EU Battlegroups [Archived]

An important part of the EU’s military ambitions is to have the capability to react fast and forcefully in trouble spots outside EU territory. In 2004 the Military Capabilities Commitment Conference formally launched the concept of EU Battlegroup units of 1500 troops to enable the EU to carry out such tasks.

The Maastricht Treaty in 1993 saw the birth of the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), which included the phrase “which might in time lead to a common defence”. 

This emerging EU defence ambition gradually picked up steam in the mid-nineties following the frustrating lack of European activity in face of the first Balkan war. After the Franco-British agreement in Saint Malo in 1998 on the need for the EU to have “the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces,” the EU summit in Helsinki in 1999 agreed on the so-called ‘headline goal’. It stated the objective of being able to deploy up to 60.000 persons with air and naval elements within the space of 60 days, by 2003. 

However, difficulties in building up truly operational forces of that size lead to a realisation of the need for a more rapid European response option to crisis situations in the shape of battle groups of 1500 troops. 

The first Battlegroup project was launched by the UK, France and Germany in February 2004, and within the space of two months EU defence ministers approved it, and turned it into a European concept, which was formally launched by the 22 November 2004 Military Capabilities Commitment Conference. According this Conference’s Declaration on European Military Capabilities: “Battlegroups will be employable across the full range of tasks listed in the TEU Art. 17.2, and those identified in the European Security Strategy, in particular in tasks of combat forces in crisis management, bearing in mind their size” 

The EU Battlegroup is defined as a unit of 1500 troops. It can be formed by one nation, or by a group of nations. It does not have to include a specific number of member states. European NATO countries, which are candidates for accession to the EU can also participate in the EU Battlegroups.

Key objectives for the EU Battlegroups are that they can take the decision to launch an operation within 5 days of the approval by the Council. Forces should be on the ground no later than 10 days after the EU decision to launch the operation. 

In response to a crisis, or to an urgent request by the UN, the EU should be able to undertake two Battlegroup-size operations for a period of up to 120 days simultaneously. 

At the 22 November 2004 Military Capability Commitment Conference, member states made an initial commitment to the formation of 13 EU Battlegroups. Full operational capability for the first battlegroups is scheduled to be reached in 2007.

  • France  
  • Italy 
  • Spain 
  • United Kingdom 
  • France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg 
  • France and Belgium
  • Germany, the Netherlands and Finland 
  • Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic
  • Italy, Hungary and Slovenia 
  • Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal
  • Poland, Germany, Slovakia, Latvia 
  • Sweden, Finland and including Norway 
  • United Kingdom and the Netherlands 

To qualify as an EU Battlegroup the force packages will have to meet commonly defined and agreed standards and undergo a Battlegroup generation process. The EU is aware of potential overlaps with NATO initiatives such as the NATO response force, so EU and NATO have started to address overall coherence and complementarity between EU Battlegroups and the NATO Response Force. This includes compatibility of standards, practical methods and procedures, wherever possible and applicable. Since the membership overlap between the EU and NATO/Partnership for Peace, interoperability between forces developed by EU member states and NATO nations is first and foremost the responsibility of individual countries.

The EU Battlegroups have put the spotlight on the EU's lacking capabilities in military hardware in areas such as airlift capacity, battlefield surveillance in the shape of drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), and on the need to enhance the interoperability of equipment and communication systems.   

The European Defence Agency (EDA) is actively backing these efforts, and aims to focus research efforts on the technologies that future crisis management operations will require. The flagship programme of Command, Control and Communication is seen a scrucial for the success of the EU Battlegroups.

UK secretary of Defence Geoffrey Hoon: “Battlegroups have been designed specifically, but not exclusively, to be used in response to a request from the United Nations to undertake rapid intervention in a hostile environment. This might include acting to prevent atrocities or helping with the provision of urgent humanitarian aid. This type of scenario is particularly applicable in failing or failed states. Recent examples in Africa (such as the UK's operational experience in Sierra Leone, the French in Cote d'Ivoire, and the EU's operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) have not only illustrated the need for such a capability, but demonstrated how a relatively small number of forces can have a significant effect in a short period of time, provided they can be deployed rapidly with the appropriate support.” 

