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Nick Witney: Europe’s capabilities’ conscience

Nick Witney is the first chief executive of the European Defence Agency, the body created by the EU Council of Ministers in July 2004 to improve European defence capabilities.

(© EDA)

He came to the Agency from the UK Ministry of Defence, where he held a number of senior positions, including most recently the post of director-general for international security policy. Earlier in his career, Witney spent a year’s sabbatical at RAND in California and also worked as a diplomat in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, serving in both the Middle East and Washington DC.

What is the European Defence Agency and why has it been created?

It is an agency of the Council of the European Union set up with the mission of "supporting the member states in their effort to improve European defence capabilities in the field of crisis management and to sustain the European Security and Defence Policy as it stands now and will evolve in the future". So we need to look to today's needs, and to anticipate the requirements that will be needed in 20 to 30 years time.

Specifically, the Agency has been given four main functions. These relate to defence capabilities development; armaments cooperation; the European defence technological and industrial base and defence equipment market; and promoting collaboration in research and technology. This is a pretty broad range of responsibilities, even though we have no responsibility for anything operational and our views are not sought on matters of defence policy and strategy.

Every EU member state is participating in the Agency apart from Denmark because Denmark has opted out of ESDP. The funding mechanism is based on a gross national income key. That said, at the moment the sums involved are not particularly large. The budget for this year is €20 million. This is enough to pay the staff, to get us installed in new offices and will leave us with €3 million of pump-priming money to spend on feasibility studies.

The European Defence Agency is the third agency to come under the Council. The first two are the Satellite Centre in Torrejón and the Institute for Security Studies in Paris, both of which came to the Council from the Western European Union.

How is the Agency different from other European armaments groups such as OCCAR and WEAG?

Several things are unique about our set-up. The Agency is small, but also has wide responsibilities and is intended to be very much the possession of its member states. It is run by a Steering Board that is chaired by Javier Solana (the head of the Agency, and therefore my boss) and made up of the individual defence ministers. It will meet in several formats. Sometimes, the national armament directors will be present. Sometimes, the research and technology directors will be present. Sometimes, the individuals responsible for capability development will be present. When up and running, we should be meeting on average every six weeks.

Almost all our staff come from the member states, for which we will act as a focal point for their joint activities. We will orchestrate a series of conversations, seminars, working groups, and other more or less formalised structures to make this the place where the member states come together to cooperate on a spectrum of activities. The breadth of the activities is the strength of the set-up because it will enable us to generate synergies.

The WEAG ceases operating at the end of June and we will take over its functions. I hope that because we are able to address them in a more holistic way we will be able to generate additional synergies out of the different agendas. OCCAR is an inter-governmental agency, but not one belonging to Europe. It belongs solely to its six shareholders and is strictly a procurement agency that exists to run programmes. In this way, they have recently taken over management of the A400M Airlifter programme. OCCAR’s job in this instance is to manage the contractor to make sure that aircraft are delivered at the required time and cost. Our activities will start and remain upstream of OCCAR’s. We will be seeking to forge consensus on capability priorities, and then generate the proposals, present the ideas and then again build the consensus to do more together. Maybe in future we shall do some management ourselves. At present, however, I see our role as complementary to OCCAR’s. We should hopefully generate the cooperative programmes that OCCAR might then manage. While no one would be obliged to turn to OCCAR for such management, OCCAR does this work well and would probably be interested in taking it on.

How many people work for the Agency and how it's structured.

At present, there are about 30 of us, but once we finish initial recruitment this summer we will be 77 in total. We are divided into four main directorates, each corresponding to one of the four main functions of capability development; R&T; armaments; and industry and market. That said, individuals working in the R&T directorate will not spend their time exclusively within an R&T stovepipe. They will spend most of their time working in integrated project teams. Whenever we start to address a particular issue, we will identify a leader who will then form an integrated team drawing on staff from all four directorates. With every subject we touch – and we have four flagship projects for this year – we find the only way to address it is holistically, thus requiring expertise in all four disciplines.

What are your immediate priorities?

