Overstretched and underfunded – the decline of Europe’s navies

With peacekeeping, nation building and counterinsurgency operations receiving priority over recent years, Europe’s – and even America’s – navies have reduced in size and capability. With an ageing fleet, growing maintenance costs and an increase in operational demands, can Europe’s navies adapt to the challenges of the modern threat environment?

The modern battlespace has changed radically over recent years, not only regarding the technological capabilities of warfighters but the character of the combat itself (note: character not nature to those Clausewitzian loyalists among us). For years, the United States and their allies prepared for operations centred around counterinsurgency, peacekeeping and nation building. And each nation’s military apparatus, whether technological, academic or doctrinal, was modified to support this goal.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and its allies exercised unfettered global primacy. This has, however, shuddered to an end and those who support the international rules based order have been left underprepared in a renewed era of great power competition.

This was the sentiment of French diplomat in residence Pierre Morcos and Colin Wall research associate with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS in War on the Rocks this week, publishing a sobering analysis on Europe’s military deterioration since the collapse of the Soviet Union and their inability to compete in the new era of conflict.


“European naval forces suffered a dramatic downsizing in the past three decades. This decline is notably due to years of cuts in defence spending following the end of the Cold War. Amid these times of budgetary austerity, European countries decided to rebalance their armed forces at the expense of their navies as they engaged in major counterinsurgency operations after the 9/11 attacks,” the pair allege.

Such preference for counterinsurgency operations resulted in what the pair term as “sea blindness”, whereby European countries were willing to sacrifice their innovative and cutting-edge naval platforms, perceiving fewer uses for the expensive ships in the modern threat environment.

The result is a stark reduction in naval capabilities.


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