An Italian soldier stands guard at the Colosseum in Rome

GIS Dossier: European defense

  • Europe is already engaged in a hybrid war with Russia
  • It also faces challenges from global terrorism and less American engagement
  • A comprehensive strategy for defense cooperation is needed

European defense is in the spotlight as the Trump administration reorients the United States’ relationship with its NATO allies, Russia continues to destabilize Ukraine and terrorist attacks occur with increasing frequency. Europe’s response to these challenges will be one of the key factors determining its future. For years, GIS experts have been analyzing Europe’s defense capabilities and the threats facing it. Below are some of their key conclusions.

This is the second in GIS’s new “Dossier” series, which aims to give our subscribers a quick overview of the analyses we have provided on particular topics, regions or conflicts. We invite readers to click through to the main reports that they find most intriguing for more insight.

1. Europe is already engaged in a hybrid war

Whether Europeans like it or not, they are now engaged in a new hybrid Cold War. Russia, for example, uses unconventional means, including cyber tactics, to achieve its ends, writes GIS expert General Stanislaw Koziej. Russia has already extensively developed complex forms of propaganda targeted at Western public opinion. Specialized media outlets (such as Russia Today) and state organs carry out this mission. It is also using economic pressure and the threat of nuclear war. Escalation is possible, with scenarios including low-intensity conflict, limited warfare and full-scale war.

Not that Russia is the only country engaged in such tactics. As Prince Michael of Liechtenstein noted in 2013, “global powers are increasing their military capacities significantly and not just to defend their territory. Cyberwar, including economic spying, is already happening.” Proxy wars are also a tool of choice.

2. Tension between NATO and Russia is growing

This hybrid warfare is increasing tension between Russia and the West, Prince Michael of Liechtenstein noted in November last year. While the fear of mutually assured destruction was an effective deterrent during the Cold War, in today’s multipolar world, with so many active hot spots, make the breakout of a real, global military conflict possible.

According to GIS expert Dr. Uwe Nerlich, Russia’s military involvement in eastern Ukraine has allowed NATO to rediscover its rationale. By the same token, President Vladimir Putin has found an external adversary to help him rally popular support even as economic and social conditions deteriorate in Russia. Europe’s current strategic situation encourages both sides to seek military solutions.

3. Russia has important tactical advantages

A major conventional war with NATO would undoubtedly end badly for Russia. But that is small comfort, writes GIS expert Professor Stefan Hedlund. Even if Russia remains weak on offense, it has developed new surface-to-air and anti-ship missile systems that have allowed it to create area denial “bubbles” that will be costly for NATO to suppress. It has also built up a strong position in Crimea.

Moreover, Russia has a vast number of tactical nuclear weapons to back its strategy of “nuclear de-escalation,” points out General Koziej. Its arsenal consists of an estimated 2,000 active-duty warheads (plus 3,000 more classified as decommissioned) installed in air-, sea- and land-based delivery systems, predominantly in the western part of the country. NATO’s corresponding nuclear stockpile in Europe, meanwhile, consists of a grand total of some 180 outdated tactical nuclear weapons controlled by the U.S.

The intended effect is to reduce NATO’s willingness to escalate a conventional conflict, for fear of pushing it into a nuclear exchange. The alliance’s likely response to such brinkmanship will be to develop countermeasures – for example, missile strikes to neutralize Kaliningrad in the event of a crisis. The main conclusion, writes Professor Hedlund, is that NATO’s security depends less on heavy ground forces than on guts and creative thinking.

Russian soldiers load an Iskander-M missile into its launcher
Russian soldiers load an Iskander-M missile into its launcher. Russia uses such systems to create area denial “bubbles” on its western frontier that give it a tactical advantage (source: dpa)

4. The Baltics could be a flashpoint

If the tensions between Russia and NATO ever turn into a shooting war, then Northern Europe – the eastern Baltic and the far North, to be precise – is the place it will probably start, notes Professor Rasmussen. The rapid militarization of the Baltic all but ensures that these tensions will not abate soon. Professor Hedlund pointed to worries over NATO’s ability to come to the aid of Baltic allies back in 2014.

