Search:  

 Blog     e-Newsletter       Resource Library      Directories      Webinars     Apps
AFCEA logo
 

Harmonizing European Defense Efforts

May 2012
By Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Magazine
E-mail About the Author

 

A Eurofighter Typhoon flies over Abu Dhabi. The Eurofighter, designed by a multinational consortium of aerospace companies, may be just a harbinger of future European defense activities. Budget constraints almost certainly will require that European nations pool and share resources for future system development and procurement.

The continent tries to coordinate the development of complementary forces.

The European Union is trying to bring the defense programs of its 27 member nations into synchronicity before the budget boom is lowered on military spending. This harmonization has been a goal for several years, but now it has assumed greater urgency in a time of both greater limitations and more diverse missions.

With the United States the world’s undisputed military superpower and NATO the prevailing defense alliance, the European Union (EU) is striving to develop a military force among member nations that is both effective and efficient. It has participated in several multinational operations, some of which are ongoing. However, the EU force has yet to achieve a satisfactory complementary role with NATO, and the budgetary pressures that are affecting democracies around the world threaten to derail EU efforts to build a distinct military force with its own identity in the global security realm.

So, that force is working to improve its functionality in a time of rising demand and declining resources. Solutions for the two issues may go hand-in-hand as the continent grapples with achieving its long-term goals.

Gen. Håkan Syrén, SWN, is the chairman of the European Union Military Committee (EUMC). He states that solving most of the challenges facing the European Union may require the effective pooling and sharing of defense efforts, which will allow the European Union to attain greater operational effect without increases in spending. This approach would not entail all EU members engaging in the same activity; rather, it would involve clusters of nations cooperating in complementary ways. Areas where this approach would bear fruit quickly include training and exercising, procurement and surveillance, the general points out.

“We must not just look at what we don’t have. We must also look at what we have,” Gen. Syrén declares. In this vein, the European Union is looking at overcapacities that can be altered to realize greater efficiencies.

The past year has seen progress in getting European nations to pool and share—to “work smarter,” the general says. However, that type of cultural and logistical change takes time, which is in short supply with severe budgetary pressures constraining member nations.

Gen. Syrén describes four strategic priorities for the short term. These include ongoing operations in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East as well as developing a more effective use of European military capabilities. Also on the list is the advancement of strategic partnerships with organizations such as the United Nations, the African Union, NATO and individual states outside of the European Union. And, the EUMC is pursuing a comprehensive approach to its operations. The general observes that the European Union’s operations in the Horn of Africa could serve as a testbed for the comprehensive approach, which is outlined in the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon that laid the foundation for a permanent European structured cooperation in defense.

For the long term, Gen. Syrén allows, the EUMC is facing a strategic change that is underway on the other side of the globe. “It is very clear that the center of gravity is going from this corner of the world to the Far East,” he says. Combined with the budget constraints, this shift is affecting Europe’s defense activities. The general recalls how former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in a farewell statement, called for Europe to shoulder more responsibility for its own defense.

Yet, as with all democracies’ militaries, the global financial crisis has hamstrung Europe’s defense efforts. Since the end of the Cold War, European nations intended to spend about 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. However, that goal has faded in recent years, and Gen. Syrén admits that some nations even come in as low as 0.7 percent of GDP for defense. “When you have 27 member states doing their defense budgets individually, it is difficult to have a holistic view of this. Member states are really losing their capacity to keep up a long-term perspective,” he observes, adding that it is difficult for the European Union to coordinate defense efforts in this environment.

 

An Airbus A400M lands on an unpaved airfield. Gen. Syrén cites strategic airlift as one area that needs modernization to improve Europe’s defense capabilities.

However, Gen. Syrén emphasizes that Europe is not out of money for defense spending. Its members spend a total of about $200 billion annually on defense. These nations must maximize their return on that investment.

Ironically, the budget crisis is a good argument for EU member states to cooperate on complementary military development. “I understand that 27 sovereign states must have 27 headquarters, but we have to look very carefully at how we are executing our business,” the general says. “Do we really need all the war colleges? Can we continue with many different logistical concepts? Do we need a dozen different manufacturers of armored personnel vehicles? Do we need more than a dozen naval shipyards? Do we really need four different fourth-generation combat aircraft?

