Much of the current discussion about European defense, no matter the format, revolves around the ‘big three’: France, Germany and the UK. However, Daniel Keohane argues that Italy and Poland deserve more attention as they are both frontline states for EU and NATO security. As a result, in this article Keohane provides an insight into Poland and Italy’s national defense policies by comparing their 1) geostrategic outlooks; 2) defense operations, capabilities and spending; and 3) positions on military cooperation through NATO and the EU.
Italy and Poland are both frontline states for EU and NATO security. They also represent the two main operational priorities for European military cooperation: defending NATO territory in Eastern Europe and intervening to stabilize conflict-racked countries south of the EU.
Towards the end of 2015, a few defense experts raised their eyebrows at a Credit Suisse report on the future of globalization. Contained within this wide-ranging assessment was a short analysis of global military power, ranking the top 20 countries in the world. Weighing six elements of conventional warfare, the Credit Suisse analysts considered Poland a stronger military power than Germany, and Italy came ahead of the UK.
The Credit Suisse analysts compared indicators such as active personnel, tanks, aircraft, attack helicopters, aircraft carriers, and submarines. In their explanation of their conclusions, the analysts singled out Germany, which came 18th out of 20; it ranked considerably lower than expected because of relatively smaller or non-existent capabilities in certain categories, such as aircraft carriers and submarines.
Notwithstanding those conclusions, much of the current discussion about European defense (whether through NATO, the EU, or other formats) revolves around the positions of the “big three”: France, Germany, and the UK – the leading European military spenders at NATO. However, opinions in those other two major European powers, Italy and Poland, deserve more attention. In some ways, this comparison may seem politically counter-intuitive, since on paper they would not appear to have much in common. For example, Italy is a founding member of both NATO and the EU, whereas Poland only joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004.
However, it is interesting to compare their national defense policies because they are both frontline states for EU-NATO security, and represent the two main operational priorities in European military cooperation: defending NATO territory in Eastern Europe, and intervening to stabilize conflict-racked countries south of the EU.
Italy has received 75 per cent of migrants and refugees coming across the Mediterranean into the EU this year – over 110,000 people, according to the International Organization for Migration. As Elisabeth Braw of the Atlantic Council has noted, this has placed considerable strain on the Italian coast guard and navy, which rescued around 25,000 migrants between January and June of this year.
Poland worries greatly about the military threat from Russia, following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent warfighting in eastern Ukraine. A year ago, Russia deployed Iskander-M ballistic missiles (nuclear-capable rockets with a range up to 500 kilometers) to Kaliningrad, its Baltic exclave situated between Poland and Lithuania. Part of the joint Russia-Belarusian “Zapad” military exercise in September 2017 took place in Kaliningrad, as well as in Poland’s neighbor Belarus. Estimates vary greatly as to how many armed services personnel took part in “Zapad 2017”, but some experts estimated the total number to be as high as 100,000, whereas others suspect it was lower.
Understandably, the Polish and Italian defense policies must prioritize either defensive capabilities or an interventionist stance, partly because with relatively limited resources, they must prioritize. By comparison, NATO estimates that the UK will budget USD 55 billion, France USD 44 billion, and Germany USD 43 billion for defense this year. In contrast, Italy will budget USD 22.5 billion and Poland USD 10 billion.
After France, Germany, and the UK, Italy is the largest absolute European defense spender, by some distance, of the remaining members of NATO and the EU, and the country has been an active contributor to NATO, UN, and EU operations over the last 20 years. In 2015, Italy replaced its 2002 white book with a new defense white paper that lays out Italy’s strategic vision, operational priorities, and spending intentions. The document assigned a central role to an interest-based approach to international security, and is unambiguous about the need to use military force, alongside the vital role of the military instrument for deterrence purposes.
Due to Italy’s economic difficulties in recent years and more austere government budgets, there have been fewer resources available for Italy’s national defense effort. Italian defense spending as a percentage of GDP fell from 1.3 per cent in 2011 to 1.1 per cent in 2017 (according to NATO estimates). The 2015 white paper, therefore, is very clear on what Italy’s strategic and operational priorities should be. In particular, the “Euro-Mediterranean” region is highlighted as the primary geo-strategic focus for Italy. This region is conceived in broad terms, covering the EU, the Balkans, the Maghreb, the Middle East, and the Black Sea. But it is clear that Italy, which had previously sent troops as far afield as NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, will now primarily worry about its immediate neighborhood.
This is probably not surprising, given the turbulence that has affected some of these regions in recent years, especially North Africa and the Middle East. Turmoil in Libya, for example, has greatly contributed to the large numbers of migrants being smuggled across the Mediterranean to Italy. Interestingly, Italy not only intends to contribute to international coalitions (whether NATO, the UN, or the EU) in this Euro-Mediterranean space. It is also prepared to lead high-intensity, full-spectrum crisis management missions across this region. In other words, even if the geostrategic priorities of Italian defense policy are more narrowly defined than those of other large European powers, its external operational ambitions remain relatively robust.
Poland’s geostrategic and operational approach contrasts quite markedly from Italy’s. For one, Poland is primarily geographically focused on Eastern Europe, particularly the military threat from Russia. Furthermore, its operational priority is to improve both its national defensive efforts and those of NATO, rather than contributing to robust external missions. Poland, for example, did not participate in NATO’s air bombing campaign in Libya in 2011. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, following the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, strongly reinforced a perception in Poland that Warsaw must invest more in its national defense, including through NATO.
The 2017 Polish Defense Concept, a strategic review published in May, pointedly states that “the number one priority was the necessity of adequately preparing Poland to defend its own territory.” The first threat and challenge listed in the concept paper is the “aggressive policy of the Russian Federation”, followed by an “unstable neighborhood on NATO’s eastern flank”.
To be fair, the Polish paper is not myopic, and the third priority is NATO’s southern flank, to which Poland expects to “be obliged to support Allies in various endeavours”. It adds that: “Unlike in the past, we want Polish contributions to be significant, but with no enduring negative effects to our national defence capabilities”. Italy is not ignoring NATO’s eastern flank either. Rome has contributed to Baltic air policing, for example, and will be the lead nation for NATO’s Very High Readiness Task Force (VJTF) during 2018 – the alliance’s spearhead force for operational readiness. (end of excerpt)
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