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Three plus one: a military level of ambition for Europeans

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In this fourth contribution in a five-part series on defence and the EU Global Strategy, Alexander Mattelaer looks at transatlantic burden-sharing and European defence.

This article was published first in European Geostrategy.

(Photo credit: Morning Calm Weekly, Flickr)


Three plus one: a military level of ambition for Europeans

What should be the level of ambition for the grand total of European defence efforts? The question matters because such a notion would constitute the conceptual anchor point for any collective defence planning exercise amongst Europeans. Unfortunately no answer is readily available. Of course there is such a thing as the level of ambition guiding the NATO defence planning process. Based on the political guidance issued by the North Atlantic Council, planners attempt to synchronise force structure development amongst the Allied defence establishments. But what if the United States prefer to ‘lead from behind’ and indeed let Europeans take the initiative in tackling any given security crisis? The deeply embedded structural dependency on the United States to assume leadership of operational campaigns renders the Alliance (as presently organised)poorly equipped to deal with such a scenario. As the US faces competing requests for its strategic bandwidth from elsewhere in the world – in particular in the light of the much-vaunted rebalance to the Asia Pacific region – Europeans are obliged to think longer and harder about how they can provide for their own security, in particular when it comes to less than full scale war.

This essay is intended to provide food-for-thought on what could constitute such an aggregate force planning construct for European states. It argues in favour of a ‘three-plus-one’ design that would enable the member states of the EU to develop the ability to preserve their own security interests when those of the US are not threatened. Three plus one is shorthand for the ability to mount at least three small joint operations (above brigade-level) as well as one major joint operation (above corps-level) simultaneously. Such a military level of ambition dovetails well with the political aspirations and objective security interests of Europeans – even if their collective force pool would require a significant upgrade to realise this. As such, this would oblige those same countries to assume their fair share of the transatlantic bargain.

It bears emphasising that this argument relates to military capabilities owned by member states rather than the institutional framework under which operations may be launched. For too long has the institutional beauty contest between NATO and the EU provided a convenient smokescreen for the hollowing out of European defence establishment. It is the European ability to act that needs to assume centre stage. This relates in particular to circumstances wherein the US could not confidently be expected to play a leading role, such as an attack on a non-NATO member state (like Sweden) or a regional crisis in the broader European neighbourhood (Mali in 2013 proved a case in point).

A ‘three plus one’ force planning construct

The geography of the European continent is such that defence planners must worry about a wide-range of security contingencies. Volatility in the eastern as well as the southern European neighbourhood is rife, militarisation of the high north is a real possibility and faraway contingencies may still have a tangible impact on European interests and trade relations. In all of these contexts, force requirements may vary significantly in function of the operational environment (terrestrial, maritime, air and cyberspace) and the distance to theatre (impacting on deployment and sustainment parameters). The starting point for designing a European force planning construct must therefore be to assume multiple simultaneous contingencies that are most diverse in terms of their operational requirements. The ability to mount several joint operations – for instance three small and one major – is therefore key. Let us unpack this proposition into its different constitutive elements.

Europeans need to be ready for several (mostly smaller) operations simultaneously. This is easily justified: they are already doing so on a continuous basis. At the time of writing, France alone had some 10,000 forces deployed on expeditionary operations (most notably operations Barkhane in the Sahel region and Chammal in Iraq/Syria). In addition, nearly all EU member states (including neutrals Austria, Finland, Ireland and Sweden) are contributing nearly 4,000 troops to NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. Last but not least, various European member states contribute smaller contingents to yet other operations, not only the US-led campaign against ISIL (Operation Inherent Resolve), but also peacekeeping missions such as the UN Interim Force in Lebanon and maritime security operations in the Mediterranean and around the Horn of Africa. In total, this means that ongoing operations would easily account for at least three brigade-level force packages and supporting enablers (if not more). While many of these operations are land-, air-, or maritime-centric, it is clear that the force pool must be multidimensional and capable of generating joint effects.

In addition to the above, Europeans must prepare for undertaking one major, troop intensive stabilisation operation autonomously. In fact, this is what Europeans already acknowledged in the immediate aftermath of the Yugoslav wars, when they were collectively unable to muster the political willpower and the military instruments to manage their own backyard. The Headline Goal set at the Helsinki European Council meeting in 1999 already codified the ambition to be able to deploy and sustain forces up to corps-level (50,000-60,000 troops) within 60 days. Has the relevance of this political ambition changed? At the height of the NATO-led campaign in Afghanistan European troop contributions came close to this level. But more importantly, what if the United States would not want to lead an intervention in, say, Libya or Syria, and Europeans would be desperate to halt the refugee flow resulting from conflict in these countries? Or perhaps even closer home, what if Europeans would suddenly need large number of forces for homeland security operations? The operational stress that French and Belgian forces experienced in the aftermath of the 13 November terror attacks in Paris serve as a warning that troop numbers do matter. Having sufficient numbers in the force for generating 24/7 presence over longer time periods is a genuine concern.

The composition of the force pool is at least as relevant as its overall volume. In order to possess genuinely operational capabilities, Europeans need sufficient as well as sufficiently advanced enablers ranging from command-and-control to strategic lift and ISTAR assets. Some of these are readily available in inchoate form: think of the many deployable headquarters such as the UK-led Allied Rapid Reaction Corps Headquarters, the French-led Quartier général du corps de réaction rapide or the German-led Multinationales Kommando Operative Führung.