Two years later, a RAND Corp. simulation showed that a Russian invasion of the Baltics would be over in less than three days. Without access to bases in either Sweden or Finland, neither of which is a NATO member, coming to the rescue from the west or the north would not be easy. Iskander short-range missiles based in Kaliningrad give Russia the ability to block access from the southern Baltic as well.

5. The battle with Daesh

Russia is not the only threat. Europe is also under attack from global terrorism, and the fight against it is now inseparably linked with the fight against Daesh (also known as Islamic State or IS), noted General Koziej. Europe must engage more strongly in the battle. Daesh is an international terrorist network with great potential for strategic action. It derives its power from an asymmetry in relation to the classical international entities: states and organizations of states. Diplomacy and armies have had little success in fighting the spread of terrorism. Instead, Europe will need to meet this challenge by asserting its values, correcting its so-far idealistic multicultural policies and manage the natural friction between European and Middle Eastern civilizations.

6. The EU needs a defense strategy

As volatility grows throughout the world, it is crucial for Europe to have a credible defense in order to keep the peace. Prince Michael of Liechtenstein pointed out this need as far back as 2013. The problem, writes Dr. Nerlich, is that neither the European Union’s individual member states nor the bloc possess the capacity and authority to react effectively to global threats. No single EU member has the outreach and resources to act as a great power.

7. Cooperation is key

Months before the summit, General Koziej outlined how a comprehensive European defense strategy could work: identifying common interests and building defense cooperation frameworks around them. These would include security as a union, in alliances and in partnerships. Security partnerships would be the most easily arranged, but would offer low degrees of certainty. Security alliances would give stronger guarantees, but would also be limited. The strongest framework would be the security union, uniform for all the members of a freely chosen community.

A U.S. military vehicle crosses into the Czech Republic
A U.S. military convoy passes through the Czech Republic on its way to the Baltics for exercises. Washington has said it may “moderate its commitment” to European NATO allies (source: dpa)

8. The Brexit effect

The United Kingdom’s impending exit from the European Union changes NATO dynamics, writes Professor Rasmussen. The UK will remain one of the key coalition-builders of the alliance, but may find it harder to contribute, as the aftershocks from the Brexit vote continue to reverberate. The UK will no longer serve as the key bridge between the U.S. and Europe, while Germany’s dominance within the EU will grow. Washington will act accordingly, turning to Berlin in the hope that it can guarantee stability on the continent.

9. U.S. commitment in doubt

Long before new U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that the U.S. could “moderate its commitment” to NATO, GIS experts were already considering the impact of reduced American dedication to Europe’s defense. In 2012, under the Obama administration, the context was different. Then, the U.S. was considering military spending cuts. GIS guest expert Dr. Kim R. Holmes pointed out that such cuts could accelerate a belief inside NATO that Europe can do “more with less.” Europeans can no longer take a guarantee of U.S. security for granted, he wrote. The long-standing strategic bargain – with Europe spending less on national defense because America spends more – could be ending.

10. Deciding on defense priorities

While much of the rhetoric from the U.S. has emphasized how little Europe spends on defense, what is less known is that over the past few years, the amount European countries are investing in security is rising. While pressure from Washington is one driver behind this trend, so are terrorism, Russian aggression in Ukraine and improving national budgets after the global financial crisis.

Having cut their forces to the bone, European countries must now decide how to build them up again – buy more of the same, invest in risky and disruptive technologies, or perhaps focus on fighting terrorism? For now, most countries seem to have decided to play it safe, writes Professor Rasmussen.

However, investing in disruptive technologies, such as robotics, offers the possibility of replacing expensive manned weapons systems with cheaper automated ones, while reducing huge expenditures on military manpower. But this course involves risk, because restructuring current budgets would reduce military capabilities in the short run, without any guarantee the new technologies will prove effective.

The only natural constituency for this approach is Europe’s defense industry and bolder thinkers in the military. They will only be able to press their case if European taxpayers, who will foot the bill, come to regard Russia and possibly China as likely adversaries. While that is not impossible, it is the least probable outcome.

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