Mass Sale of European Battle Tanks Highlights Potential Defense Weakness

Last week, Austria announced it would be scrapping or selling 758 of its tanks and armored vehicles — over 66% of its entire force. This highlights an escalating trend: European militaries are substantially reducing their armored vehicle fleets.

The reasons behind this are easy to identify. Tanks are increasingly militarily irrelevant to today’s perceived security threats, and are thus seen as an easy place to find savings in the financial crisis. However, these large unilateral reductions in tank numbers highlight a worrying lack of coordination, which could lead to a European continent stripped of certain military capabilities.

Everywhere you look, Europe has been downgrading its armored vehicle fleets. The UK recently scrapped 163 of its Challenger main battle tanks (MBTs), whilst Germany is reducing its fleet of Leopard MBTs by 75, along with 60 lighter vehicles. Perhaps most drastically, the Netherlands recently scrapped its entire tank fleet.

This “fire sale” is not hard to explain. Large tank fleets are a historical hangover from the Cold War, when the world held its breath for confrontation with the Soviets in Eastern Europe. It is the reason why as recently as 2006, Europe operated more tanks than the U.S. military.

Yet, as Austrian officials said of their decision, “Today we face cyber threats, terrorist threats: These are the challenges of the future.”

Tanks are of little use in both these areas. Indeed, in an age when climate change is consistently listed as one of the biggest existential threats to European security, lumbering armored vehicles look increasingly obsolete.

Given the financial crisis, it is thus inevitable that armored vehicle numbers have come in for re-evaluation. There are substantial savings to be made. But there should be a note of caution about this European fire sale.

While massed tank attacks are hugely unlikely in today’s strategic environment, there is still a place for heavy armor in interventionist or counter-insurgency warfare. Canadian and U.S. forces have both used MBTs in small numbers in Afghanistan, for example. Just because today’s threats are apparently irregular and dispersed doesn’t mean armor is completely useless. Europe will still need tanks in the future, just in smaller numbers.

And here is the problem - Europe’s tank numbers are in uncoordinated freefall. This is worrying, because NATO or the EU’s overall defense picture relies on a full spectrum of capabilities being accounted for across its members.

Yet the actions of small nations such as Austria and the Netherlands are instructive -- by scrapping almost all their tanks, they are clearly signaling that another European partner will need to provide this capability in future. Yet Germany and the UK are apparently just as keen to scrap their MBTs. Who is left?

Clearly, role specialization for European militaries is a necessity in today’s financial crisis. Not everyone needs to maintain a fast-jet fleet or tanks. Yet, as former NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has consistently warned, this needs to be done in a coordinated fashion. Otherwise, the result will not be budget savings and military specialization. Instead, it will be gaping capability gaps and defense weakness.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons