Defense. Europe has capabilities. You still have to want and be able to use them

(B2) The Everlasting debate on European defense is relaunched once again. But you have to ask the right questions… and solve them

To intervene effectively, it is still necessary to know it, to want it, and to decide it (MOD Ukraine)

Europe has capacities, but does not use them

Today, Europe does not lack capabilities at the military level. She's full of it, too. On paper, the 27 Member States field no less than 1,4 million soldiers, have hundreds of fighter planes and ships, thousands of tanks and armored vehicles. They even have prepositioned bases or an equivalent in several parts of the world (Asia, Pacific, Middle East, Latin America). However, Europe only manages with difficulty to react to crises, to line up a few thousand men to ensure security in its neighborhood, or quite simply to come to the aid of European citizens in danger.

Learning lessons from the field

The example of Afghanistan is obvious. Despite a large air presence and the dispatch of special forces, the Europeans were unable to coordinate and plan a common deployment. It was the American impulse that was decisive, not the European one (read: First lessons of the 'Kabul crisis'). The final impression was one of a happy mess, which was ultimately a success… but could have turned into a disaster.

Don't get stuck in a doomed way

The failure of the battlegroups — this European rapid reaction force — is obvious. This system where a few countries are 'on call', to intervene throughout the world, in any kind of crisis, cannot work. The Europeans tried several times to get them to leave. Each time the answer was 'No'.

sci-fi devices

The problem is not cyclical, but structural: The 27 decide unanimously on the commitment. But only a few countries, those on call, bear the full human, political and financial cost of the commitment. A tremendous alignment of the planets is needed to have both a common political will to act, within a rapid action period, on a terrain where the countries on call are ready and trained to intervene, and without any obstacle (political , financial or technical) which intervenes (read: Reviewing the concept of battlegroups: a necessity).

Three tools to put in place to react

Three elements are currently lacking in European defense:

1. an ability to anticipate, therefore an effective sharing of intelligence, which starts from the field and goes up to the political level, with a common, permanent analysis, which provokes a political decision. This presupposes a revolution in mechanisms and minds.

2. political-strategic command capability. It presupposes not a revolution, but an intelligent use of existing devices. It's not really a large military headquarters that Europe lacks, it's a political decision-making mechanism in an emergency. The European system is today designed on a mechanism of political consensus, financial commitment and actions, which can be counted in a few weeks or a few months (or even years). Too long, where you have to react in 24 or 48 hours.

3. an intervention capacity, tailored to the height of the objectives that Europeans can achieve. There is no point in planning a first entry force of 5000 men if you are not able to react quickly in an external and dangerous theater (where lives will undoubtedly be lost). You might as well plan a realistic, modular capability, capable of intervening.

  • For example, to come to the rescue of thousands of Europeans stuck in the world due to a health, natural or technological crisis or a conflict. It's quite possible: 200 to 500 special forces, a few dozen planes, an air coordination center… All that exists. Just put them together in one device.
  • Ditto for the areas of intervention: a 'desert' group, an 'urban' group, a 'winter' group, a 'medical' group can be set up quite easily and would be more deployable than a multi-risk group.
  • And there are conflicts where the Europeans will not be able / will not want to intervene (such as Syria 2011, Ukraine 2014, etc.). It is better to foresee it from the start.

A political opportunity

Defense Europe today has a tremendous open door. The Atlantic Alliance, crushed by the defeat in Afghanistan, will have to question its expeditionary doctrine of stabilization. It is a safe bet that it will refocus, at least in the immediate future, on its primary vocation: the defense of European territory against threats from the East (Russia but also China), both traditional and from a new genre (cyber, etc.). Joe Biden's USA is putting into effect a turning point already initiated by Obama and Trump: putting an end to external military interventions not justified by strict national security, and facing political, military and economic competition from Asia (China and others).

Will the Europeans want to seize it?

In its immediate vicinity, and even slightly beyond, Europe is therefore alone on board and master of its destiny. Will she want to assume this burden, and how? This is the whole point of the reflection launched today by the President of the European Commission in her speech on the State of the Union (read: Defense. Europe must be able to act alone! The six (bold) proposals of von der Leyen) and by the Member States in the Strategic Compass (a sort of future white paper on European defence). Work that could lead (if all goes well) under the French presidency to a special Defense summit in Toulouse. To succeed in this exercise, however, you will have to put an end to the blah-blah, the good intentions without a future, the stillborn tools, face reality and roll up your sleeves.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).