NATO has no equal in terms of gross domestic product and has the world’s largest aggregate defense sector, but declining defense budgets and dwindling public support for complex foreign deployments are leaving land forces with fewer people and equipment, according to a new essay.

Since the 1990s, most NATO members have professionalized and modernized their land forces, but smaller forces mean risks in future missions, said the essay, “NATO’s Land Forces: Losing Ground,” by Guillaume Lasconjarias, part of the National Security Outlook in the American Enterprise Institute’s Hard Power series.

Professionalizing forces after the Cold War brought change. “Throughout the alliance, units are being disbanded, facilities closed and territorial defense structures reviewed,” he said. In just one example, between 1996 and 2013, the French army decreased from 268,572 people to just more than 119,000.

NATO Training Photo: NATO Allied Command Operations
NATO Training
Photo: NATO Allied Command Operations

The declining budget also contributed to fewer forces. At the same time, fewer forces limit the possible operational commitments a government can make as well as the size of those commitments, Lasconjarais said.

National commitments show fewer forces available as a government option. Poland, which had been heavily involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, “seems to be abandoning expeditionary capacity in favor of solely territorial deployment,” he wrote.

Mitigating declining numbers will be the potential of coalition-based operations, with unmanned robotic systems to replace certain human activities, and a greater reliance on special forces.

“But the fact remains that the nature of the conflicts experienced by NATO members since the end of the Cold War inescapably indicates that troops are still needed on the ground–and  sometimes in considerable numbers if the overall mission is to be accomplished,” Lasconjarias wrote. While a research adviser at the NATO Defense College, the essay reflects his views and not necessarily those of the college or NATO.

Shrinking budgets also affected the introduction of new equipment, complicated by ongoing operations of the past decade and specific urgent needs.

This has led to some “radical choices,” he wrote, such as decommissioning heavy tank units. Europe may only have 450-600 modern main battle tanks to be distributed among France, the United Kingdom, and Germany in the near future. In the Netherlands, budget considerations led to the elimination of tanks altogether.

Some European NATO members wind up with more capacity than they need in some areas and shortages in other areas—a concern not limited to land forces.

Helicopters are in short supply. In Afghanistan. In 2005-2006, the British command had eight AH-64 Apaches and 10 utility helicopters. This figure grew to a peak of 35 helicopters in 2011. Even so, the ministry of defense had to outsource supply deliveries to private helicopter services to the troops at Helmand bases, costing an estimated $6.7 million a month.

In addition, the national helicopter fleets generally lack interoperability with each other and there is no joint multinational helicopter command, the essay said.

The member state’s low level of overall strength now “leaves them weakened and even jeopardizes their overall coherence,” Lasconjarias said. Concentrating on core combat capability at the expense of combat support made it possible for substantial contributions to alliance military missions, but the shortfalls are clear, with the major European land powers struggling to maintain the necessary component parts that constitute a land force capable of joint air-land operations.

“They are now mere ‘sample’ forces, kept at a level of numbers and materiel that makes them increasingly irrelevant as individual nation-state combatants,” Lasconjarias wrote.

One model for the future might be based on the 2013 French-led mission in Mali, where NATO and EU allies supported the mission through needed capabilities such as UAVs, airlift and intelligence. But Lasconjarias writes this might not be an easy-to-duplicate model, as it would require political leadership and sufficient deployable combat power to address the contingency and be the core element around which allies could fill in any missing pieces.

However, Lasconjarias concludes that “fundamental reality of war and politics remains: only the physical presence of land forces can offer the hope of revolving a crisis and stabilizing the situation on the ground.”

The adaptability and capacity of land forces to engage in a broad range of missions is one of the options governments must have to meet their larger foreign policy goals, he wrote.

“War weary or not, NATO members are ignoring tactical and strategic realities–and indeed, history–if they believe that continuing to drain their land forces of numbers and capabilities is either wise or sustainable,” Lasconjarias wrote.