Out of the dark: Reinventing European defence cooperation

Russia’s all-out war on Ukraine has convinced many European states to rebuild their militaries. In doing so, they should initially focus on readiness, capability gaps, and joint equipment procurement and research.

Europe Day 2016 in Strasbourg

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has had a galvanic effect on Europeans’ attitude towards defence. Germany announced a dramatic increase in defence spending; the European Union decided to provide weapons to Ukraine; and, at a summit in Versailles on 10-11 March, European leaders affirmed the need to “take further decisive steps towards building our European sovereignty”. This will involve much more money for defence, directed towards “the capabilities necessary to conduct the full range of missions and operations”.

In the language of diplomacy, this means Europe’s leaders have accepted that they need to be able to confront Russia. The underwhelming performance of the Kremlin’s armed forces during the first weeks of the conflict has, no doubt, encouraged them to think the previously unthinkable. And some must also have reflected on the fact that, following any likely outcome of the conflict, it will be almost impossible to convince the United States to maintain a large military presence in Europe to deter Russia. After the war, US policymakers will likely tell Europeans that they must provide most of this themselves, with US support limited to intelligence and nuclear deterrence.

European leaders aim to maintain the momentum of the Versailles summit, at which they charged the European Commission and the European Defence Agency to “put forward an analysis of the defence investment gaps by mid-May and to propose any further initiative necessary to strengthen the European industrial and technological base”. Time is tight: Europeans need to quickly identify key areas for investment.

Readiness, deployability, and sustainability

At a time when there is suddenly more money to spend on defence, it is tempting is to prioritise big, expensive equipment projects: the defence industry, politicians, and service chiefs all like them, for different reasons. Some projects of this kind are certainly needed. But they take time to get off the ground and make any difference on the front line. Given the frailties of European armed forces that have been further revealed in recent weeks, such projects are not the highest priority. As retired German general Egon Ramms recently stated, the Bundeswehr is unable to defend Germany adequately due to a lack of personnel, spare parts, and ammunition. So, rather undramatically, the top priority should be to ensure capabilities that already exist on paper are fit for purpose by increasing the readiness, deployability, and sustainability of Europe’s land and air forces.

As Russia could launch another offensive at any time, European armed forces need to continually maintain much higher readiness

Russia invaded Ukraine with a force that was four times bigger than the entire NATO Response Force. So, to effectively deter Russia, Europe will need to be able to deploy more troops and equipment at short notice. The expeditionary warfare European armies have conducted in recent decades allowed them to plan deployments six months to a year in advance. As a consequence, their readiness declined in-between these cycles. As Russia could launch another offensive at any time, European armed forces need to continually maintain much higher readiness. The fact that only a small portion of the NATO Response Force is deployed on the eastern flank after three weeks of war and five months of Russian troop build-up underlines Europeans’ own problems in generating forces at short notice.

European armies also need to increase their ammunition stockpiles and logistical support units. All-out war is much more ammunition-intensive than counter-insurgency deployments to Afghanistan. Even when bombing Libya in 2011, the United Kingdom and France soon ran out of guided munitions. And armies under budgetary pressure typically run down their stocks of spares. So, the first imperative is to ‘fill the shelves’.

Capability gaps

Another priority is the long-known capability gaps that have emerged because planning and procurement prioritised the needs of infantry-leaning stabilisation operations over full-spectrum combined arms operations. The latter require artillery, rocket artillery, air defence systems (particularly mobile air defence systems to protect manoeuvring forces), capabilities to suppress enemy air defences, and electronic warfare systems. Europe needs to introduce digitalised command and control equipment to effectively coordinate and synchronise units across service branches and countries’ armed forces on a broad scale, not only in elite expeditionary units. Western defence companies have already developed many weapons systems in these areas, but European countries have long refused to procure them (for a variety of reasons). A case in point is Germany’s recent decision, after a long delay, to buy the F-35 aircraft for strike and nuclear sharing roles.

As well as rebuilding capabilities they lost after the end of the cold war, European states also need to think more creatively about how to fight a possible war with Russia. The conflict in Ukraine, in which Ukrainians have much more terrain to defend than forces to cover it, hints at the predicaments the EU would face in this scenario. European professional armies are much smaller than their cold war counterparts – and, for demographic and societal reasons, will remain so. Continuous front lines of the kind that dominated European wars in the last century are a thing of the past. Now, there is much more empty space to manoeuvre in, at both the operational and tactical levels.

In response to this, Europeans need to survey what is or might be out there in all the space they cannot actively control. This is why they should create far greater electronic surveillance capabilities on not only the strategic level but also the operational and tactical levels, to provide commanders in the field with situational awareness even when they do not have access to a top-down flow of information. Intelligence analysis augmented by artificial intelligence would also help identify important signals in the large clutter of electronic emissions Europe produces, dramatically shortening the delay between the collection of raw data and improvements in situation awareness.