French Minister of Defence, Michèle Alliot-Marie (September 2004): "The strategic environment has changed dramatically in recent years and has fuelled a new need for light forces that can be rapidly deployed to manage crises. Under a UK-German initiative, these Battlegroups will enable up to 1 500 EU soldiers to be deployed within two weeks up to 5 000 kilometres away. The creation of such a co-ordinated pool of troops should lead to transparent management of multinational deployments. Several countries have already expressed their willingness to participate. France, of course, will be very active in this area."

Luxembourg’s Luc Frieden, Minister for Defence, on the progress made on the battlegroups by 18 March 2005: “All of the member states must make their contribution, and today we were able to confirm that all of the member states remain determined to work together to achieve this objective: to be capable of rapid intervention inside and outside Europe in order to prevent or put an end to crises in the interest of stability and security. Certain ministers made quite concrete proposals for filling in the existing gaps. In accordance with the schedule agreed on in November 2004, we have decided to put into place the majority of the battlegroups in the next three years. “

Judy Dempsey,  former diplomatic correspondent of the Financial Times, writes in the Institute for Security Studies paper on ‘European Security and Defence Policy: The first five years’: “The Battlegroup concept shows how far London and Paris have moved away from the top-heavy 60,000 troops idea in which the EU placed so much store during 2001 and 2002. That idea has quietly been dropped as Javier Solana, influenced by the new thinking emerging from London and Paris, focuses on smaller units and capabilities”. 

General Klaus Naumann, former chairman of NATO's Military Committee and a former chief of staff of the German Armed Forces: “New EU Battlegroups should be strengthened through regular training and certification, preferably using NATO standards, and the EU Military Committee should hold regular battlegroup conferences to solicit country contributions to future formations. For the EU to do its part, larger budgets appear unavoidable. Battlegroups should be expanded to include naval and air components for missions such as maritime interdiction and close support for ground troops.“ 

The research report by the Department of Strategic and Defence Studies in Helsinki: “EU Battlegroups: Theory and Development in the light of the Finnish Swedish Co-operation” delivers a critical analysis:

 “Theoretically speaking the EU Battlegroups could participate in the following mission profiles:

  • Expeditionary force. Either an autonomous or a joint operation (with NATO) to solve a limited size crisis. 
  • Entry force. An initial mission by paving the way to a larger operational size peace-enforcement or peacekeeping follow-on force. 
  • Emergency force. Supporting an existing (peacekeeping) mission by offering a robust capability to solve a local and limited size crisis. 

"The scale of the Battlegroups concept, thirteen - 1500 troops units strong mean that they as such are no core of any European Army. Such ambitions or development could be identified if so wanted from the general ESDP development, and not from the Battlegroup concept. The Battlegroups have war-fighting capabilities but no capacity to fight wars!” 

“What does it tell about the political ambitions and the military reach of this economic giant of ours if we are deploying expeditionary forces here and there for minor duties and for a relatively short period of time? “ 

New Defence Agenda Director Giles Merritt, says: “In EU policy making terms it is moving very fast. But we still do not know much about what the circumstances of deployment will be or who has the finger on the panic button”. 

Center for Strategic and International Studies has produced the report “European Defense Integration: Bridging the Gap between Strategy and Capabilities” and point to several problems: “While many in and outside of Europe are hopeful that the Battlegroups will spur EU members to develop the expeditionary capability they lack, doubts have been raised about the viability of the overall concept: 

  • First, it is unclear whether EU member states will acquire the strategic lift needed to deploy the Battlegroups in a timely fashion. 
  • Second, questions remain about the Battlegroups’ relationship with the NATO Response Force and the extent to which their development might distract from the EU’s 2010 Headline Goals. 
  • Third, there are competing views on how and when the Battlegroups will be used, with some countries envisioning a full spectrum of future missions and others suggesting that the Battlegroups only be used for low-intensity missions. 
  • Finally, details on how the Battlegroups might work with or under UN authority have yet to be sketched out. Would the Battlegroups maintain operational autonomy? Would they be willing to operate alongside often poorly equipped UN troops?”

Initial Operational Capability is set to be obtained between 2005 and 2006. At that time, the EU will be able to provide at least one coherent Battlegroup package that is able to undertake a Battlegroup-sized operation. Progress is reported to be well underway, and the first Battlegroups should be deployable by 2007.



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