PARIS --- Europe has for decades unquestioningly pursued the ideal of a common defense but, like the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, this still appears as remote today as it was 50 years ago. Is it still a goal worth pursuing?
Common defense makes sense where there is a common enemy, but this has not been the case since the Soviet Union collapsed nearly 20 years ago. It can also make sense if there are common, shared defense goals, but as Iraq and Afghanistan clearly show this is no longer the case. Common defense can also be financially attractive if it allows participating nations to pool assets or share weapon procurement costs, but this has never happened on a Europe-wide scale. Why, then, keep flogging a dead horse?
It was well over 40 years ago that NATO first attempted to convince its members to make their military equipment interoperable, so they could operate alongside each other if the need ever arose. Yet progress has been painfully slow even in this, elementary respect, and European armies still operate rifles and artillery that can’t use each others’ ammunition, radios that can’t talk to each other, and combat aircraft that can’t fire each others’ weapons.
Through the years, all pan-European weapon programs have imploded, like the NFR-90 frigate project of the 1980s. More recent attempts to agree on a common armored vehicle, common transport or combat aircraft, and even common air-launched weapons have, with all too rare exceptions, fallen apart. In many cases, a few partners have picked up the pieces and launched new, smaller programs pursuing the same goal, with mixed success. The NFR-90 project, for example, was initially replaced by three separate projects - the French-Italian Horizon, the Dutch-German LCF and the Spanish F100 ships - and eventually led to the Norwegian F310 frigate, the British Type 45 destroyer and the French-Italian FREMM frigate, none of which have much in common with each other.
And on this, the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War, it should be remembered that in 1982 Belgium refused to supply ammunition to British forces as they prepared to sail to the South Atlantic. Looking at Europe today, can anyone be confident that things have really changed?
Europe has been more successful in building institutions to manage the common defense policy it does not have. Alongside the Western European Union, which has its own parliamentary assembly and armaments cooperation forum, Europe has a Common Foreign and Security Policy as well as two organizations, the European Defence Agency and OCCAR, to promote common weapons procurement. It also has a variety of international military units, ranging from the French-German brigade to the Dutch-German army corps, which make for attractive political statements but which have never deployed as such except in exercises on home ground. It is now preparing to launch Tactical Battlegroups as a further step to creating its own rapid deployment force.
In fact, the only area where a common European capability has emerged, albeit very recently, is that of strategic air transport, where in fact there now two: the [NATO, not EU] Strategic Airlift Capability (a joint force of C-17s) and the Strategic Airlift Interim Solution arrangement, which involves the chartering of Russian An-124 aircraft. It should be noted that it took the best part of 20 years for these initiatives to take form.
With these possible exceptions, European agencies and military units absorb money while providing precious little in return. The truth is that, absent an immediate threat, Europeans are only capable of military cooperation on an ad-hoc basis, where goals and commitments are both clear and short-term.
Otherwise, they continue bickering among themselves, as is shown by this week’s risible episode when Britain vetoed the 2009 budget of the European Defence Agency because it wanted more transparency about how the agency would spend the extra one million euros it is due to receive two years from now. And while the EDA, it should be noted, was created “to help EU Member States develop their defense capabilities,” its annual budget to implement this lofty goal is currently 20 million euros.
Just today, EDA is trumpeting the success of a “ground-breaking mechanism…..a major step… that demonstrates the creativity and the political will of EU governments.” Why all the excitement?
Because 19 governments decided to invest the fantastically impressive sum of 54.23 million euros over three years (which works out to an average 950,000 euros per country per year) to research “technologies for protecting their armed forces against threats such as snipers, booby traps and improvised bombs,” which just happen to be the most deadly weapons encountered by EU and NATO troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. (And, it is worth noting, the UK is not participating, even though these very weapons have killed more of its troops than those of any other EU country.)
Given this sorry background, shouldn’t Europe give up on common defense as an idea whose time will never come?
Multilateral projects on an ad-hoc basis, whether operational or in procurement, will generate all the same benefits that a common defense can realistically bring without wasting money, effort and time keeping alive the flame of this same common European defense. And, by publicly embracing selective multilateralism instead of common defense, European leaders would be spared having to pay lip service to an ideal in which they clearly do not believe.
And, perhaps as importantly, we would be spared having to listen to their sanctimonious drivel.
Letter to the Editor
in your article entitled “Op-Ed: Does Europe Need a Common Defense?,” I assume that when you mention the Type 42, you in fact meant the Type 45.
I am at a complete loss to explain your inclusion of the F-310 as Norway was never a member of the NFR-90 project and never intended to purchase the NFR-90. Also, the FREMM project has nothing whatsoever to do with NFR-90 or Horizon, and to suggest otherwise is misleading.
The NFR-90 project was not replaced by three separate projects. It was replaced by two. The participating NATO members fell broadly into two camps, the Tripartite Frigate Program (with common sensors and weapons) and the original Anglo-French-Italian Horizon project (completely common platform).
The Tripartite Frigate Progam was a complete success! It resulted in the German F-124 and the Dutch LCF [and if] F-100 was modified for Aegis this was a political decision by the Atlanticist Spanish Government of the day.
The original Horizon project was unrealistic [as] requirements differed so much that members could not agree on a common platform specification. It is very interesting to note that the final result is almost identical to the aims of the German-Dutch-Spanish Tripartite program, in that we now have three vessels, the Type 45 and the two Horizon frigate variants for the French and Italians, which embark extremely similar sensor suites and identical missile systems.
Sir, I respectfully suggest that you check your facts in future. Defense-Aerospace.com is read by a wide variety of people which includes a great many knowledgable individuals who spot these errors immediately and frequently comment on such mistakes on news groups and forums. For the sake of those readers who are less well informed, you have an obligation to check the accuracy of your information.
Michael S. Ranson
Yes, the reference to the Type 42 was clearly a typo, and has now been corrected. Thank you for drawing it to our attention.
Regarding NFR, it was originally intended to lead to several variants, which explains the reference to FREMM, while the F-310 was mentioned because it is both European and derived from the Spanish descendant of NFR.
At the end of the day, instead of standardising on the NFR design, European nations managed to develop six different ships. This is neither a cost-effective result nor a triumph for European cooperation, which is the very point I was making.
Be assured that we take the greatest possible care to ensure the accuracy of our editorial content. We very much regret any error, and immediately correct any that is detected.
Giovanni de Briganti
Op-Ed: Does Europe Need a Common Defense?