European ‘battle groups’:A New Stimulus for European Security

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

On 22 November 2004 the defence ministers of the European Union in
Brussels decided in favor of the formation of so-called ‘battle
groups’. These mobile combat units, which could be ready for action
within a few days and would be available for use in crisis
situation. The goal of this initiative is to give the EU a military
capacity to act in distant regions of conflict as well as to
bolster the project of the “European Security and Defence Policy”
(ESVP) militarily. This analysis from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation looks at
how this decision should be assessed? Which problems will emerge
for EU members? And – above all – can the concept be implemented
within the planned timeframe?

At first, the idea of small, highly mobile, combat units with
the ability to react to European crises – initially termed
“Tactical Groups” – was launched at the British-French summit in Le
Tourquet on 4 February 2003. In light of the growing problems of
failing states in Africa, it seemed sensible to be able to rapidly
employ military force mandated by the United Nations. 

Nine months later, the concept was put into concrete terms by
the two countries at a further summit meeting in London. The past
experiences of the EU-Operation “Artemis” in the Congo during the
summer ofthat year had been taken into consideration and had led to
the planning of rapidly deployable units with a strength of
approximately 1,500 soldiers. 

These units were to be able to intervene in conflicts far
outside of Europe, with their main focus being Africa (but also
elsewhere), and to stabilize the situation until sufficient
military forces – UN peacekeeping troops or armed forces from other
organizations – were on hand to settle it. 

Early February 2004, the German Defense Minister Struck
expressed interest in Battle Groups during informal talks at the
Security Conference in Munich, where-by the project was transformed
into a trilateral initiative. A food-for-thought paper formulated
the details and was submitted to the Political and Security Policy
Committee of the EU (PSC). Whereas Battle Groups were initially
envisaged only as national units, this incentive paper stressed a
multinational character. According to it Battle Groups could either
be formed from one country alone or be multinational. A EU-member
could also serve as a “framework nation”, i.e. as the main
component of a Battle Group, while smaller countries would
contribute their respective niche capacities. 

The main criterion for a particular configuration would be the
military efficiency of the combat unit. At the informal meeting of
the EU defense ministers in April 2004, the concept found broad
consensus and was resolved on 16 June 2004 by the European

In November 2004, the defense ministers agreed upon the details
of the project. Thus, 13 Battle Groups are planned, each with a
force of at least 1,500 soldiers. A core of three to four light
combat regiments is to be reinforced by command- and combat support
units. Sapper-, antiaircraft-, signal-, or logistical forces are
correspondingly assigned according to the contingency – similarly,
if required, NBCdefense, military police as well as air- and naval

Battle Groups are to be ready for deployment in 5 to 10 days
(after a maximal 5-day decision-making process in the EU). By 2005,
a so-called “Initial Operational Capability” is to be created,
which, for instance, is to be able to carry out small evacuation

The “Full Operational Capability” is to be reached pursuant to
planning by 2007 and the EU is to be in the position to deploy two
of these Battle Groups simultaneously in an ambit of 6,000
kilometers (extending out from Brussels). 

Each Battle Group is to be able to remain deployed for 30 days,
and, through reinforcements and troop substitutions, this period
could be extended to 120 days. So far, confirmed commitments for a
total of 12 Battle Groups are in existence. Four of them are
designated as purely national (France, Great Britain, Spain and
Italy) and are thereby politically easier to use in risky
operations. The remainder are multinational or are assembled
according to the framework model. Germany has thus far agreed to
three Battle Groups:

 ?? A German-French Battle Group with Belgium, Luxembourg
and Spain also contributing. By 2006, this alliance is to have
already achieved partial operational capability for evacuation and

?? A German-Dutch led taskforce, with cooperation by the
Finnish, is to reach its fulloperational capability by the first
half of 2007. 

?? The third group will consist of Germany, Poland and Slovakia
with Latvia and Lithuania also participating. This group is to be
functional by 2009, 2010 at the latest. On 18 November 2004,
Austria expressed the wish to establish a further Battle Group with
Germany and the Czech Republic. 

