NATO forces thinned out significantly in past decade

05 January 2015 4 min. read
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The NATO has in the decade+ seen its forces supplied by the EU5, both in terms of personnel and hardware, shrink dramatically. Its manpower has decreased by nearly a third, while the number of tanks has dropped by more than 75%, reveals a study from Roland Berger. The drop in armed power is the consequence of structural cuts in defence spending, and a shift in focus to more state-of-the-art combat approaches and warfare machinery.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is an intergovernmental military alliance, which spans the Atlantic. The organisation constitutes a system of collective defence whereby its member states agree to mutual defence in response to an attack by any external party. NATO has 28 member states, with much of Europe member, while Canada and the United States make up the bulk of the contribution from the Americas. It is funded by its members at an agreed on guideline of 2% of GDP, with the United States contributing the largest share of defence spending.

Manpower and Combat Aircraft

In the recently released report ‘Whither Defence? Preparing for the next SDSR’ from Roland Berger, the strategy consultants assess among others the state of NATO’s forces. One analysis the authors shed light on is the NATO contribution of the five largest European countries (EU5*) between 2000 and 2013. The findings show that defensive capabilities in both personnel and hardware have reduced significantly in terms of numbers. Since 2000, in terms of manpower, there has been a 31% reduction, from 1.3 million to 907,000 people, across the five key member states. The number of combat aircraft too has decreased significantly, falling 35.6% from 1,973 to 1,270 across the key states. The starkest decrease has been for the armoured divisions, tank numbers have plummeted by 75.4%. The battle tank stock across the five states has decreased from 5,878 to 1,447, with Germany reducing its tank division by almost 90%, from 2,808 to 322. The Navy has seen its forces, in numbers, reduced by 33.6%.

It needs to be noted that a quantitative reduction need not mean a qualitative one. For instance, with the phasing out of third and fourth generation fighter jets, to be replaced by less of the more versatile fifth generation fighters, capability is not necessarily reduced while numbers drop. The addition of drones, state-of-the-art espionage technology and modern warfare machinery are other examples of areas where effectiveness is has been boosted despite lower numbers.

Principal Surface Combatants and Main Battle Tanks

UK reductions
Besides the cut in NATO forces, the UK too has been cutting into its defence departments. In its 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) the UK government set out its plans for the defence of the realm for the coming five years. During this period the UK government has undergone the biggest spending cuts in a generation, in response to severe fiscal challenges following the 2008 financial crisis, few government departments have come out unscathed. The department of defence is no different, losing 8% of its funding in real terms during the four years since the review. Compared to thirty years ago, total spending relative to GDP halved, from around 5% in the ‘80s to just over 2% in 2014. In comparison, the US – the world’s biggest spender in the domain – spends 4.3% of its GDP on defence last year. 

UK Defence Spending

For the UK this has consequently meant a number of reductions in capabilities. The implications for the Air Force: personnel to be reduced by 5,000 to 33,000 by 2015, reduced Tornado fleet, removal of Harrier fleet from service, reduced F-35 JSF procurement, removal of a number of support aircraft like the C-130J Hercules. For the Armed Forces this has meant that personnel are to be reduced by 7,000 to 95,500 by 2015, a 40% reduction in holdings of Challenger 2 main battle tanks, replacement of four regional divisional HQs with one UK support command; closure of at least two of 10 regional brigade HQs, and much more. The reduction in the capabilities of Naval Forces has meant a personnel reduction of 5,000 to 30,000 by 2015, a number of frigates have been decommissioned as well as the aircraft carrier the HMS Ark Royal.

* Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the United Kindgom.