Wind of change in Europe’s defence policy

2020 lookahead [European Parliament / Flickr]

This article is the first in a series of end-of-year stories in which EURACTIV reporters look at issues and challenges facing various policy sectors in 2020. 

As Europe struggles with financial and political obstacles besetting its joint defence policy efforts, and NATO faces internal rifts and an increasingly assertive Russia and China, here are six issues to watch in Europe’s security and defence in 2020.

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European defence dilemma

With the recent creation of DG Defence Industry and Space, under Frenchman Thierry Breton, the EU aims to deal with the bloc’s fragmented defence industry and bring current defence initiatives such as the EU’s permanent structured cooperation (PESCO), the yet to be created European Defence Fund (EDF) and a possible single EU headquarters for military operations under the European Commission’s helm.

However, asked what he expects from the new structures, a senior EU official told EURACTIV that although “it finally concentrates the relevant competences in the Commission in one structure, it is highly doubtful there might be a lot of concrete decisions made in this term”.

And the European Court of Auditors said in its annual review paper in September that the EU’s objective to increase defence spending to €22.5 billion over the next decade is insufficient for its ambitions in the sector. One Court member called the mismatch between the ambitions and the resources on offer “huge”.

One of the tools, the EDF, which is set to financially support European research and development projects across the bloc, is meant to start work after the EU budget negotiations are concluded sometime in 2020.

Faced with defence budget threats, the EU is already eyeing new money sources for its various military projects, with currently 47 such initiatives under the EU’s permanent structured cooperation (PESCO), and 25 member states participating.

“Next year, as part of the strategic review, we will be looking at the projects to see how they are progressing, which ones are lagging behind, which ones should be given extra attention and where there is the possibility to consider a merging or direct closure,” the outgoing EDA chief, Jorge Domecq, told EURACTIV in an interview.

But the Finish Presidency’s EU budget proposal has decreased the ambition for defence spending, which EU officials and European industry representatives have called “a disappointing signal”.

“It stands in stark contrast to the high priority that was recently put on defence, and goes against the objective of European defence cooperation, in particular in times when new breakthrough technologies emerge and geopolitical competition gets stronger, more funding for R&D is absolutely crucial to ensure both Europe’s security and the competitiveness of its defence industry,” ASD Secretary-General, Jan Pie, told EURACTIV.

The final adoption of the EDF regulation, budget allocation and the fund’s work programme are set to be brought to paper after the budget discussion is finalised, probably not before spring 2020.

“Since the new DG is called defence industry, we hope it will take industrial concerns and priorities into account, and its first priority for 2020 should be the preparation of the European Defence Fund, including the strategic planning and an appropriate governance structure,” Pie said, adding that the future security and defence relationship between the EU and the UK will certainly be another major factor.

After a bilateral attempt to create common rules by the end of the summer failed, MEPs and NGOs are pressing the new Commission to act on concerns over the lack of common arms export rules across the bloc,

“So far, it’s a national competence and we need to enter the topic with the full understanding that without exporting arms, there will not be a European defence industry. We have to be clear about it,” the head of the European Parliament’s SEDE committee, MEP Nathalie Loiseau (Renew), told EURACTIV.

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Military mobility, or: Baltics are back

In 2019, NATO did not stage large-scale exercises in the Baltic Sea region as it did during the 2018 Trident Juncture exercise in Norway and Europe’s High North or in the Mediterranean a year earlier, but this will change next year.

Around 37,000 soldiers will take part in the military exercise “Defender 2020” for the transfer of troops to Poland and the Baltic states, in what security officials have called “the most extensive transfer of US soldiers to Europe in the past 25 years”.

The exercise also serves as a reassurance measure for wary Eastern members, as Turkey continues to block a NATO agreement for the defence of Poland and the Baltic states, unless the alliance agrees to designate Syrian Kurdish fighters Ankara targeted in an October military offensive as terrorists – as EURACTIV reported during the NATO London summit in December.

The US has recently allocated $175 million in military aid to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for 2020, the Estonian defence ministry said Monday (23 December) and the Trump administration already pledged reinforcements to Poland earlier this year.

So far there has been relatively small NATO presence, in the form of four battalion-sized battlegroups in Poland and in the three Baltic states, as well as the US armoured brigade rotating from Poland in all eastern flank countries from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Justyna Gotkowska, from Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Poland, told EURACTIV.

“Defender 2020 is the first reinforcement exercise of that scale in the region done by the US and therefore it is extremely important to convey the message to Russia that both pillars of NATO and US deterrence and defence strategy for the Baltic Sea region are credible,” Gotkowska said.

“The exercise will show gaps in military mobility that need to be tackled by the involved countries: Poland and the Baltic states, but also Germany – the entry country for the US forces.”

The goal is to increase the operational readiness within NATO and test the state of military mobility across the bloc in cooperation with the EU, which has recently undertaken initiatives to harmonise legal procedures of cross-border surface and air movement permissions necessary for border-crossing of military equipment.

A new European Defence Agency (EDA) framework programme was signed by 23 members in May, meant to facilitate the granting. After 2021  it will also contribute financially to improve civilian road and railway infrastructure for military needs.

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NATO in new waters

Besides the prospect of North Macedonia joining the alliance as its 30th member in early 2020, for NATO, the next year will be mainly about balancing its traditional security epicentre in Europe with the new focus on China.

