French soldiers patrol near the Eiffel Tower in Paris

Options for European defense

  • European militaries lack a unified strategy and broad cooperation on procurement
  • They must also juggle competing priorities: home defense, deterrence and technology
  • Force structures will change slowly and remain dependent on U.S. support

European defense budgets are rising again. After publicly pressuring his NATO allies, United States President Donald Trump would probably like to take credit for this. But while Mr. Trump’s intervention was by no means insignificant, the investment bump was probably going to happen anyway. The consequences of a decade of neglect following the 2008 financial crisis and the need to respond to domestic terrorist threats and resurgent Russian power made additional defense outlays urgent.

Yet the fact that European nations are once again investing in defense does not mean they are cooperating with each other, even though the European Union is trying to encourage just that. According to the European Defense Agency, joint military procurement in Europe declined by 15 percent between 2006 and 2014, while collaborative research and development projects were cut in half. Arms sales between EU member states fell 47 percent in 2012-2016 from their level in 2007-2011.

Process driven

What kind of military capabilities will current reinvestments in defense give European countries in 10 years? While the European Union never lacks prose to describe its ambitions, it has made only the vaguest general references to the sort of military the new investment drive will produce. Instead of specifying the bang it wants to get for its buck, the EU has focused on funding and implementation within the European framework.

This speaks volumes about the true nature of European military cooperation. In military planning, one distinguishes between ways, means and ends. European cooperation is mostly about ways. There is no grand design for a new model army for Europe, and no reason to expect a unified analysis of the missions or capabilities for a joint EU armed forces. In terms of defense, the current stage of European integration is best compared to supermarket customers who have decided to ring up their purchases together to take advantage of the week’s special.

European militaries have scrambled merely to sustain current operations and capabilities

Due to differing national defense priorities, there is considerable variance in how European governments invest their euros. While the U.S. has at least a general vision of how to put together a military so technologically advanced as to deter potential “peer competitors,” its European counterparts have scrambled merely to sustain current operations and capabilities. In time, incremental funding increases may let EU militaries try on a small scale what the Americans seek to accomplish. But any military innovation will be a secondary effect of these financial flows, not the result of intelligent design.

It follows that future force structures will derive from current requirements. At present, Europe has three priority areas for defense: domestic security and antiterrorism, conventional deterrence of Russia, and new technologies that make more efficient use of scarce money and manpower. These investment options are to some extent complementary – but given sluggish growth and continued fiscal restraints in the euro area, they will also be competing against each other for funding.

Graph of projected military spending
Long-term forecasts show European militaries dropping into the global third tier (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Option I: Home security

Europeans are more than twice as concerned about terrorism than the economy (44 percent vs. 18 percent), according to the EU’s latest Eurobarometer. Homeland security thus shapes the demand side of the defense equation to a considerable extent. Governments want to be seen investing in keeping their citizens safe, and these outlays will weigh on national force structures for years to come.

The biggest current deployment of French ground forces is on the streets of Paris and other major cities, where regular troops guard public places and buildings. The French army thus has more soldiers (11,000) assigned to home security than it did to foreign missions in Africa and the Middle East in 2015 (10,300). This huge operational commitment does not always sit well with professional soldiers concerned with combat readiness. To maintain this level of patrolling, the army plans to take in 11,000 new recruits – a clear example of how domestic politics shapes force structures.

Procurement is affected as well. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the most common European defense investments are multi-role helicopters, patrol vessels, maritime patrol and transport aircraft, and other hardware useful for homeland and civil defense.

Europe's armed forces will have a significant domestic portfolio over the next decade

For Southern European countries, the flow of migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean increases the need for border patrolling and logistics capabilities to handle large numbers of displaced people. The Greek coast guard has received significant EU funding for high-speed patrol boats and two larger, 30-meter cutters, with an additional tender set for an “integrated maritime surveillance system” to cover the entire sea border between Greece and Turkey. Many such assets are also used in the rest of Europe to cope with civil defense emergencies and natural disasters, such as flooding.

All of this implies that European armed forces will have a significant domestic portfolio over the next decade. This will leave its mark not only on hardware inventories, but shape the software essential to all militaries – the training and experience of personnel. Careers in any military establishment are shaped by operations, and when domestic operations loom large, they will offer a fast track of promotion to officers groomed for the higher echelons of command.

Option II: Conventional deterrence

The prominence of domestic operations is part of a wider switch in European defense policy, which has been brought much closer to home. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has remarked, “the geography of danger has shifted.” Even if it only occasionally makes the headlines, a war continues in Donbas between Russian-supported separatists and the Ukrainian army. Fighting there has shown startling Russian prowess in precision artillery and missile strikes, electronic countermeasures and surveillance, cyberwar and special operations.

That puts Russia squarely back in the European security equation, providing an impetus for larger defense budgets. In East Central Europe and some Nordic countries, military spending has increased significantly. Western Europe has begun to follow suit, even though Russia is perceived as a more distant threat. But Russia can hardly account for the whole turnaround in military spending. The budgetary reality is simply that public finances have recovered from the 2008 crisis. In the United Kingdom, for example, most military investment programs were frozen or cut back until the economy had improved.

