you probably haven’t seen in decades. (Oh yes, there’ll have to be a massive investment in transport units, as well as in railroads, air transport and strengthening roads and bridges.)
Well, there will be negotiation, of course, but after a while your experts will come back and say, perhaps: we need three completely new mechanised brigades, one new squadron of attack helicopters and modification of a second to the attack role, more artillery and air defence generally, and a massive investment in transport infrastructure. Most of the Cold War infrastructure has been sold off, so we’ll need new barracks, new training areas, new ordnance depots, new firing ranges, new communications units and infrastructure, new headquarters; oh and lots of less glamorous stuff like accommodation for the personnel, garages and maintenance depots, and personnel for the vehicles, schools and hospitals, that kind of thing. Very large numbers of people will have to be trained to operate and repair this equipment. In the Cold War, this kind of infrastructure generally existed: now, it generally does not, and land will have to be purchased and new facilities constructed.
The next day, the air force experts report back from their negotiations with NATO. They have finally agreed to provide three squadrons of ground-attack aircraft, optimised for low-level operations, and carrying stand-off weapons. This is a capability you do not currently possess. You do, of course, want to keep your existing fighter/ground attack capability for defence of your on terrain and airspace. Your extensive Cold War infrastructure has now largely been sold off: you may need to construct a new air base, to house the new operational squadrons as well as the training units. (You will anyway need to train more pilots per year, so your existing training facilities will need expanding.) Officers and technicians need to be recruited to learn about, teach and practice the repair and maintenance of a new type of aircraft and new weapons. Somehow, you’ll need to find the land, including perhaps building a complete new air base with a main runway perhaps 2km long, with hardened aircraft shelters, and maintenance facilities for 40-45 aircraft, and all the administrative, life support and security that goes along with it.
Now, I entirely accept that that’s a rather simplified, perhaps even superficial, presentation of what might be needed. Military experts, especially logistics specialists, will shake their heads and say it will all be more difficult than that, and they will no doubt be right. But it does give some impression of what would be involved. The other two issues—arranging to be able to deploy forward in crisis, or setting up a continent-wide anti-missile screen, have problems of equal or greater complexity, but this section is long enough already.
So let’s suppose that you are confident that you will be able to conscript and recruit enough personnel of the right type, including having reserves on standby, that you are busy constructing new barracks, airfields, ordnance depots and flying training areas with land you have purchased, that you have a coherent plan for how you intend to expand your military capabilities, in conjunction with your allies, and this is translated into a force structure that you can establish, support and use effectively. Then, of course, you need the equipment.
During the phase of preparation for the Second World War, even medium-sized countries had their own armaments industries. It was therefore possible to directly invest in one’s own industry, and define exactly what was needed. During the Second World War, some of the Allied belligerents used foreign aircraft and tanks (notably, but not exclusively, from the United States) when their own production was inadequate. But it is only really with the mammoth, shareholder-driven consolidation of the defence industry over the last generation or so that we have seen the number of suppliers shrink so radically. And the companies concerned now make equipment which is so expensive that it is produced in the minimum economic quantities as slowly as possible: about one Rafale fighter is manufactured per month, for example. Any serious western-wide rearmament programme would therefore run up against capacity problems instantly. In theory, new factories could be opened and production ramped up, but that would require the massive expansion of a skilled western workforce that is now a shadow of what it once was. Moreover, even in the US, around half the value of major western systems is imported: typically, a western state might buy an airframe from one country, with an engine from a second, with armament from a third and with avionics that it has developed or adapted itself. Because production goes at the speed of the slowest, a delay in one place delays the programme as a whole.
It’s easy to say “we’ll spend what it takes,” but as we have seen money is in some ways the least of the problems. Yes, the US transformed itself into the famous “arsenal of democracy” in about three years, but the idle manufacturing capacity, the technical skills and the management expertise existed already. And the level of technology was, of course, much lower. During the worst of the Covid crisis, many people realised for the first time the sheer length and complexity of industrial supply chains. Cars, for example, are not made “in” a country any more: they are at best assembled there. Components come from many countries. With military systems it’s much worse, and there’s no point, for example, in doubling the output of your aircraft factory from, say, two aircraft per month to four, unless you also double output at the factory that makes the engines, the various factories that make the avionics, even the factories that make the tyres and the ejector seats. Many of these components or sub-assemblies will come from overseas, and so in practice, all areas of the western defence economy, as well as many non-defence areas, would need to simultaneously expand their production, and find more skilled manpower and real estate. Non-western suppliers would have to be induced to cooperate.
Finally (to avoid going on for ever and ever) there is the problem of raw materials: defence equipment is made of stuff, and Europe is in general quite poor in the raw materials needed. World War 2 was arguably an industrial production war, where the victors (The US, Russia and Britain) had access to raw materials that the defeated (Germany and Japan) did not have. Indeed, David Edgerton has plausibly argued that the British ability to rearm in the 1930s, and to survive at all between 1939-41, was essentially because its Navy was able to secure the trade routes from its colonies. It’s not too much to say that it was the Empire that saved Britain from Hitler, and indeed it was the French Empire that enabled that country to bounce back. Needless to say, the world is no longer like that. (The top three aluminium producers in the world are China, India and Russia. Um.)
All in all, the West is in the position of an out-of-condition skier who has gone off-piste and now finds themselves at the bottom of a slope with no obvious way up. A lot of effort will be required.
And for what? How are governments going to explain the need to conscript young people, the priority given to defence spending over, say, education, the noise and danger of aircraft flying a hundred metres over your head, the endless construction, the danger and pollution of ammunition factories ….? I have made the heroic assumption that NATO, or some substitute grouping, could reach a consensus on what the new strategic situation is, and what needs to be done, and produce coherent plans for doing it, that could be explained to ordinary people. Maybe. But in the best of cases, with no enemy on the frontiers, with weak economies and massive social problems, is the kind of programme I have sketched out above, and which would be a minimum for “rearmament”, even remotely feasible?