WASHINGTON — As chief executive of the European Defence Agency in Brussels, former Czech defense minister Jiří Šedivý is tasked with running the engine room of the bloc’s defense-cooperation look that member states play along.
He talked with Defense News Europe editor Sebastian Sprenger about what’s next with two of the European Union’s key instruments for driving more capable defense forces: the collection of projects under the banner of permanent structured cooperation, or PESCO, and the newly approved European Defence Fund. In the end, he argues, his job entails boosting the capability of the “West,” as the United States finds itself having to focus increasingly on Asia.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
What is the state of the European Union when it comes to defense cooperation?
I believe that we are in a very crucial period now when we should accelerate cooperation in defense and especially in the area of capabilities developments, including the input of new technologies. Now, why crucial? Because this year is the very first one when we have all the recent defense initiatives on the table, be it the permanent structure cooperation or the European Defence Fund, for example. And now we need to find more synergies; we need to support less fragmentation, starting with capability requirements and goals, and ending with the defense industry.
And to that end we have another important initiative to be delivered next year, in March, that I believe will help simulate and synergize what we are now doing, which is the [European Union’s] Strategic Compass. That should provide a strategic orientation in several areas, including capability development, but also resilience or cooperation with partners, for the next 10 years. So I believe that we are now in really good shape, where we know what we need and what we want. We have a pretty good idea and concepts for how to get there. So now it’s up to the member states to start better using all these instruments and working more together.
What do you see as the drivers of urgency?
The strategic imperative is very clear: If we look, let’s say, 10 to 15 years ahead — and this should be the main driver of our efforts – one can imagine, first, the European Union surrounded by much more challenging, if not dangerous, environments, and especially around the Mediterranean, Middle East, North Africa, Sahel. In this belt we can expect more failed states, perhaps local wars. There will be very severe impacts of climate change, especially on migration, which will be another driver. And at the same time, and that’s the second main point that we should keep in mind, the U.S. will definitely be in Europe, through NATO collective defense. At the same time, the U.S. will be much more involved in Asia-Pacific, expecting the Europeans to be able, capable, and I would say even autonomous, enough to take care of the stability around our neighborhood.
An “autonomous” European Union has become something of a loaded term. What does it mean to you?
Eventually, it’s the capacity to act and to have all the requisite capabilities for action, if need be without the support of the U.S. – either under the EU flag, but it also could be a NATO operation by European allies. To that end, we need to have enablers that Europe, both on a EU but also Europe-NATO level, is still missing or depending on the U.S. for. We should not simply be always relying on the U.S., especially when, as I said, these U.S. capabilities may be involved elsewhere.
So that’s the autonomy to act, the capacity for autonomous action. And this should be supported by the capacity and will to be able to decide on a political level. And last but not least, these capabilities should be supported by a consolidated EU defense industrial base. And here the autonomy does not mean isolated from the wider transatlantic cooperation. Not at all. It means being less dependent in terms of supply chains, and less dependent on those states that are not sharing our values and interests.
You mentioned EU defense-industrial consolidation. What instruments does your agency have at its disposal to drive that?
One of our roles is to provide a platform for companies and research organizations to meet and prepare projects together that then could compete for PESCO, for example. And also, we can provide our services in terms of assisting member states and their industries in the initial harmonization of requirements, standardization, and preparing the initial architecture for projects that then could be implemented.
As you travel to member states, like your visit to Madrid, what message do you typically convey to government officials and defense-industry executives there?
The fundamental message is to encourage them, in line with the member states’ capability development priorities, to present actual projects with other member states’ industries in the context of PESCO and with an eye on the European Defence Fund. And I always want to have a workshop with the representatives of industry, either companies, combined with associations, and bilateral meetings, where I try to explain to them what EDA can do for them. We are an inter-government organization, by member states for member states and their industries. We can not only help them to find industrial partners, but we can also give them some advice when they are preparing their project proposals in order to be eligible, successful for various formats that are now ready to be used.
How will you incentivize that kind of participation?
The best incentive is that we we will have as soon as possible good, concrete results of multinational cooperation within PESCO that brings a high quality of capability at a good price. There is also the incentive of cooperation being profitable for the companies, including in terms of technology-transfer gains and information exchange.
