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European defence integration in the 21st century

By Felix Heuner

Edited by Melanie Fourtanier

Can Europe defend itself without the help of America? This is a question that Europeans did not have to ask for the past decades. Since the end of the Second World War, America has stood steadfast with its European allies. Its unparalleled military power, and its nuclear umbrella provided safety for all members of NATO. However, times are changing, and today the question of whether Europe can defend itself without American help is becoming more and more pressing.

© European Council on Foreign Relations

The Threat of Changing Course in the White House?

With Ron De Santis and Nicky Haley both out of the race it seems almost certain that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for the 2024 presidential race. While it is far from decided who will sit in the White House in 2025, Europe must realise that the times of guaranteed military support from America might soon come to an end.

In a meeting with the European Commission president Ursula Von Der Leyen in 2020, Donald Trump openly said that America would never come to the aid of Europe in case of war. While this was a non-public statement, its implications for the deterrence potential of NATO are severe.

NATO is built on the guarantee that if one of its members is attacked, it will be judged as an attack on all members. If this threat is being undermined by the political leaders of the alliance, the threat becomes meaningless.

Even if Donald Trump does not leave NATO after he is elected president, doubt about the American defence commitments will persist.

The Chaotic State of European Defence

Currently, Europe is ill-positioned to defend itself in a large-scale conflict. For the past decades, European countries have relied on the protection of America. As a result, they invested only the bare minimum, and sometimes even less than that in their militaries.

Equipment is not available in sufficient numbers, and ammunition for the few weapon systems that do exist is even scarcer. A leaked report in Germany has recently pointed out that the German army only has around 20.000 artillery shells left. According to NATO requirements, around 230.000 would be needed to sustain 30 days of combat.

While other European armies are better equipped, there is still considerable need for investment in the armed forces of Europe. The times in which Europe was able to reap the peace dividend have come to an end.

Aside from additional investment into the armed forces, increased integration between the different armies in Europe will be needed, too. It is essential to form an effective army that can benefit from large-scale production and an efficient command structure.

Such integration of armed forces in Europe should happen on two levels. On the level of equipment and on the level of operations.

In 2016, armies of EU countries used six times as many different weapon systems as the US: 178 vs. 30. To increase the interoperability between different countries and to enable the production of large quantities of a system, this number must be decreased.

European arms production

The EU already has some initiatives that try to tackle this problem. The EU PESCO program, which supports multinational defence projects, is one example of such an initiative. Through PESCO, the EU is supporting the development of systems such as the Eurodrone, or the European Control Corvette (warship).

However, the number of these shared projects compared to projects that are executed by only a single nation remains relatively small.

In the past years, bigger European projects have been started, such as the FCAS (Future Combat Air System), which is supposed to be the next-generation fighter plane of many European militaries. However, the project has suffered from bureaucratic backlog and disagreements between the two main contracting partners Germany, and France.

Such delays were a problem that decreased efficiency and increased costs in the past. In the future, they might become a serious threat to European security.

Europe needs to be able to develop and produce defence systems on a scale that would be needed if American support decreases significantly in the future. To this end, the EU will have to increase its financial support for shared defence projects, and individual nation-states will have to realize that they are dependent on each other in defence production and development.

European Command Structure

The second area in which the different European armies need to increase their cooperation is the operational side of the military. Once again, the EU already provides a framework in which the member states could expand.

The EU has dedicated battlegroups that consist of soldiers from many different member states. Currently, these battlegroups are composed of 1.500 soldiers and the EU plans to expand this to 5000 by 2025.

However, these battlegroups are far away from being a capable fighting force in a large-scale conflict. To this day they have never been used in any scenario.

Another noteworthy example of integrating the armies of different nations is the Dutch-German armoured brigade. This army unit already conducts shared exercises and can acquire shared material. These pilot projects show that an increased integration of armed forces on a European level is possible.

To make any such integration efficient, the EU would need to reform its decision-making processes. At the moment, it is unable to swiftly react to crises, which has once again been shown in the recent escalation in the Red Sea. US and UK warships are already countering the Houthi attack on merchant ships in the region.

Meanwhile, the EU was still debating on whether to send its own warships. A decision was only taken in February, months after the emergence of the crisis. This delay between the onset of a crisis and an EU response is too long to make any integrated military efficient.

Future perspective

With the current political landscape of Europe, it is unlikely that we will see a European army soon. While France is more open towards a European defence integration, other countries such as Poland want to rely more on NATO.

However, closer integration of defence production and operations will be essential should the US decide to decrease its support for Europe. This integration will become necessary not only to further advance the European project but also to guarantee the safety of all European citizens.

At the moment it seems unlikely that the EU will be able to enact these important reforms quickly enough. However, as Jean Monnet said, “Europe will be formed in crisis”.

Sources: Der Spiegel, Dutch Ministry of Defence, EU IDEA, European External Action Service, Politico, Statista, SWP

Written by Felix Heuner

March 2024

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