For this fourth unit with German involvement, however, there is
still no set time frame, above all because this question is
disputed in Austrian domestic politics. Germany strongly emphasizes
to consider the Battle Group concept only in connection with the
also projected NATO Response Force (NRF). 

The EU project is not to constrain the establishment of the NATO
force – precisely because an increase in the defense budgets is not
anticipated in the foreseeable future. Thus, the NRF, at least from
the German perspective, takes priority. The problem of competition
between NATO and the EU appears, however, not only in the
construction phase, but also in later implementation. Since both
rapid reaction forces can only be formed from existing military
capabilities (the so-called “single set forces”), more specific
rules for the access rights of both organizations are

Yet, the tension-filled relationship between NATO and the EU, in
which particularly France often creates frictions, makes an
agreement on such regulations difficult. 


The idea of small EU-combat troops, especially for missions on
behalf of the United Nations, makes sense. Also, the EU’s emphasis
on failing states in Africa is understandable, as NATO has another
geographical perspective with regards to its response force.

 Yet, the Battle Group concept raises multiple,
particularly military questions, as to, for instance, the degree of
multi-nationality or the inter-operational capabilities of the
armed forces. The core problem, however, is whether the EU will
find the strength to implement the agreed-upon concept in times of
limited financial resources at all. 

Regarding its claims to deploy Battle Groups far beyond its own
borders, the EU presently lacks the requirements for achieving such
a goal. For instance, according tot he food-for-thought paper, air
transportation for the initial deployment of a single Battle Group
requires approximately 200 flights by C-130 transport airplanes (or
30 flights of the C-17 Globemaster Transporter, of which Great
Britain is the only EU-member to own, with four total and a fifth

The lack of a EU strategic deployment capability, i.e. the
possibility to transport large amounts of military equipment over
vast distances, is often euphemistically called “bottleneck
resource” – to paper over that it is just not available. The
circumscription holds also true for military intelligence and
secure communication – they are hardly available as well. 

Indeed, the EU has already agreed multiple times to remedy
blatant deficiencies regarding the deployment of armed forces
(strategic transport, logistics, communications). In most cases,
however, the necessary means have been provided only

In December 1999, the EU agreed upon the so-called “Headline
Goal”. It stipulated that, by the end of 2003, a rapid response
force composed of 60,000 soldiers was to be kept ready. It should
be deployable within 60 days and be sustainable for up to a

One year later, the EU members committed up to 100,000 men, 400
aircraft and 100 ships to equip the projected force. Although most
commitments were recognizable as pro forma from the beginning, the
Headline Goal was soon declared as “initially operational

In 2003, the EU asserted that it had achieved the Headline Goal,
declaring the full operational capability of the rapid reaction
force. Alas, the intended crisis management capability of 60 000
men was a Potemkin’s Village. In half recognition of the failure,
in June 2004 a new goal was set – this time named “Headline Goal
2010”, including the Battle Groups as a one component. 

It is not to be excluded in view of scarce means that the EU
will again follow the same pattern: declare intermediate objectives
as reached, although the necessary “hardware” only exists on paper.
In that case, in a few years from now the full operational
capability of the Battle Groups would be celebrated, even though
the rapid reaction force would only consist of virtual

Even if budget priorities could be changed for the benefit of
military programs, the question of political consensus within the
EU on military action still emerges. For what or against what
should the forthcoming forces be used? Vague declarations of intent
to carry out missions in failing states do not necessarily
guarantee an agreement on in which state the EU will act and with
which political goal. 

So far, neither the EU nor other security organizations, as
witnessed during the recent humanitarian catastrophes in Africa,
have an impressing record in timely and decisive political or
military action for humanitarian purposes. The fact that NATO has
the same problem of becoming more militarily efficient, but finding
ever less consensus politically on the use of this efficiency, does
not make the situation easier. 

It holds true for the Battle Groups – as for many of the
intentions in the ESVP framework: it is a useful concept, which
still raises skepticism since the questions of implementation and
financing are not answered accordingly

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