Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once famously distinguished between and “Old” Europe (he was thinking of France and Germany) and a “New” Europe consisting mainly of new NATO members that were from the former Soviet Bloc. His argument at the time seems silly, especially as he was judging countries by their willingness to follow America off the cliff in Iraq. Now, however, the distinction starts to make some sense. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, by dragging his feet regarding the furnishing of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, is dividing Europe while also placing in stark relief the difference between Old Europe and what we might call the New, New Europe, which is eager to equip Ukraine with the means to win.
Among the Old we must also count Britain, France, and Italy, which, though far more willing to back Ukraine than Germany, suffer from the fact that their bonsai armies, because of their size, limit their ability and willingness to go so far as to hand over to Ukraine major weapons systems in meaningful numbers. But then there are the “New” countries alluded to by Rumsfeld, most importantly Poland, and now the “New, New” countries, NATO’s newest adherents, Sweden and above all Finland. Looking just to Poland and Finland, we find two nations that not only have aggressive approaches to Russia but also have large numbers of critical weapons systems and are committed to obtaining a lot more. Indeed, and this is the point Americans must come to terms with the idea that Warsaw and Helsinki increasingly will be the de facto leaders of European defense and security policy by virtue of their hard power, and their lack of the inhibitions that disqualify Germany.
A few words about Poland: Poland is set to become Europe’s military powerhouse at least with respect to its ground forces. In recent years it has signed deals for hundreds of Abrams tanks and Korean-made K2 tanks and self-propelled howitzers—as many as 1,000 K2s along with the means to produce its own. It also is purchasing hundreds more MLRS systems from the U.S. and Korea. As for Finland, the Finnish military—still conscription based—has a smaller active-duty force than France but much larger reserves. It has announced plans to increase defense spending to above 2 percent of GDP and recently placed an order with the U.S. for 150 new MLRS systems. This is along with 200 Leopard tanks, and several dozen self-propelled howitzers on order from Korea.
(Photo: Finnish Army Leopard 2, from https://maavoimat.fi/en/armoured-brigade)
In comparison, Britain and France, though they spend a lot more money, spread their money over a much greater range of capabilities and invest in high-end items like nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers that are useful for nuclear deterrence and projecting force far away, but leave them with only enough money for conventional forces that, though excellent, may in fact be too small for sustaining conventional wars closer to home. Britain is set to reduce its tank fleet to 148 and reportedly has 80 aging AS-90 self-propelled howitzers, only a portion of which are said to be in working order. It recently announced that it is sending as many as 30 to Ukraine. Britain reportedly has 40 MLRS. France has about 220 Leclerc tanks but only 13 MLRS, two of which it gave to Ukraine. France had approximately 70 CAESAR self-propelled howitzers, some of which it has given to Ukraine. Britain and France, it must be added, have no ability to manufacture more tanks any time soon; France still makes its CAESARs, but at a rate of production that makes any meaningful growth of its howitzer stock a matter of many, many years. This is why Poland’s engagement with Korea matters: Poland is sidestepping European industry altogether and above all cutting out the biggest European manufacturer of heavy armored vehicles of all, Germany.
President Macron, it is true, recently announced major spending increases, but he did not indicate that this would translate into any meaningful growth in the size of the French military rather than the filling of gaps such as air-defense capabilities. He did mention in his speech long-range fires, which suggests perhaps the purchase of more American MLRS. But new tanks will have to wait as the slow process of developing a Leclerc replacement takes its course, and when it does, the cost might prohibit their purchase in significant numbers. CAESARs will come to market as fast as NEXTER can deliver them, which is a polite way of saying slowly. Regardless, except for nuclear weapons and the possession of blue water navies, Britain and France will be eclipsed in many regards by Poland and Finland, while Germany, which itself announced major spending plans not long ago, has already squandered whatever credibility it might have had as a European defense leader.
For America, this means that perhaps we need to shift our thinking about European defense partners. We turn first to Britain out of habit and culture, and then France out of a begrudging recognition that the French military now is stronger than Britain’s. But increasingly NATO’s newest members, especially Poland and Finland, make more sense, at least when it comes to Europe, and at least when it comes to ground warfare. Poland is not about to play a role in the Pacific, but it just might be the case that in the next European war, Americans are more likely to be fighting alongside Polish and Finnish soldiers than the Brits or the French. Perhaps, in this light, we really would rather see Britain and France turn their gaze to the Indo-Pacific, where they can alone out of our European allies can make a difference, while looking to Finland, Poland, and the other newer NATO members to defend Europe. In any case, we can safely assume that our military knows little about these forces and that our defense planners don’t look past the Old Europe to appreciate the New, New Europe.