The end of the Cold War saw European defence budgets slashed, but EU taxpayers are still paying for Cold War militaries.
Throughout the Cold War, hundreds of thousands of NATO personnel were based in West Germany and across Europe, ready to repel the feared Soviet onslaught. Bases were established and entire towns and cities owed their existence to the NATO forces stationed within them. Supporting the active forces was a huge support infrastructure, emanating from impressive command complexes like SHAPE in Belgium, Rammstein in Germany and Northwood in the UK.
So, after the wall fell and communist regimes crumbled under the pressure of democratic protests, what did the West do with all these forces when the enemy disappeared? Units were stood down and military spending was slashed. Treasury departments across Europe and Russia (the US maintained its defence spend) were ecstatic at not having to pay for vast overseas forces, and the term ‘peace dividend’ was coined to summarise savings in defence budgets that could be spent on social projects, tax cuts or infrastructure.
However, 20 years on, the peace dividend has had varying degrees of success across Europe and Russia. Germany is the best example of it going well. It pulled back hugely from defence, and gave training and sponsored education to former soldiers. They scaled back their foreign policy ambitions and focused single mindedly on making unification work politically and improving their economy. In Russia, the money saved from defence cuts was totally eclipsed by money raised from selling off old communist industries, and now Russia is a fast growing economy. On the other hand there are countries like Britain and France where the peace dividend went wrong.
Britain still had huge military commitments after 1991, and perhaps out of a spirit of Atlanticism (as well as Conservative party tradition) opted to make modest cuts compared to other European countries. The British military was totally geared towards defending Britain from the Soviets and despite the cuts outlined in the ‘Options for Change’ defence paper and later defence reviews, UK taxpayers are still paying for poor post-Cold War planning and for a military which is still designed to fight the Soviets.
Britain was the primary investor in the Eurofighter project, the ultimate example of the peace dividend going wrong. Conceived in the 1970s, the Eurofighter was designed to be the best air-superiority fighter in the world, but problems arose at every stage. Delays, cost-overruns and poor performance by contractor BAE Systems resulted in it not going into frontline service until 2005, 10-15 years late and billions over-budget. The Eurofighter contract was poorly negotiated and the British got further stung by scaled down export orders. Eurofighter co-funders Germany and Italy either reduced their order or imposed stiff penalties on late work which insulated them from the worst. Even with this bitter pill, the British government is still only starting to reform the out-dated Cold War military. There are 20,000 (mainly armoured division) soldiers pointlessly based in Germany, and the coalition government has pledged to bring them back. The costs are huge- just transporting supplies and equipment to units costs around £100,000 per week, but there is still no binding timetable. Britain still ploughs on with other Cold War projects like spending £30bn replacing the Trident nuclear deterrent with the already obsolete Trident II (first launched in 1987), whilst underfunding seemingly more appropriate projects (maritime patrol, cyber-warfare and compensation for wounded soldiers) get cut.
The same with France. The military is a national treasure to the French (despite their chequered military history), and they have always maintained the highest defence budget in Europe. However in 1996 they built an expensive nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that is more of a health hazard to French sailors than the enemy and still maintain a foreign legion that’s just ridiculous. Furthermore the French government just commissioned a new 70,000 tonne Cold War designed aircraft carrier just to (in the words of a French defence worker ‘’to have a bigger one than the British’’).
It has taken 20 years, but the peace dividend is finally kicking in (though the current crisis is probably more responsible for this). European countries are starting to adapt their training and structure away from Cold War formations to smaller, more specialised units. The French Army is starting to decommission the vast number of tanks it will never use and Italy, the UK and Spain have started to reform their military ranking structures (Spain has 1.3 Admirals per ship) to devolve more power to lower ranks, the right tactic for today’s ‘counter insurgency’ wars.
In the East, there are developments too. Former USSR states are now moving away from high numbers of defunct Soviet fighters and tanks towards fewer high-tech models. Russia’s military power has declined heavily since 1991, but still can call on one million soldiers. The peace dividend in Russia was side-lined by the rise of the oligarchs and vast wealth accumulating in the regions. Its grip over the West is now in gas pipelines, not T-72s. Despite this, the ever nationalist Putin has announced new stealth fighters, upgrades to the fleet and new equipment. Despite the dividend, some in Eastern Europe are starting to claim the Cold War is resuming.