China, having the second-largest defence worldwide, “recently displayed a lot of new modern capabilities, including long-range missiles able to reach all of Europe, US,” NATO-Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said after the NATO summit in December.

Stoltenberg also noted that NATO leaders recognised the fact that apart from making technological strides, Beijing was investing heavily in European infrastructure and cyberspace, and expanding its presence in Africa and in the Arctic.

The new policy focus brings NATO in step with its allies in Europe, where the European Commission earlier this year described China as a “systemic rival”.

With the new path for the alliance, it is, however, unsure whether the alliance infighting, which surfaced so gravely around the NATO meeting in London, will stop.

One of the main things on the agenda will be the Franco-German proposal for a review of NATO’s strategic mission in the form of a “wise persons” group, which will recommend changes in future NATO strategy and, according to draft plans, this could involve a stronger focus on the Middle East and Africa.

But NATO is also faced with growing tensions between its two Mediterranean members, Turkey and Greece, over a memorandum on demarcating maritime zones Turkey recently signed with Libya, which completely bypasses Greece and Cyprus.

NATO, however, as is the alliances state of conduct, is not likely to intervene in the bilateral spat. However, considering French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent “brain death”-statement, yet another problem puts the alliance’s cohesion to the test.

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Arms control is dead, long live arms control

In August, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a landmark Cold War-era arms control accord which banned medium-range ground-launched nuclear-capable missiles of 500 to 5,500 kilometres, expired, leaving Europeans worried about the new security situation.

The Trump administration had already threatened to withdraw from the INF in 2018, accusing Russia of failing to comply with it. Moscow denied it has violated the treaty with its new 9M729 system, suggesting instead Washington is withdrawing to pursue a new arms race.

Since then, the Pentagon tested a conventionally configured ground-launched ballistic missile, the second test of its kind that would have been prohibited under the INF Treaty.

“The demise of the INF Treaty followed no apparent strategy, and a low-likelihood outcome such as a renegotiation involving China, certainly does not justify withdrawing from the treaty,” Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), told EURACTIV.

“In order to succeed with bringing in other nuclear-armed states in disarmament negotiations, European states need to show leadership by joining the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” she said when asked whether such renegotiation attempts could be successful.

Meanwhile, other treaties are also in limbo, like the Open Skies Treaty, a pact allowing participating countries to conduct surveillance flights over each other’s territory, which is especially beneficial for Eastern Europe, or a potential extension of the New START treaty, a nuclear arms reduction treaty between the US and Russia.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated in December it is ready to extend New START without preconditions and specifically noted that Russian questions regarding US conversion procedures are not an obstacle to an extension.

US lawmakers from both parties are pressuring Trump to extend the last remaining restraints on US and Russian nuclear weapons deployments by demanding intelligence assessments on the costs of allowing the New START treaty to lapse.

But while 2019 has not been a good year for arms control, according to Fihn, next year could see new attempts to revive progress in disarmament and non-proliferation.

“In 2020, we expect that more and more states to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and that it will enter into force before the end of the year,” Fihn said.

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New space race

Space policies have been en vogue this year. In a move that reflects the growing militarisation of space, US Congress authorised the creation of a sixth branch of the armed forces, the United States Space Force, with the passage of the US’s yearly defence bill a few days ago.

In November, NATO foreign ministers formally recognised outer space as the fifth military frontier alongside air, land, sea and cyber, in response to growing concerns over protecting satellite and navigation assets from enemy interference.

“Satellites can be jammed, hacked or weaponised. Anti-satellite weapons could cripple communications and other services our societies rely on, such as air travel, weather forecasts or banking”, NATO chief Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.

As only nine of the 29 NATO member states are part of a mostly peaceful independent space programme, experts point out the announcement is more political than practical, taking into account the fact that the US, Russia, China and India have long since established strong military structures for averting attacks from outer space.

At present, there is only one weak barrier that forms the basis of international space law and prevents militarisation of space, in the form of five UN treaties, which do not explicitly ban military activities within space, military space forces, or the weaponisation of space.

Speaking to EURACTIV, several space policy officials stressed that the coming years will be crucial to start focusing on regulative measures.

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AI and drone futures

Attempts to regulate lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWs), often dubbed as “killer robots”, have once again ended in a stalemate as UN talks in November produced few results. Europe, meanwhile, is struggling with its role in the regulation efforts.

Autonomous weapons are technologies such as drones, tanks and other machinery controlled by a computer run on artificial intelligence systems and programmed to select and attack targets, without human control.

The Heathrow drone incident showed how disruptive those new technologies can become. But while the EU this year passed regulation to ensure civilian drone operations across Europe are safe and secure, drone proliferation for military use is increasing.

EU lawmakers are currently looking for ways to impose certain limits and standards, even in the absence of binding legal instruments. The first year of the next European Parliament’s term could see some attempts to draw up regulations in certain fields, an EU source told EURACTIV.

Especially, when it comes to drone technology, the debate has become heated in recent weeks.

Although several countries, including Germany, have in recent months rejected the possibility of acquiring armed drones, Greece recently announced its intention to buy a fleet of American and Israeli armed drones which could be used against similar Turkish assets already deployed in the eastern Mediterranean as Ankara prepares to exploit offshore oil and gas fields.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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