Dossier: Europe and military affairs facts for Dummies



The European members of NATO have a combined approx. 552 million inhabitants, while the largely overlapping European Union has approx. 510 million inhabitants (soon to drop considerably when the UK leaves the EU). There is some talk about demographics weakening Europe by reducing the pool of military age men, but this is nonsense, since in the six largest current EU members alone (all NATO members) about 2 million males reach military age annually. There are plenty military age males in Europe even so for a World War Two-scale conflict, and even after subtraction of the very small share of non-NATO country citizens (many foreigners in European NATO countries are from other NATO countries).


The European Union is an economic powerhouse, with annual GDP greater than USD 16 trillion, and greater than USD 19 trillion in purchasing power parity exchange rates. The picture is almost identical for the European NATO members since most of them are NATO members, and some NATO members aren't EU members.

Military spending

European NATO and EU are military powerhouses on the global scale, dwarfing Russian military spending. European NATO spends about five times as much as Russia on military affairs, using regular exchange rates.

click to enlarge, source: IISS

The "2 % GDP" military spending rule

doesn't exist. It was a non-binding agreement made by politicians who don't have the authority to set the budget, much less commit to future budget sizes.

Developments in military spending

Some European countries have sustained a very high rate of military spending for a long time, but greatly reduced it in recent years. This applies especially to the United Kingdom (austerity policy of conservative party) and Greece (severe fiscal troubles and economic crisis).
Other European countries have greatly increased military spending (notably the Baltic countries and Poland) or are beginning to do so (notably Germany).

Military personnel

European NATO and EU outnumber Russia in military personnel almost by a factor of two. Active NATO members' military personnel without the U.S. and Canada (= European NATO, also counting Turkey) exceeds two million, and thus exceeds North American military personnel (little over 1.4 million) almost by half. The difference is even more extreme when counting reserves, for many European countries have many former conscripts in their reserves, but most European countries don't have active conscription today. Several countries turned towards all-volunteer forces only a couple years ago (including Germany) and are still in the process of adapting to it.

The military personnel reduction of the post-Cold War time wasn't quite as extreme as it looks at first glance; many jobs were outsourced to civilians and the share of soldiers in early stages of training dropped.

Nuclear arms

Both France (Triomphant class) and the UK (Vanguard class) maintain at all times at least one nuclear-powered submarine with enough ballistic missiles and thermonuclear warheads on station (presumably the Atlantic Ocean, but maybe Mediterranean or below Arctic ice). This is enough to crash the Russian society and economy by obliteration of a dozen or more cities even if both the UK and France were destroyed by a thermonuclear first strike. France also has nuclear arms ready for employment by combat aircraft.

Europeans in overseas missions

Even many small European countries contribute to multinational military missions overseas. NATO's "Resolute Support" (formerly ISAF) mission is staffed approx. in half by European NATO members.
France has long-lasting military missions and relations in Black Africa, mostly as stabiliser of governments in francophone countries. The United Kingdom has military relations with many Commonwealth countries, which often take the shape of UK troops sent on exercises into Commonwealth countries.

Island and overseas bases

Several European countries have overseas territories as a legacy of their imperialistic past. British and French islands are notable, especially the British Indian Ocean military base of Diego Garcia, which was used by U.S. strategic bombers and other large military aircraft for missions over Afghanistan since 2001.
Iceland in itself is a North Atlantic island that can serve NATO as unsinkable aircraft carrier to dominate the far North Atlantic in the event of war. Portugal still controls the Azores, which offer the same in the Southern part of the North Atlantic Ocean. A UK-operated military base on the EU member Cyprus is used for the air campaign over Syria.

Structure of European armed services

Many traditional seafaring countries maintain a large if not disproportionally large navy, notably United Kingdom, France, Italy, Denmark, Spain and Netherlands. Norway has a disproportionally well-equipped navy as well, and the German navy is substantial, too. European NATO has conventional (most stealthy) submarine forces and naval mine countermeasure ships that greatly  exceed the non-existing U.S. conventional submarine fleet and the tiny U.S. mine countermeasure ship fleet.

