BERLIN (Reuters) - The biggest cuts in military spending in decades in Germany, Britain and France could encourage Europe to move closer to a joint defence policy to pool resources and eliminate costly duplication.
Germany, increasingly active in international military missions in recent years, is poised to shrink its army by up to 40 percent to help consolidate its finances at a time when the global economic downturn is encouraging restraint.
France and Britain, with the most powerful armed forces in Europe, are also contemplating cutbacks.
“Budgetary and security considerations will raise pressure to find a joint defence and security policy,” said Elke Hoff, defence policy spokeswoman for Germany’s Free Democrats (FDP), coalition partners to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives.
“Financial stability is increasingly being regarded as a key security issue in a globalised world,” she told Reuters.
German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and his French counterpart Herve Morin last week said they would set up an informal working group to target joint efficiency measures.
The two allies had decided “to look together for what resources we can pool or share ... to make efficiency gains, budget savings and economies of scale,” Morin said.
In a speech last month, Britain’s Defence Secretary Liam Fox called for bilateral co-operation on defence to be stepped up “particularly with nations who share our interests and are prepared to both pay and fight, such as France.”
Though NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has argued member states in the military alliance must combine their resources more, it may be slow to materialise.
Nick Witney, former head of the European Defence Agency, now a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said governments would initially probably try to avoid making any binding international commitments.
“I hope that ... once the dust has settled from this financial collapse people will look around and say, ‘We will have very little defence capability left if we continue to duplicate it all on a national basis’, so the logic of pooling efforts and resources will, I hope, reassert itself,” he said.
In Britain, analysts see scope for cooperation with France over combat jets. Some say Britain may pursue savings by buying French Rafale fighters built by Dassault, perhaps as part of a deal with France on a British air-to-air refuelling project.
DEEPEST CUTS IN GERMANY
The deepest cuts in troops numbers are likely to come in Germany, which unlike France and Britain still has compulsory national service in the armed forces, or Bundeswehr.
Germany has resolved to find 80 billion euros worth of budgetary savings in the next four years to help underpin the euro currency. Defence cuts could save up to 13 billion euros over the next few years, said Hoff of the FDP.
Under the command of Guttenberg, Germany’s most popular politician, the defence ministry has offered to lead the consolidation charge, which could reduce the size of the armed forces to as little as 150,000 from around 250,000 at present.
Merkel’s centre-right coalition aims to agree an overhaul of the Bundeswehr by the end of September, said Henning Otte, a defence policy expert in Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU).
“A Bundeswehr with 150,000 soldiers would be the absolute limit. I suspect 170,000 or 180,000 is more likely,” he said.
Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Federal Republic shied away from participation in armed conflicts, and foreign deployment of the army was limited to humanitarian aid.
However, in the past two decades, German soldiers fought on foreign soil for the first time since the war in international missions in troubled regions like Somalia, Kosovo and Congo.
Today Germany has some 7,000 troops stationed abroad, with the third largest international presence in Afghanistan.
The deployments are not popular with voters, however, and ex-President Horst Koehler stood down in May after coming under fire for comments that suggested the army could be used to enforce Germany’s economic interests.
Robert Hochbaum, a CDU member of the Bundestag lower house of parliament’s defence committee, said given the financial constraints facing them, Germany and its allies needed to explore potential synergies for their armed forces.
“It’s high time for this. We’re not talking about creating new structures, it’s about supplementing each other,” he said, noting that naval operations were particularly well suited.
Hoff’s FDP is also pushing hard for an end to national service -- already due to be cut to six months from nine -- which supporters say would enable the army to focus on foreign deployments by freeing up soldiers used to train recruits.
Yet the cuts may also reduce Berlin’s ability to steer debate on military deployments, said Berthold Meyer, an analyst at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt.
“Whoever has the most troops has the most say,” he said.
Additional reporting by Paul Taylor in Paris, Mohammed Abbas in London and David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Editing by Peter Graff
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.