Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Too old to fight?

No wonder the European Union is so keen on "soft power". It seems we – as nations – are getting too old to fight.

By the year 2025, the average age in Europe will be 45 and the pool of 16-30 year olds available for military service will be reduced by 15 percent. Private sector employers will be vying with the military to recruit from a dwindling pool of young people, while pension liabilities and the increasing costs of military hardware will drain military budgets. These factors will reduce the number of soldiers that can be retained.

That, according to IHT is the scenario being put to the defence ministers of the 25 EU member states this week, in a report that predicts a serious manpower shortage in 20 years, forcing governments to downsize their armies, develop more robot weapons or outsource military tasks.

Yet, at the same time, threats will be multiplying from a youthful population in the crescent of instability running from Africa through the Middle East and into the former Soviet bloc. And Europeans will not be able to rely on their traditional trans-Atlantic ally, as the United States will increasingly switch its attention to Asia, where China and India are developing as new global superpowers, the report warns.

To prepare for the risks, experts are urging smaller, more professional armies equipped with high-tech weapons that can help minimise casualties and reduce demands on manpower. Approaches include outsourcing, increased automation (from warships to robots) and reducing superfluous capability. "Do Europeans between them really need nearly 10,000 main battle tanks and nearly 3,000 combat aircraft?" the report asks.

The report did not elaborate on the use of outsourcing, but nations increasingly contract private security companies to carry out some of the tasks traditionally carried out by the military.

Then comes the message from the sponsors – the European Defence Agency: The report urges greater co-operation between European nations and between the military and civilian agencies to establish stability in regional trouble spots.

All very well that but there is a limit to how far manpower can be reduced before armies become ineffective. Even in this hi-tech world, there is still a need for boots on the ground. Are we, therefore, to see a rise in mercenary armies, along the lines of the Ghurkas in the British Army, or the Foreign Legion in the French?


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