After having served for centuries as the world’s barracks, its premier military hegemon and then as its battlefield, “soft-power” Europe, especially now in the grip of the crisis, is succumbing to the disarming charms of a farewell to arms. It is cutting defence budgets right and left, disbanding glorious regiments, dismantling ships and aircraft carriers, and retiring tanks and planes.

As always, the alert came from the other side of the Atlantic. In the run-up to November’sNATO summit in Lisbon, which is to proclaim the Alliance’s “new strategic concept”, the US is alarmed by Europe’s dwindling defence budgets.

Europe has never spent less on its armed forces

This time around, however, those in charge of the Old Continent’s defence share that concern. "While the US keeps putting massive resources into defence, there’s no doubt that European spending won’t reach the 2% of GDP target,” admits Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, current Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, which is now looking to contain the impact of a disarmament race.

Here’s the paradox: Europe has never spent less on its armed forces – at a time when it is more committed on the ground than ever before in postwar history, with tens of thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Balkans, and on various missions in Africa. These missions have taken a heavy toll on human life, but on the economy as well. Now the financial crisis, followed by the public debt crisis, has forced Europe to retrench defence spending radically.

Back in 2002, all the Alliance members had targeted spending “at least” 2% of GDP every year on defence. But in 2009 only Greece (3.1%), Albania (2.0%), France (2.1%), Great Britain (2.7%) and the United States (4.0%) made good on that pledge. Italy and Germany spent 1.4%, Spain 1.2%. Next year, in all likelihood, the US will be the only one still over the 2% mark.

Cameron leads the cutbacks

The first austerity measures came in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown. And now, British PM David Cameron has just announced 8% in cutbacks on military spending for the next four years. London is going to do without its sole aircraft carrier, the Ark Royal, whilst waiting for two new ones currently being built, and drastically pare down its purchase orders for the new American-made Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) planes. It will keep its nuclear programme going on the Trident submarines, while downsizing the Royal Navy. The defence sector will shed 42,000 employees by 2015.

France, on the other hand, has confirmed its budgetary commitments for this year, but military experts expect the axe to fall next year. France and Britain have already drafted deals to manage their nuclear arsenal jointly, and share the expense – likewise for the new fleet of A400 Airbus military transport planes. Germany, which is now switching from a conscript army to a professional army, smaller in size but more costly to run, is likewise bracing to chip away at defence spending.

And over in the Netherlands, the new government has already said it won’t be buying any JSFs. Italy is tightening its belt too: after opting out of NATO’s Strategic Airlift Capabilities (SAC) programme, which involves buying and sharing C130 military transport craft, it is now going to order 25 fewer Eurofighter planes than planned.

Disarmament has not compromised our security yet

All the analysts concur that, despite the cuts, not a single country has reduced the pay for men in uniform in Afghanistan or anywhere else – but they are feeling the pinch there, too. And Europe’s shilly-shallying on the American request to send 10,000 more men to Kabul last year was not only caused by political indecisiveness, but by financial shortfalls as well.

For the time being, at least, European disarmament has not compromised our security yet, although Europeans would have a hard time mounting another major military operation in the event of a crisis. The idea of sending a peacekeeping force to Somalia was shelved partly for political reasons, but partly owing to financial straits. And sending in a buffer force in the event of a Middle East peace deal would not be possible without revising the defence budgets. Admiral Di Paola points out that "major arms development projects are under way in other parts of the world.

We might lose our technological edge very soon. Our qualitative superiority needs to be maintained at all costs, even if it means quantitative sacrifices.” So once again the cuts will impact the economy and the competitiveness of the “European system” more than our security. Still, Europe may be shooting itself in the foot at the very moment it is struggling to get its economies up and running again.

Translated from the Italian by Eric Rosencrantz