Germany wants EU ‘hospital trains’ as new military project

German Defence Minister Annegret-Kramp-Karrenbauer. [BMVg event screenshot]

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the need to re-evaluate military threat perceptions across the EU, German defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said on Wednesday (8 July) while presenting the German EU Council Presidency priorities in security in defence for the next six months.

The health crisis has exposed gaps in the bloc’s crisis response, which is why the EU needs to get better prepared for pandemics or events with a large number of seriously injured, the German defence minister told an online presidency event.

According to her, this could be achieved by creating a new joint military project of a ‘hospital train’ [Krankentransportzug] under the EU’s permanent structured cooperation (PESCO), to be used for medical evacuation operations.

Germany and France are currently discussing whether it would be possible to develop a railway version based on the MedEvac aircraft used for medical evacuation to serve as a tool “for relocation across Europe”, Kramp-Karrenbauer said.

“What we imagine are… rolling intensive care units, that is, railway carriages that can also be converted for this purpose and that can be attached to any locomotive,” the German defence minister said.

She recalled the concept of medical trains which already existed during the Cold War. As a more current example, France has brought intensive care patients to free treatment capacities with the TGV express train.

The German proposal comes at a time when a flurry of ambitious policy initiatives are in a decisive phase, following up on the release of the EU’s 2016 Global Strategy.

Member states must link their capabilities “more closely and intelligently”. “The question is: where do we bring these skills together and thus achieve a certain leverage effect,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said.

Between March 2018 and November 2019, the Council of the EU adopted forty-seven PESCO projects, which covered training, capability development, and operational readiness in the field of defence.

The next call for PESCO projects is meant to take place in 2021, when the German hospital train initiative could be introduced, while a review of current projects is ongoing to establish which of them should continue. Results are expected in autumn

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However, cuts to the European Commission’s draft defence budget proposal were already under consideration well before the pandemic hit Europe.

The new EU budget proposal has seen an improvement from the Commission’s previously planned outlay for the bloc’s defence initiatives but still remains far from original ambitions.

EU threat assessment

One of the main objectives under Germany’s EU presidency will be the discussion on the bloc’s newly announced “strategic compass”, a tool meant to guide the implementation of the security and defence dimension of the EU’s Global Strategy and lead to a common threat analysis across the bloc.

EU foreign ministers officially launched the work programme for the new initiative in June with the goal to align member states’ threat perceptions and still divergent strategic cultures, in what is seen as an attempt to bring about more consolidation in the strive towards an EU Defence Union.

The COVID-19 crisis, Kramp-Karrenbauer said, has also made it necessary to check whether previous concepts of military threats were sufficient.

A common strategic compass would makes the EU “a transparent and binding partner” for both NATO and the United Nations, she added.

Geopolitics will decide

But finding common ground among 27 member states on such thorny issues as dealing with Russia and China could become a challenge, especially as foreign policy decisions usually require unanimity.

In this context, AKK once again campaigned for a European Security Council, which could develop from the E3-format of Germany, France and the UK, but also rely on “coalitions of the willing”, with one of the leading nations at the helm.

However, asked if such a model could be applied to Libya, she said that discussions about EU military engagement in Libya would be “premature”.

Speaking of the US presidential election in November, she said Donald Trump’s re-election would probably make it more difficult to sustain good trans-Atlantic relations.

She also voiced Berlin’s regret at Washingon’s decision to withdraw US troops from Germany, but said she believed the redistribution of troops in Europe would show continued American commitment to the transatlantic partnership.

“Indeed, the issue of the presence of US troops in Germany is actually not essentially a bilateral issue,” she said.

Asked about the most important threats facing the EU, Kramp-Karrenbauer first mentioned Russia, “a military power with growing influence and remarkably aggressive behaviour”, which also included upgrading its conventional weapon systems.

This would be why, according to Kramp-Karrenbauer, Europe should strive for greater cooperation with friendly countries in the Indo-Pacific, such as Australia.

“The freedom of shipping is also in our interest,” she concluded.

[Zoran Radosavljevic]

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