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Interview with Gen. Håkan Syrén

Chairman, European Union's Military Committee

Oct. 9, 2012 - 11:27AM   |  
By JULIAN HALE   |   Comments
Sweden's Gen. Hċkan Syrén, the outgoing chairman of the European Union's Military Committee (EUMC), is calling for a top-down push for joint EU capability development.
Sweden's Gen. Hċkan Syrén, the outgoing chairman of the European Union's Military Committee (EUMC), is calling for a top-down push for joint EU capability development. (JOHN THYS / AFP)
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BRUSSELS — The outgoing chairman of the European Union's Military Committee (EUMC) is calling for a top-down push for joint EU capability development.

Sweden's Gen. Håkan Syrén wants EU leaders to push for joint capability development in a high-level EU meeting in 2013 and has proposed that member countries devote 5 percent of their defense budgets to joint EU spending.

Syrén has been the permanent chairman of the EUMC since 2009 and will step down next month. He is the military adviser to the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton, and represents the primary point of contact with the commanders of all EU military operations. He is also the spokesman and representative of the EU Military Committee at meetings of the Political Security Committee and attends European Council meetings when decisions with defense implications are to be made.

Syrén, who was supreme commander of the Swedish Armed Forces for five years before taking the EUMC post, will retire after he leaves office Nov. 6. French Gen. Patrick de Rousiers will succeed Syrén as EUMC chairman.

Q. You said in a recent speech at an EU seminar that defense budgets have to be increased substantially in the near term to break the vicious circles and assure the necessary common strategic investments in research, development and procurement. Given the economic crisis, isn't this the time to make cuts and pool smaller budgets?

A. I'm very pragmatic. I understand the economic situation. This is about pure math. EU member states are asking us to do more with less. We need to do business completely differently from the way we do today.

We've done our homework and come up with around 15 very good initiatives using a bottom-up approach. These have been member-state-driven.

We've now come to a glass ceiling, and so we now need strong top-down directives. I see the council meeting of EU heads of state and government next year as a very good opportunity to have a top-down approach. When top-down and bottom-up meet is when things can start to move.

(Page 2 of 4)

Q. How much of a problem is duplication of equipment production in the European Union? And what can be done about it?

A. We have the Eurofighter [Typhoon], the Joint Strike Fighter, Rafale and Gripen. These are four different multirole planes that we're paying for. Do we need that? There are [more than] 12 manufacturers of armed personnel vehicles. Do we need that?

So we need help from the top level of management vis-à-vis the defense industry. We need to look at inventories.

All the time, we're complaining about a lack of capabilities. We need to do a painful analysis of what we have and establish where we have overcapacities. The problem is that we tend to sustain areas of inventory that we may not be using and pay a lot for that instead of investing in new ones.

Q. Has that inventory exercise been done? Should it be done at the EU level?

A. I don't think it's been done, but it's a very painful exercise.

As to where it should be done, yes, why not at EU level? But it could be done on any level, too. The EU Military Committee can provide analysis tools to be used by sovereign member states.

Q. How can the EUMC help with the top-down approach?

A. We can give examples of duplication and present that to them.

The EU spends around 200 billion euros [$257.3 billion] per year together. That's what China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Japan have together. They have five headquarters, and we have 27.

I'm not saying we necessarily need less, but it's something to think about. They have five logistics concepts. We have over 10 or 15. They have five to 10 war colleges, where we have double that.

Hopefully, this can encourage ministries to start working out how to take pooling and sharing to a completely new level.

Defense procurement costs are increasing every year by about 3 to 3.5 percent. EU militaries are being asked to do more, to do more complicated things and do them farther afield. We estimate that, in a 15-year period, the purchasing power of EU governments goes down by about 50 percent. The question is if politicians can accept that or [if they] will take some action or other.

(Page 3 of 4)

Q. What joint EU projects need to be pursued most urgently?

A. For that, you have to look at the lessons learned from Libya: the lack of air-to-air refueling, precise ammunition, intelligence and targeting equipment. There, we were heavily dependent on U.S. support.

I've sent around a paper about all of this to defense ministries and addressed ministers at a recent conference in Cyprus.

EU member states are at a critical juncture, and we need to do something if we don't want to be marginalized. The EUMC is trying to encourage member states to set up geographical or technological clusters.

Q. How realistic is your suggestion of EU member states devoting 5 percent of their budgets to European projects?

A. I'm trying to start some creative thinking.

Let me be concrete and provide an illustrative example — starting with, say, 5 percent and setting a goal to increase it to 25 percent in 10 years.

At present levels, that would mean 10 billion euros today and close to 50 billion euros per year by 2023, and perhaps a total of 250 billion euros over a 10-year period. It would still leave more than 85 percent for nationally defined plans during that period.

Q. How would you sell the 5 percent idea to the U.K.?

A. It's not easy. It comes back to the question of culture and values. With 27 member states, it's a question of give and take.

Q. Is the EADS-BAE merger likely to happen? And are there other areas for potential tie-ups?

A. How likely it is to happen is a question at the highest political level.

In principle, it is a good thing where we can reduce duplication and hopefully increase competition. All politicians increasingly understand that we need to do something to increase the competitiveness of the defense industry.

Q. What is the biggest obstacle to reaching agreement on common EU projects?

A. There are no real technical obstacles. The most difficult thing is people's mindsets and heritage.

It takes time to accept that you have to think in a new way. With a new economic situation and new threats, we can't do business as we've done it so far.

(Page 4 of 4)

Apart from anything else, our adversaries are smart at changing tactics, so we need to be flexible in our thinking to adapt to that.

Q. If, as you suggest, the air forces of EU member states may disappear over time, what can be done here? Can the EU help patrol member-state borders?

A. Yes. This is a good example of pooling and sharing on a high level.

The question of sovereignty is unavoidable here. The Baltic countries are doing their air policing together. The price of that is a loss of a bit of sovereignty, but it works.

If, in discussions, it can be applied to other member states, then we can do that.

Q. What does the EUMC do in terms of current EU multinational operations?

A. There's Operation EUFOR Althea in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which provides capacity building and training support.

There's also the anti-piracy Operation Atalanta, off the coast of Somalia, to ensure that the humanitarian lifeline of food reaches the people of Somalia, and which includes protecting the sea lanes of communication.

And under the EU's comprehensive strategy, there's an EU training mission in Uganda designed to strengthen the Somalis' security structure.

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