“We have to look at how we are doing the business; and in this context, pooling and sharing can be both a useful tool and also a useful wakeup call that we can do business together,” he states.

The general continues that the European Union has developed a number of initiatives and proposals, but these represent just a first step. “If I compare the situation today with when we started this effort one and a half years ago—and I can count on my fingers what kind of savings this can give us against the budget cuts we have seen the past year and that we have ahead of us—the situation is getting worse. So, we have to take pooling and sharing to a completely different level.”

Part of the challenge is that many nations agree with the concept in principle, but then they cannot agree on how to implement it. Leaders come to view the next step in implementation as a threat to their nation’s sovereignty, the general allows. Some nations also view it as a threat to their defense industrial base, with resultant reductions in domestic employment. “This discussion must be taken to the highest political level to work out these very difficult questions,” he says. “We are at that stage.”

Many European nations have taken to forming bilateral or even trilateral military force alliances with their neighbors. These mini-alliances are a positive development, the general says, and the European Union can build on them. The battle group concept, in which regional forces group in clusters, also contributes to the building of a European defense force. Training and exercise in particular benefit from these agreements.

These local cooperative approaches might be a key to reaching the goal of an EU-wide complementary defense. “A bilateral or trilateral [approach] can be a good initiative or inspiration for other member states to join and make it better and wider,” the general suggests.

Not only does this approach break down barriers between countries, it also provides better cost-effectiveness, Gen. Syrén points out. “The driver is the pooling and sharing initiative, along with the understanding that we cannot continue to do business as we have done before. We have to do it differently while we are under these budget constraints.”

And, as with all modern militaries, Europe must modernize its force to respond to changes in the global security arena. The recent operation in support of the Libyan people rebelling against the government of Muammar Gaddafi illuminated several shortcomings in European defense capabilities. These included precision munitions, strategic airlift and intelligence. All of these must be addressed in the long term, Gen. Syrén points out.

“You can take any one of the conflicts [in which the EU has participated] and these [needs] have been asked for,” he relates.

The general adds helicopters, mid-air refueling, medical units and engineering to this list of military shortcomings that need remedying. In terms of capabilities, Gen. Syrén wants a single surveillance picture for maritime units.

New threats such as cyberwar and the consequences of climate change also are affecting defense planning for the European Union. These threats join weapons of mass destruction as concerns for the EUMC.

The European Union has not yet clearly defined its course of action for dealing with the cyberthreat, Gen. Syrén admits. A commission is expected to generate its first paper toward developing a framework for action shortly.

Climate change is an issue because the melting Arctic icecap is opening up new sea lanes. Many of the nations that border the Arctic now are looking at newly accessible regions in which the undersea shelf may hold vast natural resources such as oil and gas. The potential for competing claims makes this a geopolitical issue, and the military must stand ready if needed to contribute to resolution, the general observes.

Even though 21 of the European Union’s 27 member nations also belong to NATO, the relationship between the EU military and the Atlantic alliance remains unsettled. For example, some in NATO are concerned that a strong EU military will weaken NATO. Gen. Syrén describes the barriers between NATO and the European Union defense force as purely political. Accordingly, eliminating them will require action at the political level. “We in uniform cannot solve the problems alone; nor can the civilian authorities,” he says. Both the NATO secretary-general and the EU high representative have been clear about their efforts to resolve differences. “Willingness is not the problem,” Gen. Syrén allows. “Now, we have to wait for the result.”

The general notes that the two forces have cooperated well in operations such as Ocean Shield in the Gulf of Aden and in Afghanistan. The two organizations are able to work out important details when they cooperate in theater. He views his job as ensuring that no competition emerges between NATO and the EUMC, and he lauds the relationship he has with his counterpart in NATO. “We really can be complementary to NATO,” Gen. Syrén offers.

One way that the European Union can complement NATO is through civilian operations. These can include state-building measures such as economic assistance, food relief and establishing law and order mechanisms.