Uninhabited systems, both for reconnaissance and strike roles, are key to rapidly project firepower into that space. Rocket artillery with smart munitions that automatically engage armoured vehicles would help in this. An increase in the firepower of ground forces will be necessary to deal with scenarios in which friendly aircraft are focused on enemy fighters and air defence forces, consuming a lot of their time and capabilities.

Finally, Russia’s talk of nuclear escalation – even if it is not substantiated by preparations for a nuclear strike – has a considerable impact on European political discussions. In a direct confrontation with the Kremlin, Europeans would be profoundly uneasy with the prospect of deep strikes using cruise and ballistic missiles, most of them dual-capable, of the kind that Russia has conducted against Ukraine. Therefore, the most ambitious parts of Europe’s to-do list are to resurrect common air defence structures; modernise nuclear sharing based on dual-capable stand-off munitions instead of gravity bombs; improve deep strike capabilities to credibly threaten retaliation; and make a serious entry into missile defence. Of course, the aim of all this is to deter Russia – to disabuse Putin or his successor of any notion that he could control the repercussions of nuclear escalation.

Industry and technology

The defence industry and advanced technology are another priority. The key here is collaboration. As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has just told European parliamentarians, “we need to spend not only more, but more together.” Europeans have no alternative but to pool their efforts and resources if they wish to stay globally competitive: the scale of effort required is beyond any individual member state (and the US, fiercely protective of its defence technology, is not available as a partner). More joint research and common procurement will also help European countries eliminate some of their current waste and duplication, get more bang for the euro, and improve interoperability and logistics on the battlefield.

So, the Versailles declaration is right to reference a European defence technological and industrial base: the European defence industry needs to operate on a continental basis to gain the efficiencies of, for example, the automotive industry. This will require the achievement of that long-sought goal – a truly pan-European market for defence equipment. Such a market would not only provide better value for money but would also harness market forces to help restructure and rationalise the European defence industry – a process that Europeans badly need to accelerate. As the process depends on chunky new projects to restructure around, this should be a moment of opportunity.

Europeans have long been recognised all these challenges, so why have they failed to address them? One important reason is Article 346 of the EU Treaty, which creates a national security exception to the normal rules of the single market – in effect, a licence for protectionist instincts and vested interests to ensure that defence procurement continues to work in separate national boxes. Treaty change is the obvious answer, but that looks unrealistic even today. In its absence, EU member states should try to work with one another on an intergovernmental basis (through voluntary mutual agreement).

Clear direction from national leaders will be necessary to these efforts. So too will be a recognition that smaller member states and those without significant defence industries will be reluctant to see their defence spending do more for the economies of their bigger neighbours than for their own. But it need not be this way: while there are relatively few big defence contractors, centres of excellence producing sub-systems and components could be spread widely across Europe. Accordingly, managed design and market forces will be needed to achieve a network of pan-European procurement and supply that benefits all member states. National leaders should immediately set a deadline for their national armament directors to agree on how to make this happen.

In principle, it should be easier to pool efforts, resources, and human capital in research and development. As discussed, so much of what is needed on the battlefield essentially requires the development and application of digital and communications technologies – many of which could be adapted from the civilian sector. Almost all member states could contribute here. And the fact that the EU has already established systems for central funding of cross-border partnerships is a further incentive for them to do so.

The real problem for European defence technology is simple: underinvestment. In no other area of the European defence project has there been so wide a gap between the rhetoric and the reality. European leaders have expressed shock upon learning that the US has spent, as a proportion of its defence budget, six times as much on research and technology as their countries have collectively. They have agreed that research and development spending is the seed corn of the future. As a step in the right direction, EU defence ministers agreed in 2007 to allocate 2 per cent of defence spending to research and development. Adherents of Permanent Structured Cooperation repeated this pledge in 2017. Yet the current reality is a mere 1.2 per cent, with only 11 per cent of this spent in collaboration with other EU member states, against a target of 35 per cent.

If European leaders are committed to the Versailles declaration, they need to put this right immediately. The challenge is not in deciding how to spend the extra money. The European Defence Agency was created for the purpose. There is now talk that the body should become a true innovation hub for European defence. It might usefully dust off the model of the Joint Investment Programmes it used to run. These programmes involved selecting a particular capability area (such as deep strike); allowing member states to decide their own contribution to the fund and to have a proportionate say in the project’s direction; completing work packages through cross-border alliances; and sharing the resultant intellectual property.

Putin has galvanised Europeans to change their attitudes towards defence, providing a unique opportunity and incentive for historic change. But Luigi Galvani conducted his experiments on dead frogs. What will really count is the EU’s determination not just to set targets now, but to pursue them relentlessly when the immediate stimulus is withdrawn. As almost all aspects of European defence are down to national governments, member states should now be much tougher in holding one another to account.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow
Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.