EU lacks defence capabilities to meet ‘strategic autonomy’ goals

EU's chief diplomat Josep Borrell after an informal video conference of EU Defense ministers in Brussels, Belgium, 20 November 2020. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

The EU’s first-ever defence review painted a gloomy picture for the bloc’s ability to achieve ‘strategic autonomy. Experts also believe the EU is not doing enough to address major shortfalls.

“The EU does not have all the required military capabilities available in order to fulfil (its) level of ambition,” stated the annual Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), conducted by the bloc’s defence agency.

The report assessed national defence planning and capability development efforts of 26 member states, minus Denmark, which has opted out of EU defence initiatives.

“The outlook for Defence Research and Technology (R&T) spending levels continues to be insufficient, putting the EU strategic autonomy at risk,” the report said.

According to the review, EU member states would put European priorities in third place after national and NATO interests and have “an uneven understanding of the concept of strategic autonomy.”

Only 60% of the national troops and weapons nominally available to NATO are fit to be deployed, EU defence ministers heard on Friday (20 November). Member states are also reluctant to deploy those troops, the report found, with formal EU military missions receiving just 7% of member states’ military personnel committed worldwide.

“European defence suffers from fragmentation, duplication and insufficient operational engagement,” the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell told reporters.

“If the biggest army in the world, the US, only has four types of warships and only one type of main battle tank, it does not make a lot of sense that here in Europe we have 30 different types of warships and 16 different types of main battle tanks,” Borrell told reporters.

The review comes at a time when the bloc aims to draw up a military doctrine by 2022, the ‘Strategic Compass’, to define future threats and ambitions, and amid a growing debate over whether Europe should aim to enhance its military might independently from the United States.

Six capabilities for the future

The review identified over 100 collaborative opportunities for member states, including 55 across the military domains of land (17), air (14), maritime (12), cyberspace (3), space (4), and joint/enablers (5).

As part of an EU strategy to develop self-standing military capacity over the next decade, it urged EU governments to focus on “six next-generation capabilities” of weaponry and end costly national duplication.

This includes focusing on a new battle tank (MBT), patrol vessels, defence in space, soldier systems, counter-drone technology (C-UAS), area denial weapons (A2/AD), and enhanced military mobility.

“As their current plans are already nailed down, we are aiming to influence the member states’ next planning cycle – after 2025,” EDA Chief Executive Jiří Šedivý told reporters before the publication of the report.

“If the member states go for a collaborative approach in these areas, it will have a structuring effect at the EU level,” Philippe Leopold, the EDA’s head of co-operation planning, added.

“Despite challenges and shortcomings, CARD wasn’t all doom and gloom,” Niklas Novaky, defence expert at the Martens Centre in Brussels, told EURACTIV.

“Since PESCO’s (Permanent Structured Cooperation) launch, the participating member states have created 47 projects in its framework, 26 of which are expected to deliver concrete results before the end of PESCO’s next phase (2021-2025),” Novaky said.

At the same time, although less than initially proposed, the EU budget will enable the European Defence Fund to give a further boost to the EU’s capability development efforts, said Novaky.

That the EU can’t meet its level of ambition comes at no surprise to experts, with many of them criticising the selection of priorities.

“I am a bit disappointed by the six focus areas as they are both obvious and a bit odd, while not addressing the largest capability gaps,” Torben Schütz, research fellow for armament policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told EURACTIV.

If those six were the best-identified opportunities, it would mean “the EDA and the participating member states want to start with limited ambition, both in terms of impact and financial volume,” he added.

It would also remain unclear how the priorities will be linked to the bloc’s already ongoing joint military projects under the EU’s PESCO framework.

According to Schütz, “successful close capability integration remain limited to either symbolic cases” such as German-Polish unit integration or very technical niche capabilities like protective measures against chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear warfare (CBRN) in NATO’s Framework Nation Concept.

According to Ben Hodges, a retired US general who commanded American army forces in Europe, the most important two – missile defence and development of unmanned systems like drones – are missing from the EU’s priority list.

“While the former is needed to be able to shoot down hypersonic missiles from Russia, the usefulness and cost-effectiveness of the latter have been on display in Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria and Ukraine over the last few years,” Hodges told EURACTIV.

Meanwhile, the EDA’s choice for patrol vessels, likely influenced by recent standoffs in the Eastern Mediterranean, is less of a priority for cooperation, he added.

Military mobility as a priority

Hodges also emphasised the EU’s need to reinforce its military mobility, and the rapid transfer of troops and material in case of a crisis.

Despite being a Commission flagship initiative, funding for dual-use infrastructure has been under constant danger of cuts in the EU’s future budget proposals.

“No land systems make any sense if this is not fixed,” Hodges said. “The EU must be able to move as fast or faster than any potential adversary in order to be effective, which shows the need for a ‘military Schengen’ for Europe.”

A reference to Europe’s passport-free travel zone, the plan was proposed in 2018 to lower barriers for moving military equipment and troops across Europe amid rising concern of Russian aggression but has not been completed so far.

“Additionally, the EU must ensure cyber protection of all transportation infrastructure, from air and seaports to rail and power generation,” Hodges added.

Both experts said that there was unlikely to be much political appetite for actual capability cooperation across the bloc, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“So far, most European governments plan do not plan cuts in their defence budgets, which might have served to accentuate the need for more cooperation,” Schütz said.

“There is a growing recognition that the incoming Biden administration will expect our European allies and partners, individually as well as within the EU and NATO, to do more and be a European pillar instead of a European pillow,” Hodges said.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

Subscribe to our newsletters