June 29, 2016
At the beginning of last week, as everyone else in the commentariat was commenting, I resolved myself not to comment on Brexit. But after a flurry of articles about Britain turning inward, I want everyone to calm down. Just yesterday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said he thought that Brexit would actually strengthen NATO. As Jakub Grygiel of the Center for European Policy Analysis put it today, “Europeans now have clear incentives to put more efforts into NATO.” For both industrial and operational reasons, it’s the Alliance, not the Union, that guarantees security, at least west of Crimea.

For illustration, let's talk about tanks, a coin of the realm in land warfare, and a source of some serious coin for contractors too. From the recent Strong Europe Tank Challenge, we know that NATO countries produce some good tanks and good tank crews. After a long interlude, it’s good that the games are on again, as tanks suddenly seem important again. Rumors hold—as one senior officer recently put it to me—that Uralvagonzavod “has made some advances” with its new T-14 Armata. Russian plans for wholesale replacement of all those T-72s are another matter. As Prime Minister Medvedev recently told a complaining pensioner, “there is no money, but be strong! All the best.”

Most of the rest of Europe pleads poverty too, though less plausibly. In contrast, the United Kingdom can still be relied upon to take European security seriously, and to spend for it. Thus the British Army is taking proposals for having its Challenger 2 tanks overhauled and modernized. In the alliance but outside the Union, Turkey is kept serious by endless chaos from the south, so Otokar is building its new Altay tanks. Have older tanks? With assistance from Israel’s IMI, the Turks had already upgraded many of their M60 Patton IIs with more powerful engines and 120 mm cannons. Sensing a business opportunity, Raytheon is offering a similar upgrade, for those old vehicles soldier on in the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon, Thailand and Taiwan.

Closer to the heart of Europe, things seem different. True, the Italian Army will be getting new and upgunned (120 mm) Centauro wheeled tanks. But due to parsimonious maintenance spending, only 36 of its 200 Ariete tracked tanks are operational. If the government wanted to intervene in the Libyan Civil War, the Esercito would need some armor. If SHAPE called for troops to defend eastern Poland, sending a single battalion would empty the motor pools. In the long run, as Germano Dottori of the Università Guido Carli told Defense News in May, the Italian Army “might be better off buying Leopard II tanks, which is what the generals want.” NATO buyers do need competitive options, but too many programs have had purely industrial logic.

As Doctor German observes, though, no one questions the quality of German tanks. The recent spectacle of the Bundeswehr buying back Leopards from KMW, however, was a necessary reminder that the defense ministry needed to rethink its approach. That’s a stauncher view than at the foreign ministry, where Herr Steinmeier thinks that holding NATO exercises in NATO countries is “warmongering.” At least Chancellor Merkel now promises that German armaments spending will increase, if only because the Americans are getting tired of subsidizing European laxity. And for all the recent problems of German maintenance, at least some German training has stayed strong. The winner of that tank competition was a Leopard II crew from Mountain Panzer Battalion 7.

The runner-up, notably, was a Leopard II crew from the Jutland Dragoons. Denmark doesn’t build its own tanks, of course; it too sensibly sources them in Germany. Note also that Denmark is the one member of the European Union that does not participate in the European Defense Agency. That’s the organization chartered to reduce presumably inefficient overlap in armaments programs amongst EU member states. So while EDA member Italy has been launching a new industrial program, but letting old tanks rot, the more independently-minded Danes have been shooting up the course at Grafenwoehr. And if NATO really needs another tank battalion to help hold the line at the Vistula River, who’s more likely to respond?

In Poland, alongside Denmark, Britain certainly. Regarding the Union, as Sollozzo told Sonny, “what’s done is done.” The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which had called for British voters to remain, now calls for Britain to make the most of exit. The Journal had to admit how “Norway and Switzerland have shown it’s possible to have prosperity and security in Europe with less nannying by Brussels.” It’s possible as well to maintain real military readiness without deep coordination through the EDA. Twelve years on, the agency has had some successes with centralized acquisition, but managing the military-industrial activities of 27 defense ministries may be mission impossible. Britain’s most important military-industrial relationship in Europe, after all, is found in the bilateral logic of the Brize Norton Agreement with France.

For as our Lund Fellow Steve Grundman and I have argued in a recent working paper, innovation matters more than scale in transnational armaments cooperation. This matters because of that possibly-scary T-14 tank. Something more than harmonizing and coordinating and regulating is needed to counter it.  Whether General Dynamics or Otokar or KMW or Raytheon has the right package of tank upgrades is an open question. Whether the needed upgrades are in tanks or something else is also an open question. The value in the diversity of approaches will not suffer from a little less centralization. For I do know that Britain will continue to care about, and continue to invest for, any future fight, whether to the east of Warsaw or the south of Ankara.

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

RELATED CONTENT