But others are noticeably absent – or critically dependent on US support, such as air command networks and intelligence capabilities. Does this matter? One only needs to wonder whether in the aftermath of the downing of flight MH17 – killing over 200 European citizens – a little bit more European awareness about anti-access and area-denial capabilities may prove valuable – in political as well as in military terms. Of course advanced sensors, networks and radars are expensive technology, but not having access to these renders Europeans as vulnerable as a blind man in a firefight.

Operational ability is not only critically dependent on mission enablers, but ultimately also on raw firepower tuned to generating joint effect. After two decades of conducting mostly stabilisation operations, the armoury of European states has been to a significant extent emptied of heavy firepower and ammunition stocks. While the European shortfalls of enablers are well-known, those in strike assets are significantly less so. While many European air forces field tactical fighter jets, they lack strategic bombers. Similarly, missile submarines are in short supply in European navies. Sharp reductions in the numbers of heavy armour and indirect fire support have hollowed out even the terrestrial-oriented Bundeswehr to a shadow of its former self. This lack of firepower carries ominous implications for Europe’s territorial defences,especially in the Baltic region. This also relates to the industrial dimension of the defence debate. Despite some positive developments in terms of cross-border consolidation, European armament manufacturers remain heavily dependent on foreign exports and not in a position to develop leading technologies for winning any future kinetic engagement.

Enabling European defence and transatlantic burden-sharing

The proposed military level of ambition would be tailored around a force pool that is dimensioned for conducting at least three small operations and one major operation simultaneously. In addition the force pool must reflect the appropriate balance between manpower, firepower and enablers. This is of course not to forget what is required for managing post-conflict scenarios. The focus on hard military power is not meant to imply that soft instruments lack strategic value – to the contrary! Rather, it is meant to address the most critical shortfalls that will materialise in those scenarios when European forces are autonomously engaged. At the same time, this will turn Europeans into far more capable partners of the US in the most dangerous scenario of two major conflicts in different parts of the world.

When adding up all that is required for meeting the three plus one level of ambition outlined above, Europeans will also come within reach of acquiring the ability to put up a meaningful defence in a hypothetical conflict with Russia that does not involve the United States. Or, to be more precise, they would find themselves in a position of being able to help themselves when the US is only half-engaged. Imagine, for instance, Russia targeting Finland or Sweden in an attempt to break European cohesion; or a Russian attempt to take-over the island of Gotland in a bid to strengthen its position in the Baltic region. Without support from their fellow EU member states activated under Article 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union, these countries would be hard-pressed to defend their own territory and independence. The idea that the US would stay completely aloof may sound far-fetched, but what if such scenarios were to materialise at a time when its strategic bandwidth – inherently broad but ultimately finite – was consumed elsewhere in the world?

In this sense, a European military level of ambition is not just about European autonomy to act, but also about real burden-sharing in a transatlantic context. Is it not fair to conceive of a European military level of ambition that approximates about half of the NATO level of ambition? This would allow for a much more balanced European contribution to the Alliance in a quantitative sense. But even more importantly, this would revolutionise European defence efforts in a qualitative sense, as Europeans would no longer act as mere force providers. Europeans could collectively assume leadership over operations on their own. At the political level, they would be required to assume genuine responsibility for their collective security beyond the territorial integrity of the Alliance. This would provide a stark contrast to the pick-and-choose approach that has bedevilled campaign design and force generation in NATO and EU military operations alike.

Integrated into the European Semester

There is one more reason for looking at defence matters through a purely European lens. When looking at European foreign policy aspirations and security needs on the one hand and military capabilities on the other, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that resources do not match ambition. That does not come as a complete surprise when one takes into account that public finances and the state of European defences get discussed in entirely different settings. In recent years, the momentum supporting the development of a European Common Security and Defence Policy has faltered. As a result, NATO has regained its traditional position as security forum of the last resort, to be consulted when the need is great and the hour is late. But in the same time-span, European control over public spending has increased significantly. European institutions have acquired the competences to monitor national budgets as part of the European semester system. The European Commission provides country-specific recommendations on all matters of macro-economic policy with a view to reporting and correcting imbalances.

Although defence expenditures only constitute a limited share of aggregate public spending, defence planners have become all too familiar with situations in which cuts to the defence budget had to offset budget increases in other headings of the public accounts. At the same time, NATO targets relating to desirable levels of defence investment play no role whatsoever in the elaborate system of budgetary oversight that has been developed within the European Union. The development of a European military level of ambition – with the price tag that this inevitably entails – can constitute a much-needed bridge between the different debates about public spending, i.e. spending on defence and spending on other essential state functions. The budgetary corollary of a European military level of ambition should therefore be fully integrated into the European semester. This would then include not only the monitoring of compliance, but also open the door to financial sanctions in case of missing defence budgetary targets repeatedly.


Transatlantic burden-sharing and the ability of Europeans to make their own decisions go hand in hand. A European military level of ambition is only one means of arriving at both those objectives. In order for such an ambition to be more than a declaratory statement, actual capabilities will need to be developed and maintained. This entails much more detailed quantification of capability requirements. At the same time, it means fostering a qualitative appreciation of what military force can and cannot achieve. The three plus one construct that is proposed here is only a rough indication of what such an ambition could look like. The more important element of developing such an ambition level surely resides in the discussion this entails amongst all European member states and in the embedding of that process in the discussion where the rubber meets the road: the budgetary commitment to defence targets. Once the process of hollowing out European forces has been arrested, planners can turn once more to a good set of problems and ensure that Europe remains prosperous, secure and free.

Vol. 8, No. 10 (2016)