Most European countries operate some air force, but most of the smaller ones only have few (typically 1980's) strike-fighters. The substantial air forces in Europe are the air forces of France, the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden.
The modern Typhoon (formerly "Eurofighter") fighters were built for air superiority fighter missions, but have over time been upgraded for ever more ground attack capability. The modern Rafales were designed as multirole combat aircraft (including a carrier version) from the beginning.
1980's Tornado IDS and Mirage 2000 aircraft provide a substantial share of the ground attack strength (as is the case with same-generation F-15 and F-16 in the U.S. Air Force), and Tornado ECR aircraft provide the rare capability to detect and attack (thus suppress) air defence radars, which is an important ingredient in air/ground attack missions against 1st and 2nd rate armed forces.
European air forces have much less long-range transport aviation and tanker aircraft (required for long-range operations) than the USAF, as well as no heavy bombers. Few European countries (notably UK, France, Sweden) operate AEW (colloquially "AWACS") aircraft for long-range air surveillance, but NATO operates AWACS aircraft for service in Europe with Luxembourg's markings.
Several European countries intend to convert their combat air power partially or wholly to the expensive U.S. F-35 low observable strike fighter.

European land power was in part reoriented away from conventional warfare (deterrence and defence against Russians army) since the mid-90's, in part due to U.S. requests. European armies did provide many troops for the occupation missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as many other missions. There has been a reawakening in favour of forces for conventional warfare since about 2008 (South Ossetia War), and at the latest 2014 (Russian occupation of Crimea).

A traditional means of summarising land power are tanks, artillery pieces, combat aircraft, nuclear warheads, military spending and military personnel. A rather "insider" metric was the "heavy division equivalent". A comparison of European NATO with Russia shows a numerical inferiority in main battle tanks and artillery pieces, but at least in regard to main battle tanks this may be compensated for by superior quality.

European forces with a traditional emphasis on land power are the land bound countries and Germany.


Europe has the North Atlantic Ocean and Arctic in the North, the Atlantic Ocean and allied North America in the West, Mediterranean Africa (save for Egypt only armed forces of marginal capability) in the South, Israel and NATO ally Turkey in the Southeast and finally Russia and its appendage Belarus in the East.
Only Russia is a not entirely unrealistic threat to the security of any European country. It is being perceived as a potential threat to the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, Estonia) and even Poland - all four are both NATO and EU members and receive symbolic "tripwire forces" including patchwork multinational battalions provided by NATO allies and also visits by U.S. troops on exercises/roadshows.

Arms Industries

Germany, UK, France, Italy and Sweden have arms industries of great technological capability, while several of the other European NATO members have lesser or even merely license-producing arms industries. European arms industries are competitive on arms export markets, usually with less government subsidies than U.S. arms exports. European shipyard capacity vastly exceeds U.S. shipyard capacity and Europeans were able to export many new-built warships to many customer nations after the Cold War and remain competitive in shipbuilding markets such as for cruise ships and container ships.
Germany is the only European country that heavily subsidises arms exports, and this is limited to its arms exports (especially submarines) to Israel.


Europe has its own NASA equivalent (ESA, launching satellites from French Guyana in Latin America for greater proximity to the equator), satellite navigation network (Galileo) and espionage/terrestrial research satellites.


The European NATO members and the members of the European Union have much room for efficiency gains in their military efforts, but they are militarily superior to the sum of all not totally unlikely threats on their own and still afford substantial overseas military missions.

or in other words

The loser of the Olympic Summer Games' weightlifting finals is not as strong as the gold medallist, but it's still utterly inappropriate to think of him as a weakling.



  1. Interesting and well-stated.

  2. Funnily enough, the conscription map is already outdated, since Lithuania restored conscription and Sweden now has limited conscription.
    Also worth pointing out is the fact that Russia is much more vulnerable to any sort of counter-attack, because nearly a tenth of its population lives in Moscow. Even a single strike would probably be quite devastating to Russia. Europes population centers are much more dispersed.

    1. There are more than 28 million inhabitants in Russia's 12 cities with more than a million inhabitants each. That's one fifth of the Russian population. A thermonuclear bombardment of these cities would crash the Russian economy, science and society.

      I suppose that's enough deterrence (both France and UK each are capable of this much destruction), no even more extreme MAD deterrence is required.

    2. The conscription map is generated, not a static image. I can't help it, for I didn't find a better one.

    3. Well, I decided to remove it though both Sweden and Lithuania conscript only negligible quantities of men this year. It's better to have one unnecessary graphic less than to have one avoidable error in the dossier.

  3. Great write-up and very linkable.