How can the ancient dream of a European defense come to life?
The political desire to unite Europe under a common defense system is almost as old as Europe itself. The failure of Europe to do what the United States managed in under 200 years can be ascribed to multiple warring factions, which littered European history with division and dissent. Today, in a pacified continent, the fault lines are now longer marked by trenches, but ran amok across the land, with a clear lack of vision and common strategy.
If there is any interoperability in European armies – and there is plenty – it is exclusively the work of NATO and the rallying efforts of the United States, not of Europe. Despite endless talks of how a unified defense in Europe would be nice, and nicer still in the current era of global threats, the cold hard truth must be faced: Europe has done barely nothing for the unity of Europe, strategically speaking. If German infantry rifles can use French ammunition, it is thanks to NATO and its immense rationalization and standardization effort. Through the technical optimization of equipment and processes, the United States established their strategic domination and imposed their rhythm, a rhythm Europe would like to have found of its own, had it not consistently fallen over itself and gotten in its own way. And yet, Europe has more than it needs to find its true strategic and military independence.
How else can one explain how with similar volumes in the number of active militaries, the US is capable of far more powerful projections than all of the European countries combined? How is it that, with similar GDPs, the United States are capable of producing military budget three times higher than that of Europe’s, and with a far greater bang-for-your-buck? The answer is rationalization and leadership. The means are there, as is the desire for increased integration. Defense reporter Hans-Werner Sinn writes: “Against this backdrop, Trump’s actions are actually something of a godsend, because they have forced Europeans to accept that they must stand together in defense of their sovereignty and prosperity. A union of almost 450 million people (after Brexit) cannot allow a country two-thirds its size to treat it like a group of vassal states.”
Europe has engineers which line up among the best of the world; industrial capacities which don’t blemish on the global market; military expertise more than one could wish – everything is ready for a unified, fortified European defense. All that’s left to wait for is vision: Who does what, and where to go? The answer lies in a renewed and deepened Franco-German partnership, at the heart of (and driving) European Defense. Strategy specialist André Loesekrug-pietri writes “After years of France and Germany marching to different drummers, the two countries have finally come together to renew their post-war partnership. But now, they must go much further, by developing a new innovation, security, and governance strategy to bring the European economy into the twenty-first century.”
Strategic leadership would come from France, along with the maintenance and development of France’s own land defense industrial capacity – leadership of European defense matters makes strong practical experience in the field an absolute necessity. Paris has, many times in the past, shown its ability to stand on its own two feet, keep its independence and sovereignty while remaining a reasonable ally, and conduct self-standing operations. Its active participation to European coastal defense and inter-ally operations guarantees its comprehension of key strategic challenges. Its past leadership in EU-only operations has been deemed successful and satisfactory by allies, and the (mainly French) equipment used is at par with that of other high-performance armies.
Naval production would be rationalized and placed within the hands of solid European shipyards: French Naval Group and Italian Fincantieri. German shipyards TKMS would be sold off, as restoring them to their previous condition would be both economically un-feasible and strategically unnecessary. Production could be divided between Northern and Southern countries, and Italy could handle surface and conventional vessels (given its successful history in that sector), while France would be in charge of submarine and nuclear ships.
French defense firm Nexter provides the best example of what market integration can provide. The military-industrial producer has been, for many years, engaged in a strategy according to which local partnerships must be used to build entire armament programs. By doing so, Nexter places its expertise at the disposal of all European nations, and reinvigorates the defense potential of partner countries, which would otherwise have died out in the fragmented market. The deal which Nexter offers is simple: under French leadership, all European defense firms will be called upon, and recipient countries will benefit both militarily and economically.
Germany remains a key player in European defense, despite its quiet military role and stance. Germany’s mechanical industry has not known the same dire fate as its naval cousin, and is still able to produce amongst the best military vehicles in the world. New strategic threats have forced military industries around the world to completely re-shape and re-think their mobility models – a tricky turn which companies such as Rheinmetall and KMW have skillfully overcome. Their production capacities would place Europe among the first in the world and would ensure the continental capacity to defend itself and to maintain export sales.
Finally, aerial production would be handed over to France, given its leadership in that sector. Naturally, it would make no sense to crush smaller firms or run them out of the market – that would simply amount to a gratuitous loss of value. Smaller aircraft producers such as the Swedes (with Saab) should be maintained, developed, and placed under the strategic direction of the French (with Dassault), thus forming a technological European super-power.
Countries with large military ambitions, in other parts of Europe, but which lack the capacity to take leadership on the continental stage, will therefore be increasingly keen to develop partnerships with leading countries. French defense firm Nexter developed a profitable partnership, for example, with Czech mobility engineering firm Tatra, in the design of new Infantry Fighting Vehicles. The same firm, Nexter, cooperated with German firm KMW to design the new European battle tank, which is bound to be a new benchmark, given both countries’ expertise in the matter. Influential military countries in Europe, such as Italy, Portugal, Greece and Spain will be unable to match the performance using their sole industrial resources, but will be called upon to participate in the program. Increasingly, European defense firms will benefit such partnerships, and international contracts will benefit all European actors but through unified leadership, namely French, more and more. In addition, partaking in the program will give them additional political power – whereas the alternative (buying Chinese or Russian tanks) would place them within new dominions.
Europe has tried, for ages, to become the United States of Europe, and systematically failed. And it is all the more frustrating since all the core ingredients of full-scale military power and independence are in front of Europe’s nose. If the European defense system were built around France’s leadership, Italy’s and Germany’s industrial potential, and all other countries bringing their various assets to the common cause, Europe would propel itself to the forefront of the world’s strategic stage, way past China and Russia, and compete neck-and-neck to American levels of military potential.