Can and should Europe bridge the capabilities gap?
    Yves Boyer               VERSUS               Burkard Schmitt

Yves Boyer is deputy director of the Paris-based Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique and chairman of the Société Française d'Etudes Militaires.

Burkard Schmitt is both a senior research fellow and the assistant director of the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris.



Dear Burkard,

With the United States spending 85 per cent more on defence than all the other NATO Allies combined last year and further increasing its defence spending this year, the difference between military capabilities on the two sides of the Atlantic has probably never been greater. But while it is critical for European countries to ensure that their militaries remain interoperable with those of the United States, so that they can continue to work and fight together, a line has to be drawn between this imperative and the political consequences of technological choices that would create dependency.

As you are well aware, Western Europeans are currently being urged to close the "gap" between the military capabilities of their armed forces and those of the United States. This exhortation is, of course, as old as the Atlantic Alliance itself. But now, in addition to the traditional arguments used to persuade Western Europeans to increase their defence spending, the war against terrorism is being invoked. However, the case for increasing military expenditure based on the war against terrorism has yet to be demonstrated.

The next NATO Summit in Prague will no doubt be another occasion to highlight the gulf in defence spending between the United States and its Allies and an opportunity for US leaders to point to lacklustre European efforts to correct it. Here, it is worth bearing in mind that the European Union's military capabilities largely exceed those of its immediate neighbours and, in international terms, stand second only to those of the United States.

The motives behind current US admonishments are perhaps more important than the capabilities gap itself. Among those motives, two are of particular significance: first the failure by the Atlantic Alliance fully to implement the Defence Capabilities Initiative (DCI), NATO's latest high-level programme to raise capabilities; and second, a growing European assertiveness in key high-tech areas, with the risks for the United States of the creation of competitors in fields where it currently holds a virtual monopoly.

Under the DCI, NATO's European Allies were effectively asked to transform their military posture according to visions elaborated by the US military. In this way, the Atlantic Alliance was to be transformed into a unified zone in strategic and defence affairs under US leadership. Indeed, technological progress effectively became a substitute for an identified threat to promote deeper military integration within the Atlantic area to a level not seen even during the era of the Soviet threat.

US views on future warfare have been strongly influenced by processing combat intelligence in a revolutionary manner and are epitomised in the notion of "network-centric warfare". In the US vision, these were supposed to become the standard views in Europe as well. In emphasising technology as the main driver of military action, it was easy to highlight the significance of an apparent gap between the two sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, US expenditure on military R&D in 2001 alone was greater than Germany's entire defence budget.

Closing the "gap" may of course also meet the expectation of key European defence companies eager to stabilise a declining domestic market and enter the US defence arena. But what would be earned in financial terms by Western Europe would be lost in political terms. Europe would become more dependent on the United States since Washington would be the sole holder of the "keys" of the "system of systems" which is the essence of "network-centric warfare". Is this a coherent policy at a time when the European Union is trying to acquire a political role and influence on the international scene that goes beyond the economic and monetary realm?

When the US model is followed, it can sometimes be damaging for Europe, as in the case of the Joint Strike Fighter programme. Here, three members of the European Union - Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom - will divert almost $4 billion from potential European R&D resources in the coming years. This outlay, that will greatly benefit US companies, comes at the expense of European capacities when European research programmes, such as the European Technology Access Programme (ETAP), aimed at closing the gap in R&D, are crying out for greater investment. There does, nevertheless, appear to be much greater resolve among Europeans to invest in high-tech programmes, as, for example, with the decision to proceed with the Galileo project, a programme to create a commercially oriented satellite positioning system, despite US opposition and lobbying to kill it.

Instead of brooding over the issue of a capabilities "gap", EU members would do better to reflect on the dynamic which surrounds the idea of a European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) and look at the military needs Europeans may require to give it teeth. The question of developing the military means and operational doctrines that may flesh out the ESDP is, however, seldom discussed. Europe needs enhanced military capabilities. But Europeans have to invent a model of warfare that is specifically tailored to the needs of the European Union, one which is "made in Europe" and which will probably have considerably less emphasis on technology than its US equivalent.


Dear Yves,

It is generally accepted that European forces have important capability shortfalls. The problem is both military and political. First, interoperability with US forces becomes increasingly difficult; second, the ESDP risks remaining a paper tiger.

Capability shortfalls are, of course, linked to budget constraints. The main problem with defence spending in Europe, however, is quality rather than quantity. Many European countries maintain force structures that are simply not up to the new security challenges, and, even more important, all European countries consider armaments as a national chasse gardée. As a consequence, they continue to waste scarce resources on costly duplication - of capabilities, acquisition agencies, defence regulations and so on. Given the degree of integration Europe has achieved in other fields, this practice is not only outdated, but from the taxpayers' point of view, outrageous. I would therefore argue that any defence budget increase should be linked to structural reforms, designed to promote a common European defence market and a common armaments policy.

As far as the DCI is concerned, I agree to a point. Of course the DCI is a bottom-up approach to implementing NATO's Strategic Concept, and of course it is inspired by the US force structure. On the other hand, I doubt that the DCI can really become a backdoor to a unified zone in strategic and defence affairs under US leadership. I would argue that there is already a specific European approach towards the use of military power, which is embedded within a broader security approach and based on a specific security culture. True, this culture has not yet led to a European Strategic Concept, but there is an almost instinctive reluctance in many European countries to emulate the US focus on military power. This, in turn, has a profound influence on European decisions to avoid agreeing to DCI commitments that reflect the US security approach too much.

There are, of course, areas that appear on the shortfall lists of both the DCI and the European Union Capability Action Plan. It goes without saying that Europeans should give priority to these areas. Whether these gaps are filled by US or European equipment remains a decision of the national government concerned. European countries without a significant arms industry have traditionally bought American. This might be regrettable, but in part at least, it is also the fault of the big arms-producing countries which have failed to integrate their partners into a common political project.

However, even more embarrassing is the fact that even the big arms-producing countries do not seem to have a clear European strategy for their procurement policy and their defence industries. The problem goes beyond the DCI. Whether you look at the failure to create European champions in naval shipbuilding and land armaments, the delaying of major cooperative projects, or the impossibility of setting up a European Armaments Agency - there is simply not the political will to come to common solutions. Once again, the real problem is Europe's weakness and lack of ambition rather than US strength and search for hegemony.

I am therefore less optimistic than you are about a European resolve to invest more in high-tech programmes. I am afraid that the example of Galileo is somewhat misleading. First, it is a civil project, which makes it politically much easier for certain European countries both to raise the funding and to compete with the United States. Second, I strongly doubt whether Galileo would ever have been launched without the European Commission acting as the driving force. As an intergovernmental programme, ETAP depends exclusively on the willingness of the countries involved to stick to their endeavour, and experience has demonstrated how difficult this can be.

The general problem, I would say, is the lack of clarity around the ESDP and its strategic and conceptual implications. Given the divergences among EU member states, a certain constructive ambivalence was probably necessary at the beginning to get the project off the ground politically. But divergences cannot be ignored endlessly, and the lack of clarity makes it increasingly difficult to make the ESDP operational.

If the ESDP is to become a reality, two things seem indispensable. Firstly, the European Union cannot avoid defining and spelling out its own Strategic Concept as the basis for effective planning. This will only be possible if member states agree that the European Union does not need to cover the same high-intensity scenarios as the United States. It does not suggest, however, that the European Union can remain focused exclusively on handling low-intensity conflicts. Secondly, Europeans have to improve dramatically the cost-efficiency of their procurement policies. This can only be achieved, if the European Union gets involved in the armament acquisition process, with a certain role for the European Commission included.

So basically you're right to say that EU members should focus more on how to give teeth to the ESDP. This would not only improve European capabilities, it would also facilitate transatlantic dialogue in general. Far from aggravating divergence, spelling out differences provides a firm basis for open and concrete discussions, which the Americans have always preferred.