Pro-Russian separatists ride a tank into Donetsk, east Ukraine
Jan. 22, 2015: Pro-Russian separatists ride a tank into Donetsk, Ukraine. The Kremlin’s decision to intervene militarily helped convince Europe to refurbish its conventional deterrent (source: dpa)

With funding restored, some of Western Europe’s biggest militaries are beginning to rebuild conventional capabilities that had been allowed to wither since the end of the Cold War. With the possibility of an armed conflict with Russia again on the table, Europeans are again buying tanks, attack helicopters, armored personnel carriers, air defense systems and combat aircraft.

France is upgrading its 200 Leclerc main battle tanks (which may mount a bigger gun to handle Russia’s new T-14 Armata) and placed the first order for 319 of a planned 2,100 armored personnel carriers. Following a spending review in March 2016, Germany is restoring 100 modernized Leopard 2A4 tanks to service, bringing the total to 328, while adding infantry fighting vehicles and howitzers. Coalition talks between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CSU/CDU and the SPD are reported to include proposals to further augment the defense budget.

Germany and France are hardly alone in making such investments. According to the IISS’s 2017 Military Balance, 13 European countries are buying infantry fighting vehicles, five are investing in artillery and attack helicopters, while four are expanding their tank force. Three countries are purchasing air defense systems. These numbers might not seem large, but decisions to initiate large-scale purchases of military equipment are rare, and the sum of these decisions represents a broad increase in conventional procurement.

The biggest technological upgrade to European militaries is probably in combat aircraft

While most of the procurement programs mentioned have been for land forces, the biggest technological upgrade to European militaries is probably in combat aircraft. Six European NATO members – the UK, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey – are buying fourth-generation F-35 fighters, while Poland has announced a tender for a multipurpose fighter that has attracted interest from Lockheed Martin (F-35, F-16V), Boeing (F/A-18E/F), Eurofighter (Typhoon) and Saab (JAS-39E/F Gripen). A total of 344 F-35s will be entering service in Europe, marking a significant increase in joint operations capabilities thanks to the aircraft’s advanced sensor and communications platform. The stealth characteristics of the F-35, making it suitable for deep-strike missions, will also have considerable operational value.

The irony, of course, is that Europe’s largest joint procurement project is not an EU effort, but a NATO partnership to buy an American plane.

Option III: Technology

The F-35 project illustrates the way in which technological development can drive defense integration and cooperative procurement. The U.S. lead in military technologies means that these big programs are still very much led by American companies and American priorities.

The European Commission made its first faint effort to change this state of affairs in 2017, with a pilot program to encourage military research and development. Initial funding amounted to only 90 million euros, but the Commission pledged that 3.5 billion euros would be earmarked for the project in 2021-2027. The Commission’s seed money is to be supplemented by national efforts. France and Germany, for example, have decided to pursue the joint development of a new fighter to replace the Eurofighter’s Typhoon – in service with the Austrian, British, German, Italian and Spanish air forces.

Lockheed Martin F-35C fighters being delivered to the Dutch air force
May 23, 2016: The first two Lockheed Martin F-35C joint strike fighters delivered to the Royal Netherlands Air Force after landing in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands (source: dpa)

As is the case with the F-35 program, many of Europe’s new defense investments will adapt or refine U.S. technologies. This is particularly the case with smaller countries, which lack the capacity to work up new systems from scratch. An example is the Czech Ministry of Defense’s decision to place a $47 million order for Boeing ScanEagle low-altitude, long-endurance surveillance drones as part of a larger program to procure unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) by 2021.

Clearly, the European Commission’s long-term ambition is to open new research areas and gain a competitive advantage in military technologies that could have subsequent civilian applications. Obvious possibilities include artificial intelligence, robots and cyber warfare. Cyber capabilities – both offensive and defensive – will certainly get a high priority, because they cater to civilian as well as military needs.

Future forces

The glacial pace of military procurement means that we have a pretty good idea about the European force structure a decade from now. Armored vehicles, planes, ships and other hardware that parliaments appropriate this year will only become operational in five to 10 years.

By that time, Europe’s armed forces will have modernized their conventional capabilities to the point where they will constitute a more credible and potent deterrent than today. Especially, the investment in F-35s – for all their teething troubles – may prove a much greater force multiplier than the aircraft’s many detractors believe today. However, the F-35 remains a very rare example of a large, multinational procurement program. The more common experience is that individual national investments do not add up to common European capabilities.

If domestic politics requires military units to be diverted to security duties at home, conventional readiness will suffer

If security requirements and domestic politics require the diversion of military units to patrol duties at home, conventional readiness will suffer. Fearing this outcome, French President Emmanuel Macron has proposed a “European Intervention Initiative” to encourage pooling and interoperability among countries willing and able to conduct operations outside the continent. For France, of course, joint operations in Africa are a special interest.

The current recovery in European defense procurement will improve existing capabilities but not overcome the fundamental problem, which is that Europe’s armed forces are designed to operate in an American framework that relies on U.S. headquarters, long-range strike capabilities and logistical support to function.

Investment in new technologies might in time offset these shortcomings with new strengths. But the EU’s research and development initiative will take a decade or more to bear fruit. In the meantime, European defense ministers will have to juggle competing demands on tight budgets.

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