Our immediate priority, which is a precondition for everything else, is to get up and running, recruit staff and move into new offices. We must also explain ourselves. There is a fantastic amount of interest in the Agency, but the concept is not yet well understood. We must get to know our shareholders, that is the 24 member states, individually. Aside from that, we have a work programme for the year that specifies four flagship programmes. These are the European defence equipment market; a command control and communication study; armoured fighting vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

We’ve effectively been pushed into examining the European defence equipment market because the Commission issued a green paper on this issue last September. However, I'm prepared to say that we’ve had our first success in this area. We had a Steering Board meeting two weeks ago at which all countries agreed to launch a process aimed at achieving agreement by the end of the year on getting more competition into defence equipment procurement. We will, therefore, be spending this year exploring and discussing the issue to develop what will probably initially be a voluntary, non-binding, inter-governmental code of conduct, which we hope all 24 countries will subscribe to. Military procurement is largely exempt from the rules governing the European internal market. If, by the end of the year we can present a convincing plan for opening up tendering processes, it will be a huge stride forward. It will also help Europe get a better return on its defence investment.

Command, control and communication (C3) is always a problem for deployed operations. We are now working on a joint C3 study together with the EU Military Staff. This is due in May and should give us three or four targets to work on. In time, further areas may be identified as a result of the EU operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Otherwise, satellite communication is another area where Europeans could do more if we analysed the problem, which is essentially one of capacity, together and developed collective solutions.

Looking two or three years ahead, priority targets will be determined by a more scientific analysis of the capabilities needed to support ESDP aims. But to begin with, we chose UAVs and armoured fighting vehicles, which were interesting from a pan-European perspective. Various countries recognise that UAVs are something new and important and are, therefore, investing in their own research programmes. Unless countries work together, however, the end product will not be as good as it could be in terms of interoperability and practical use. The cost will also likely be higher. Our aim would be to paint a picture showing precisely what is happening across Europe. We will then present this analysis to our Steering Board and see whether the member states are happy with the situation. If they are not happy with it, we’ll present some proposals as to how to make it more coherent. Likewise with armoured vehicles.

Is there any link between your work and the security-related research that will be financed by the Research Directorate-General of the Commission?

There are proposals for a big programme of R&T expenditure on security research. Formally, we have to make a clear distinction between security research and defence research. Defence ministers are responsible for defence research and money earmarked for it comes out of defence budgets. Security research may be Commission funded. Despite the formal distinction, in the real world a lot of the technologies being developed and the companies involved in the research will be the same. The trick will be to preserve the formal distinction and yet see to it that the most relevant research is undertaken. We will have to be aware what the Commission is doing to make sure that we don't end up effectively paying twice for the same research. And we will have to share the results of research. There might even be scope for the Commission to fund certain projects of relevance to the Agency.

What are the main capabilities that Europe is lacking and how will the Agency help provide them?

I don't think there's ever been so difficult a time for defence planners. This is because they are dealing with the double whammy of moving from territorial defence to deployed operations, and, at the same time, trying to take on board the implications of the technological revolution, which is taking us out of the industrial age of warfare into the information age. In Europe, we have too much heavy metal. Meanwhile, we lack all those qualities that end in I-L-I-T-Y: sustainability, deployability, mobility and interoperability. A lot of these are associated with new systems of observation and communication where the technology is surging forward in the civilian domain. That's the sort of shift we need to encourage governments to make. But because we are a small Agency with a modest budget, we have to function fundamentally as a conscience and a catalyst.

We are in a position where we can provide uniquely cogent analysis of the entire European scene. Hopefully, this will enable us to keep returning to our shareholders, the participating member states, to explain the situation and ask whether they are happy with it. In the event that they are not happy, we will present proposals for how to improve things. At the end of the day, it will be down to 24 defence ministers to agree to adjust some elements in their national plans and to spend money differently to take the European dimension on board. I think it can and will happen because there's a lot of political support for the Agency at present.

How is an Agency staffed primarily by people seconded by capitals going to convince those same capitals to change their approach to military procurement?