Dear Burkard,

I agree with you that the process of giving the European Union a military capability of its own is far from easy. It has, nevertheless, been definitely set in motion. This is the logical consequence of a political commitment by the European Union's heads of state and government. The legal framework was set up with the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 and the political countdown began at the Franco-British meeting in Saint Malo, France, in 1998. That said, it will probably require as many years as was necessary to create the Euro to bring this project to fruition. Indeed, we should not forget that when the idea of a common currency was first mooted it generated deep scepticism, if not outright hostility. Nevertheless, 20 years later, it has become reality and the consequences have not been cataclysmic.

The evolution of the Euro followed the traditional pattern of European construction. This was once described by former European Commission President Jacques Delors as a cycle in which years of stagnation are followed by swift advances which in turn lead to crisis and back to stagnation. The creation of a European defence policy seems to be following the same path.

Before Europeans achieve the goal of a common defence policy many complex issues will have to be resolved. Their resolution will probably be a far more painful process than any of us can even imagine. Two examples illustrate this. The first concerns technology; the second the military posture of each EU country.

As you rightly point out, Galileo is strictly speaking a civil project. It is, however, far more than that, since it also encompasses a military dimension that Europeans cannot ignore. Among many potential military uses, Galileo can provide the necessary data for using long-range precision-guided weapons. This would pave the way for a European targeting centre. It can also, at a tactical level, provide the necessary data for participating, for example, in de-mining activities where soldiers require millimetre precision. Moreover, this is a use of the US-developed GPS technology that the Americans have not always been willing to give to certain allies. Indeed, the military uses of Galileo are so extensive that Europeans will soon have to decide how to manage them. A logical solution would be to give the European Union's military staff a key role. This will no doubt generate a backlash in some European countries and precipitate a new crisis among Europeans. This may not be a bad thing, since it would oblige EU members collectively to deepen their understanding of what a common defence policy entails.

In the process, every EU country will have to reassess its military posture. Would it be rational, as you point out, for Europeans to improve the cost-efficiency of their procurement policies, while ignoring other aspects of EU defence? Creating a genuine common European defence policy will entail a structural and functional transformation of Copernican proportions. When the two of us recently participated in an international meeting of army cadets, most of whom were from Europe, many advocated the creation of a common European training school. While this seems to be a pragmatic approach, it also raises a host of problems, such as the potential for career progression in an EU context. Indeed, as a common defence policy is constructed, many issues that have hitherto been ignored will have to come on the agenda. This includes: doctrine, training, force specialisation and career progression, as well as defence industry consolidation and procurement. Getting it right will require vision, innovation and courage.


Dear Yves,

I really hope that your comparison between ESDP and the Euro is right. However, sometimes I doubt whether the political will that underpins European defence is as strong as it was for the common currency. In any case, we should never forget that a European military capability is not an objective in itself, but an instrument to achieve political goals. In other words, building ESDP without strengthening the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) does not make sense.

However, developments since 11 September 2001 have shown how difficult it is for Europeans to resist the centrifugal forces that come from strong external pressure. When push comes to shove, traditional national reflexes and divergences about the role of the European Union reappear. Some EU countries prefer simply to stay out of world affairs. Others try to prevent the "hegemony" of bigger partners rather than to strengthen the common project. And the big member states still believe that they can play a more important international role if they act outside the European convoy. However, without a) the ambition to play an international role and b) the honest recognition that this role can only be played together, the technical, military and financial obstacles in the way of a common defence policy will not be overcome. If we fail, both the European Union as a whole and its member states individually will end up in international insignificance.

You are right to say that the transformation that is needed would be of Copernican proportions. I simply wonder who could be the driving force to push this transformation through. This is, by the way, why I pointed at the differences between Galileo and ETAP. Of course you are absolutely right when you say that Galileo has important potential military applications. However, so far, we talk about potential, not reality. My point here is that the European Commission could play a decisive role only because Galileo was launched as a civil project. I'm convinced that defence projects would greatly benefit if they also had a powerful, genuine European actor supporting them.

