Italian Defense Policy in Desperate Need of New Ideas

With the ignoble privilege of putting the second “i” in the Eurozone’s troubled “PIIGS” category, Italy has had a rough economic ride through 2011. Italian defense spending has not escaped the crisis; in July, the aircraft carrier Garibaldi was withdrawn from Libya operations to save costs.

In fact, Italian defense policy as a whole has been chronically mismanaged, and Rome is facing the serious risk of becoming militarily irrelevant. To rectify this, Italy needs an injection of new ideas, including a fresh strategic concepts and urgent military reforms. Otherwise, this major European nation may well fail to meet its defense obligations and let down its allies.

The state of the Italian defense budget is dire, and barely matches 1.4% of GDP, at $24 billion a year. Responding to the euro crisis, Italy's announced austerity measures will also cause a further 10% reduction in spending by 2014.

The cutbacks have severely effected Italian military affairs. As well as withdrawing resources from Libya, Italy has also announced the withdrawal of peacekeepers from Lebanon, the cancellation of a quarter of its Eurofighter jet procurement program, and the forced redundancy of some 38,000 military staff.

Perhaps most seriously, Italy has slashed its training budget by 69% since 2006 — raising the very real possibility of losing core operational skills amongst its staff.

Faced with potential military irrelevance, how should Rome respond?

Firstly, Italy needs an intelligent strategic re-appraisal of its defense policy. Italy’s last defense whitepaper, or “strategic concept,” was published in 2005. This established the strategic aims and priorities of Italian defense, and how the military should reform to meet them.

However, given the urgency and severity of the financial crisis, this document is hopelessly out of date. Britain, France, and Poland have all revisited their strategic assumptions in light of the financial crisis. Italy needs to do the same and more carefully consider how to balance its defense obligations with its current means.

Rome should also more robustly address the chronic imbalance in its current defense budget. An eye-watering 70% of Italian defense spending goes to personnel expenses, leaving almost nothing for equipment and operational costs.

This imbalance is typical in militaries that move from conscription to a full-time professional structure — as Italy did in 2005 — without a firm reform plan. It takes strong political will and the ability to handle public outcry in order to cut military pay, re-invest funds in equipment, and balance the books.

Sadly, as Italian academic Nicola Labanca has pointed out, despite almost a decade of uninterrupted rule, Prime Minister Silvia Berlusconi’s defense ministers have shirked their responsibility to initiate reforms. This is frankly embarrassing for a European nation ostensibly in the top tier of political clout, especially for one which has ambitions to spur on the development of EU military cooperation. Such complacency cannot continue.

An important objective of such reforms should be a move towards role specialization and so-called “pooling and sharing” initiatives. Other cash-strapped European militaries like the Netherlands have made hard choices about what they can afford to maintain and what they will now rely on allies to provide. If Italy cannot make these choices, its lack of capability will force its allies — especially the U.S. — to carry the load.

Such freeloading is both politically undesirable and increasingly unacceptable for a nation that claims to sit at the heart of European defense policy. Italy must accept that its military means and policy ends are not aligned, and that to continue with outdated strategic ideas and an unbalanced budget is the road to ruin.

Bold, new thinking is needed, and quickly.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons