BRUSSELS — Speaking at an April 25 debate about the state of the world, a senior official made an impassioned plea for more convergence among European military forces while another was skeptical about the prospects for European defense cooperation and castigated China for its actions in Asia.
Europe is not spending well on defense and needs to spend better before it spends more, said the official, speaking under Chatham House rules in which participants are not to be identified.
The event was co-hosted by The German Marshall Fund US think tank and French newspaper Le Monde. The newspaper has just published its “Bilan Géostrategie 2013 [Geostrategic assessment]: A fragile global environment.”
EU countries account for around a fifth of global defense expenditure, have big warships, hundreds of combat aircraft and well trained forces, he added.
But “these good capabilities are dispersed and not organized together. Repackaging what Europe has could make it a much more formidable player,” he said. NATO is thinking about this via its smart defense and combined forces initiatives.
“NATO has to be much more innovative than it has been up til now,” he said.
“You won’t take away their sovereignty on wanting or not to intervene [in regional conflicts throughout the world],” he added. “But we can do more to prepare for that possibility by bringing military forces closer together.
“Why is it such a long process to get forces together every time for an operation? Because the forces are not packaged in peacetime to come together quicker.”
It has been done with European air transport command, where German transport aircraft have transported French troops to operations, he said, adding that “this is something you need to do in peacetime as it won’t happen at the 11th hour.”
Citing examples such as UK Typhoons and French Rafales working together on exercises and UK-French combined expeditionary forces/rapid reaction corps, he said there were “many instances of this but it’s a bit all over the place.”
Another official was extremely skeptical about the prospects for EU defense cooperation. “If we were serious about defense, we would share more. I don’t see us being serious about defense. Up until now the US provided the defense guarantee. The threat in Europe is relatively low,” he said.
“For pooling and sharing to happen, you need to have a common European conception of what you want from defense and to do procurement in common,” he added. “A crisis or very high quality leadership are needed. Neither seem likely,” he said.
An expert researcher argued that the European Defence Agency and NATO insist on “quick wins and small steps” when it comes to pooling and sharing, “so there is no game changer.”
There is a disconnection between the political level and the reality on the ground, he said. He also argued that it is easier for EU countries to cooperate in smaller groups than with the full 27 EU countries.
“Closer integration is the response to budgetary constraints in theory, but in practice, can we really rely on each other for strategic enablers such as joint air transport?” he asked rhetorically.
As for the nature of future wars, the first official preferred to talk of “hybrid war” rather than “asymmetric war.”
“We don’t know who the adversary will be, who they will be working for, what means they’ll use — this is the complexity of today’s environment. Every single operation is a mix of hard, soft power and 21st century warfare,” he said. Mali is a kind of hybrid war although this applies to most engagements, he added.
The researcher painted a picture of a fluid security environment, “not marked by the massive threats we knew of in the Cold War but by a multiplication of security crises.”
Noting the declining defense budgets of the EU and US, he sees the two powers as “a coalition of the unable and unwilling” but cannot see Brazil, China or Russia taking over the role of providing minimum stability in the world.
The official who was skeptical about EU defense cooperation commented that “China has a low GNP per head and is therefore a very poor great power” and that the risk of instability in the country is high. “If China wants to be a regional power in Asia, it has to provide security. It says it wants to be a regional power but spends its time antagonizing its neighbors. That’s not very smart,” he said.
On Syria and the arms embargo debate, the researcher said France and the UK came to a summit in Brussels and then more or less backtracked when they saw the reaction of other European countries. He lamented that there was “no serious discussion about how to deal with the Syria mess.”