This does not mean that a communautarisation of European defence would be a realistic option for the foreseeable future. However, I simply cannot imagine an efficient ESDP organised in a purely intergovernmental way. From my point of view, some sort of integration and a certain dose of supranationalism cannot be avoided, if we want to be serious about our ambitions. This is why I focus so much on procurement and defence markets. Budgetary pressures and the influence of commercial aspects make these the areas in which I see the most urgent necessity and the best chance to overcome the traditional intergovernmental approach.

The challenge is impressive, and the current international situation doesn't make things easier. A possible war against Iraq and its consequences, the ongoing economic crisis, EU enlargement - all these issues can put the European Union in general, and CFSP/ESDP in particular, under enormous pressure. But maybe Europeans need a crisis to force them into brave and innovative steps.


Dear Burkard,

You raised a crucial issue when you said that an efficient ESDP could not be organised in a purely intergovernmental way. However, we are obviously a long way from moving beyond such an approach. Indeed, in most EU countries, it would be almost impossible to discuss such an eventuality out loud. But the idea will surely surface sooner rather than later. Consider, for example, the evolution of our debate. We began by discussing the ways, means and structures needed to develop the ESDP and we agree these are serious, real and concrete issues. Moreover, politicians, bureaucrats and soldiers are now working on them every day. Their work is, however, long, painful and seldom rewarding. It is easy, therefore, to point to deadlock and setbacks, especially when compared with the achievements of the past half-century at NATO.

In the course of our debate, we have, nevertheless, reached a deeper appreciation for the ESDP. If we step back from the crises of the moment, we can see how far the ESDP has come. In most EU countries, the defence agenda does now encompass a European dimension. Given where things stood ten years ago, this is huge progress.

Such progress is probably the result of seismic movements just below the surface. Indeed, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the geography of European security has been shifting. Whereas the Soviet threat effectively put national sovereignty in security matters on hold and created a virtually automated decision-making process at NATO, this ceased to be the case as soon as the Cold War ended. The new circumstances have not led to chaos but to a growing malaise within the Alliance, as witnessed during both the Kosovo and the Afghan crises, when NATO struggled to build political consensus.

Transatlantic relations remain dynamic as a result of shared values, common interests and historical experience. However, the complexity of international security today has revealed emerging differences in attitude and approach between the two sides of the Atlantic. The perception of threat in the European Union on the one hand and in the United States on the other is no longer necessarily the same, as in the recent past. This fact is slowly but surely leading EU countries to contemplate building a common defence policy. Indeed, it is noteworthy that the decision to launch an ESDP at Maastricht was taken at precisely the moment when NATO's automated decision-making process broke down. The incentive to take this process forward is more pressing than ever.


Dear Yves,

I agree that transatlantic relations are going through a process of change that reflects a more fundamental transformation of the international system. In such a situation, it is not surprising that divergences between the United States and Europe exist and even grow. However, the problem is not so much divergence per se, but the way in which the two sides deal with it.

Both the United States and the European Union have an enormous responsibility for peace and stability in the world. Europeans often complain, for good reason, about US policy, but they undermine their arguments by refusing to assume their own responsibilities. Facing the challenges of the third millennium, it is almost a moral obligation for Europe to intervene in world affairs and to become a serious partner for the United States. In spite of all its deficiencies, the European Union remains the only possible framework within which its member states can achieve this objective.

This means, in turn, that the European Union needs efficient structures and the necessary political and military tools. Improving military capabilities is only one aspect among others, and may be not even the most important one. However, current capability shortfalls can and should be tackled. The more Europeans are willing to engage in serious structural reform, the less expensive this endeavour will become.

Having different perceptions, concepts and objectives, it is natural that Europe spends less than the United States on defence and has different budgetary priorities. Therefore, you are right to say that the benchmark for European efforts should not be set by comparisons with the United States, but according to the European Union's own ambitions. An efficient CFSP and ESDP would not only enhance Europe's role in the world, but also improve the transatlantic partnership. If, by contrast, EU member states fail to take the necessary steps to achieve that objective, they will be punished by irrelevance.