Actually, it’s precisely because we are staffed by people from capitals that we can have an impact. Irrespective of how knowledgeable or inventive we were, we would cut no ice in capitals if we were simply to announce what we thought was best and then present it on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. We are at the beginning of a long journey, which we, that is the Agency and all 24 member states, will have to travel on together. We at the Agency have been put in the position of an agenda-setter, but we will only be successful, if we can bring the countries along and ensure they remain involved. They have ownership of whatever we come up with.

Does the Agency’s creation presage a Europeanisation of the foreign and security policies of EU member states?

It works the other way around. We already have a European Security and Defence Policy and a European Security Strategy, which clearly sets out the point and purpose of ESDP. The Agency exists to enable Europe to do those things that are set out in the Security Strategy. But the Security Strategy points out that if Europe is to take its share of the global security burden, it requires the tools for the job. At present, however, it doesn't have them and can only do part of the job. The Agency's role is to try to backfill the means, the capabilities, the tools and the infrastructure, or, to put it another way, close the gap between what Europe can do today and what it would like to be able to do.

How will the Agency coordinate its work with NATO to avoid duplication?

These are still early days. There are, however, already some established mechanisms. There is, for example, the NATO-EU Capability Group and I will be attending my first meeting of that body in April. We also envisage occasionally inviting the NATO Secretary General and the relevant Assistant Secretaries General to attend our Steering Board meetings. Moreover, though this has not yet been decided, the Agency may be invited to occupy the chair of the Conference of National Armaments Directors that WEAG has occupied to date. These are, of course, all formal links. I think in practice the best links, to make sure we don't trip over each other, are informal. I’ve already run through our work programme for this year with John Colston and Marshall Billingslea to have their observations and ensure we are not falling over each other in the early months.

Is any cooperation envisaged with European NATO nations that are not participating in the Agency?

Some cooperation is envisaged. Countries like Norway and Turkey will benefit from administrative arrangements setting out the nature of their association with the Agency that give them a good idea of what is happening within the Agency. In this way, if, say, half a dozen member states were thinking of coming together on a particular project, they would be able to ask to join, if they so wished. The Danish case is different and no such administrative arrangement is envisaged. This is because Denmark is an EU state that chooses not to participate.

What impact will the Agency have on transatlantic defence industrial cooperation? Will US companies find themselves shut out of European markets?

There are important transatlantic issues here. However, the power of initiative is largely on the US side. It is essentially the United States that restricts the flow of technology across the Atlantic and limits European access to the US market in contrast to the fairly open market access that Americans enjoy in Europe. The United States spends an awful lot more on defence than Europe and is, therefore, addressing these issues from a position of strength. If Europeans don't like this imbalance on technology exchange and market access, then the most sensible thing they can do is invest in a stronger defence technological industrial base in Europe so that these issues are dealt with on rather more equal terms across the Atlantic. The way to do this is by overcoming fragmentation and fostering greater consolidation, thereby generating more effective output for the not inconsiderable sums of money that are spent on defence in Europe. But this is a longer-term project. Concerning US access to European markets, we at the Agency will not be changing anything. This is an issue where there are fundamentally different views among the 24 shareholders. I suspect, therefore, that my Steering Board will agree to disagree in this area.

What impact will the Agency have on Europe’s defence industry? Do you anticipate further consolidation?

I certainly hope so. I'm convinced that there needs to be more consolidation in Europe’s defence industry. Indeed, this has been widely accepted since the 1990s, and a fair amount of progress has already been made in recent years, especially in certain sectors, such as aerospace. In other areas, the land and maritime sectors for example, consolidation has not yet taken place. I believe that it is both an operational and an economic imperative that we come together more on this. That said, as with so many of these issues, the Agency can only contribute to the process with advice and analysis.

How should the Agency’s success be measured?

One element of our work programme for this year is to come back to our Steering Board by the end of the year with some sensible performance measures. These performance measures will incidentally measure the member states’ performance as much as that of the Agency. Performance measures I have in mind include a financial target for spending an increasing proportion of European defence R&T funds on a collaborative basis and possibly something based on criteria for "usability" of forces, which NATO has pioneered.

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