An air freighter sits on the tarmac at the military airport in Eindhoven, Netherlands. The European Air Transport Command (EATC), based at the airport, manages national European military air transport capabilities and resources, which are shared among several member states such as Germany, the Netherlands, France and Luxembourg. (Jeroen Jumelet / AFP)
EINDHOVEN, NETHERLANDS — Much talked about but rare in practice, EU defense cooperation is becoming a reality at a Dutch air base where French, German and Benelux personnel mount thousands of missions each year.
“Small is beautiful” could be the motto for the European Air Transport Command, working at Eindhoven to offer a real joint capability to cash-strapped European Union states.
“The EATC is a unique military structure in Europe. It works on the principle of ‘car-sharing,’” said its commander, French Gen. Pascal Valentin.
The EATC was set up in 2010 at the initiative of the French and German military who had pushed the idea since 2000 to share air transport resources and help reduce costs.
Shortly afterward, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg — who already pool significant military resources — joined them.
The aim is to maximize the use of military transport resources at a time when tighter defense budgets put a premium on cost effectiveness.
For example, if a German plane is going to Afghanistan, EATC will ensure it has a full load both ways, be it a French cargo of equipment or Dutch soldiers.
“It is a bit like the tie-ups you see among commercial airlines,” such as Skyteam or Star Alliance, German Lt. Col. Ralf Gerard said.
In practice it seems unexceptional but up to now, efforts to step up military cooperation between the 28 European Union member states have produced little practical result.
Joint action has been ad hoc, be it in Libya or Mali, and often led by Britain and France who jealously guard their military assets and the sovereign right to deploy them as they see fit in the national interest.
An EU leaders summit on Thursday and Friday is meant to look closely at joint defense policy, summed up as “pooling and sharing”, but sharp differences over a slew of economic problems threaten again to leave little room for anything else.
Limits to EU defense cooperation
The member state versus EU tensions are not absent from the EATC either but perhaps they are better managed.
Its five member countries cede operational control over their aircraft but they also reserve the right to withdraw them temporarily, especially in the event of a national emergency.
“By retaining control over their assets, the participating countries do not feel as though they are trapped in it. That is one of the reasons for its success,” General Valentin said.
At the Eindhoven base, in the southern Netherlands, the EATC’s some 170 personnel oversee a fleet of tens of aircraft stationed in their respective countries, running from the venerable C-130 Hercules warhorse to long-range Airbus A330s and A340s.
In 2012, they mounted 7,682 missions, carrying troops and material to and from Afghanistan, helping the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of Congo and backing up international intervention in Libya.
This year, 200 missions have gone to Mali following French intervention there, estimated to have helped Paris save two or three flights a day.
“Our challenge is to respond to the increase in demand even as the fleet of aircraft ages and falls in number,” Valentin said.
The EATC is waiting for the arrival, planned for next year, of the much delayed Airbus A400 military transport aircraft which will boost capability significantly.
The other objective is to help fill the crucial gap in Europe for in-flight refueling planes, expensive systems beyond the reach of most countries but essential to projecting power.
The EATC has been tasked with looking at the options for “these very costly aircraft which every country needs”, Valentin said.
In the meantime, the EATC is expecting Spain to join, with Italy, Britain and Poland hopefully on the list too.