A C-17 military aircraft sits on the tarmac at the Kandahar air base in December. NATO has stood up a C-17 'Strategic Airlift Capability' at Pápa Air Base in Hungary. (MARK WILSON / AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — A European Defence Agency (EDA) effort to jointly purchase and share aerial refueling tankers with a number of nations could advance the NATO strategic weapons and equipment collaboration projects pushed by US and UK leaders.
NATO leaders for years have touted pooling and sharing projects, such as Smart Defense. However, efforts have not yielded substantial cooperation as countries have expressed national sovereignty concerns.
“It’s a realistic thing to say. It’s a difficult thing to deliver,” said Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
But European leaders gave their blessing to the air-to-air refueling program and three other EDA projects that might change that trend, experts say.
“That could make a real difference because that’s the very level on which these capabilities, the big stuff, could be provided well,” James Hackett, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said of the tanker initiative.
A March EDA report said the goal is to have tankers flying by 2020; the Netherlands is leading the project. Belgium, Greece, Spain, France, Hungary, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, the Netherlands and Norway all signed a letter of intent in 2012.
Many existing tanker aircraft in Europe have been flying for decades and are based on Boeing 707. The UK Royal Air Force has purchased Airbus A330 Voyager tankers and the Italian Air Force has purchased Boeing KC-767 tankers.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel used a February address at the Munich Security Conference to emphasize the need for European allies to invest more strategically in military projects, particularly as NATO’s mission in Afghanistan comes to an end and many nations reduce defense spending.
“We’re developing strategies to address global threats as we build more joint capacity with European militaries,” Hagel said.
“In the face of budget constraints here on the continent, as well as in the United States, we must all invest more strategically to protect military capability and readiness,” he said. “The question is not just how much we spend, but how we spend together.”
UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond echoed those comments during a visit to the US late last month.
“We both agree … that we have to look for additional areas where we can work closely together in order to maintain and enhance military capabilities and our interoperability,” Hammond said March 26 at the British Embassy in Washington.
“These will be areas around equipment procurement, around science-and-technology collaboration as well as ensuring that we have continuing opportunities for our militaries to exercise together to maintain the interoperability that we’ve built up in Afghanistan, but not just in Afghanistan, around the world in other areas where we work together.”
NATO’s militaries are preparing to end more than a decade of fighting together in Afghanistan. Over those years, many nations have achieved a high-level of common equipment and fighting techniques.
Hammond and Hagel discussed ways to advance their goals during a meeting at the Pentagon. Hammond said he hopes the meeting generates “momentum across the machine to get the work going in the various areas.”
NATO and other partner nations have successfully stood up a C-17 “Strategic Airlift Capability” at Pápa Air Base in Hungary. NATO members Hungary, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and the United States and NATO Partnership for Peace nations Finland and Sweden all buy aircraft flying hours and jointly operate the cargo planes.
US and NATO officials have touted the program and some have said there would be benefits to including tankers and other types of airlift aircraft in the mix.
Another area for collaboration could be high-end intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, particularly since European countries are running a lot of operations in Africa, Hackett said.
Beyond the tanker effort, EDA is working to integrate unmanned aircraft into the European air traffic control system. EDA is also pushing satellite communication and cyber defense projects.
The military capabilities of nations across Europe varies, with some nations possessing a full complement of capabilities while many other nations have unique specialties, Barrie said.
Beyond collaboration on high-end projects, pooling and sharing could work among countries that have mutual security interests locally, Barrie said.
But, Hackett noted that there have been problems even among countries with similar interests and security concerns.
“Nations next door to each other just have different requirements,” he said. “They’re going different places. They’re wanting to use it for different things.”
Any real agreement in terms of getting equipment or capabilities has not centered on high-dollar items, Hackett said.
“The fundamental issue is about sovereignty and use of these [is a lot to trust],” he said. ■