While 14 NATO members (Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, the United Kingdom) and Finland have signed on, five of NATO’s biggest European members (France, Italy, Poland, Spain and Turkey) have not, for reasons that they have not explained.
This large response reflects the political insecurity of the smaller European states as much as the parlous state of Western and Central Europe’s air defenses, as well as Berlin’s newly-found determination to end two decades of dithering about its long-range air defenses.
15 states joined together against a common threat. The goal of the #EuropeanSkyShieldInitiative: The joint procurement of a European air defence system, with effect at close range and over medium and long ranges. #StrongerTogether pic.twitter.com/PdgnePYo0S— Verteidigungsministerium (@BMVg_Bundeswehr) October 13, 2022
But the initiative also shows that Berlin has realized that its barely affordable, €100 billion ‘Special Fund’ is just enough to reset its armed forces after decades of neglect, with little or nothing left over to fill one of Germany’s oldest capability gaps: air and missile defense.
To some extent, ESSI also risks duplicating, in its higher spectrum, the existing anti-missile systems that currently provide Europe with some protection: the two Aegis Ashore batteries in Romania and Poland, and the mobile Aegis systems on the five DDG-51 destroyers stationed by the US Navy in Rota, Spain, and soon in Alexandropouli, Greece.
Germany’s ulterior motives for ESSI
Germany’s motives for launching ESSI may be more complex than they appear at first glance.
As noted by Warsaw’s Center for Eastern Studies in a paper posted Oct. 15, “The signing of a letter of intent by as many as 15 countries may be an element of pressure on the US to issue a permit for Israel to sell the Arrow-3 system to Germany. Despite pressure from Jerusalem and Berlin, Washington is reluctant to give such consent, which is necessary due to the US co-financing of the program and the use of American components. It is possible that the United States would prefer European allies to buy from them a THAAD anti-ballistic system with similar capabilities, and therefore want to persuade Berlin to change plans.”
There are also industrial policy consequences to ESSI: by adopting the Arrow and new Patriot variants, European nations would surrender their technological know-how in a crucial defense sector to the United States, allowing its industry to dominate the sector much like what it has achieved with the F-35.
Under the initiative of DE, today 15 countries signed the Letter of Intent concerning the European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI): a common European global air defense system. With this signature, BE demonstrates once again its willingness to strengthen the EU pillar within #NATO. pic.twitter.com/kl97E9Z8or— Ludivine Dedonder (@DedonderLudivin) October 13, 2022
This may not matter much to Germany, whose industry is not an air-defense heavyweight, but it may matter much more to France and Italy, which have developed, and are upgrading, their own air and missile defense system, the SAMP/T*, and whose industry is also active in other air-defense segments.
France and Italy have not joined ESSI, and neither have Sweden and Turkey, which have developed systems of their own, nor indeed Poland, which is spending billions of dollars on a national system, while most of the signatories have no, or very limited, industrial air-defense capabilities.
So, the question arises of whether Berlin is bringing 15 new customers for US-made air-defense systems in exchange for permission to buy Arrow. Or is it looking for cost-sharing partners to finance part of the Arrow 3 it wants to buy, but cannot afford alone?
A final observation is that Germany has selected its own IRIS-T medium-range air-defense system as the low-end component of ESSI, its defense ministry said in an Oct. 14 statement: “Germany has already done the preparatory work for a speedy procurement: initial talks on contract design have already taken place. It's about Patriot Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept on Target and IRIS-T SLM Infra-Red Imaging System Tail Surface Launched Medium Range.”
A number of signatories – Finland, Lithuania, Norway, Netherlands, Spain among them – already operate NASAMS, while Hungary has ordered it.
As NASAMS and IRIS-T use the same third-party Amraam, Amraam-ER, AIM-9X and IRIS-T missiles, it is difficult to see the German initiative as anything other than an attempt by Berlin to generate more business for its own industry, especially since, according to Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren, one of the initiative’s “advantages is that the plan offers the possibility of European production of the missiles.”
Filling Germany’s persistent air-defense gaps
In addition to its 12 batteries of Patriot missiles, which have been shown by several conflicts in the Middle East to be far less effective than claimed by its manufacturer, Germany has dithered for a couple of decades over two high-end programs, the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) it was to develop together with the US and Italy, and the Taktisches Luftverteidigungssystem (Tactical Air Defense Missile, or TLVS) that succeeded it.
Both initiatives petered out, and in late 2020 then-German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced a review of the Bundeswehr’s air-defense plans, and both programs subsequently faded away.
Instead, Germany considered the US-made Theater High Altitude Air Defense System (THAADS), while the US-Israeli Arrow 3 surfaced as a contender during the spring, during a visit to Israel of the President of the Defence Committee of the Bundestag, Mrs. Strack-Zimmermann followed in March by Andreas Schwarz (SPD), the defence budget rapporteur at the Budget Committee.
Thank you for welcoming me here in Berlin, @Bundeskanzler @OlafScholz.— יאיר לפיד - Yair Lapid (@yairlapid) September 12, 2022
Israel and Germany share a special relationship. As we remember our past, our strategic partnership helps us take on shared challenges and pursue our shared vision for the future. pic.twitter.com/ecyi93RM0p
Fast-forward to Sept. 12, when during a joint press conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Israeli Defense Minister Yair Lapid, announced that Germany was in talks to buy the Arrow 3 missile defence system from Israel.
Lapid described their talks as leading to a "future possible deal" but declined to outline the cost, Reuters reported Sept. 12, adding that Scholz said Germany would buy more air defence systems in the future, calling the Arrow 3 "high-performance offer" but also declining to go into specifics.
The European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI)
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz initially mentioned a joint air-defense initiative in August, calling it a "security gain for all of Europe" and arguing that combined air defense would prove more cost-effective than each country racing to defend its own skies or building its own air defense systems.
The cost of ESSI has not been mentioned, but it is likely to run into the tens of billions of euros if it is to protect NATO’s entire Eastern Flank, from Norway to Greece.
The German chancellor said Berlin would need to invest heavily in air defense in the years ahead and would get a head start if other allied nations could participate at the ground level from the beginning.
According to a NATO statement, the “initiative aims to create a European air and missile defence system through the common acquisition of air defence equipment and missiles by European nations,” which “will strengthen NATO’s Integrated Air and Missile Defence.”
Additional information was provided by other European ministers. According to The Netherlands’ Kajsa Ollongren, the initiative “includes defense of short, medium and long-range ballistic missiles and defense against drones,” and one of its “advantages is that the plan offers the possibility of European production of the missiles.”
Participants will apparently be allowed to pick and choose components, and “the package of very short-range/combat drone systems is the most relevant for the Lithuanian army," said Minister of National Defense Arvydas Anušauskas. His Norwegian colleague Bjørn Arild Gram sees an opportunity to further develop the Norwegian-developed NASAMS, for which “there are plans to further develop this system, in close cooperation with close allies,” he said after the signing ceremony.