We currently have 46 PESCO projects approved and being presented in various stages. But we cannot expect anything concrete, let’s say, before around 2025. At that time, we estimate, that about 24 to 26 out of 46 projects may deliver an initial operational capability. We can expect projects, for example, in the area of cyber, cyber resilience, or medical capabilities. There is a very promising project to establish a European mobile and medical capability. There is another area, important from from the transatlantic perspective, which is about military mobility. And there are projects dealing with various aspects of training and simulation technologies. So, these are the types of projects that could deliver relatively early, in the next three to five years.
Bigger projects, like plans for a European Patrol Corvette, will take a bit longer, until 2030.
There is another PESCO project, modernization of main battle tanks. Here we are trying to get together member states to modernize together existing platforms, be it Leopard 2 or the T-72 Soviet legacy. And if states get together then indeed they will reach a higher level of interoperability. In the long term, we would like to encourage further development of a European main battle tank. which would be actually sort of a linchpin of the whole land combat system landscape.
The German-French tank project, called the Main Ground Combat System, could it be that linchpin?
It’s a challenge, because now it’s a bilateral project outside the EU framework. But we would like to encourage the contributing member states to think about transferring this into the main battle tank focus area outlined in our Coordinated Annual Review. And this will be achieved as more member states would express their interest in joining this so far bilateral initiative. And indeed, we will see a smaller PESCO, EDF or other project directly or indirectly supporting this ecosystem of land combat capability.
What additional PESCO projects will there be?
The fourth tranche is being prepared for approval by member states and launched at the EU defense ministerial meeting in November. There are 14 of them that were assessed as feasible, both from the perspective of capability contribution and also operational contribution. We do the capability assessment and our colleagues from the EU military staff do the operational assessment. The 14 proposed projects cross all domains. What is interesting in this tranche is that there is above-average emphasis on the air domain. That’s all I can say.
Now that the European Defence Fund is in place, how does that change the dynamics of getting people interested in cooperation projects?
It’s the pool of money, it’s clear — 8.5 billion euros over seven years. Now, there are some pre-conditions, and the fundamental one for incentivizing collaborations is that it must be companies from at least three member states to apply for support from the fund. And there is a very strong emphasis on research and technological innovation. There is also the imperative for the principle of inclusiveness, which means that the small and medium enterprises should be supported in order to get into those clusters of industrial cooperation, so that not only the big ones would take all. And this is extremely important for the legitimacy and feasibility of this European Defence Fund idea. Because if you look at the EU, most of the member states are smaller and medium member states, and most of the defense industrial enterprises are small and medium enterprises. So it’s extremely important to be as inclusive as possible to get the buy-in, to get the ownership.
This is a crucial year. If we get the synergy from the start of the European Defence Fund and the input from PESCO right, I hope we will see a snowball effect of more and more member states and their industries getting in and supporting this wave of cooperation.
We at EDA are helping the EU Directorate-General for Defense Industry and Space in assessing the first tranche of project proposals for the European Defence Fund. There were about 750 project proposals for the first work program. About 50 were selected to the shortlist. There will be further evaluation, and at the end of the year we will see the first tranche to be launched. The idea is that it would be supported in the order of up to 1.2 billion euros.
On the spectrum of adding a transatlantic dimension to European defense cooperation versus keeping non-EU members out, where do you fall?
I do not accept the “versus” notion. It’s not EU versus U.S. — EU industries versus U.S. industries, that sort of thing. In the end, we should see our efforts as ways for developing the overall capacity of the West. That includes the initial discussions about an administrative arrangement between the U.S. and EDA, and also the extremely important first case of the U.S., Norway and Canada joining a PESCO project on military mobility.
At the same time, indeed, there are very strong interests on both sides. And now the main challenge is to start reconciling them to find initial areas where we can cooperate more easily before we tackle areas where more discussions are needed about limitations on technology transfer, information exchange, or the question of marketization of capabilities.
What is the objective of an administrative arrangement between the U.S. government and EDA, and where does that stand?
Administrative arrangements with EDA provide a framework for possible cooperation with third parties — it could be states, or it could be organizations like the European Space Agency. They provide the scope through which entities can access collaborative opportunities with us. We’ve had good experiences with Norway, for example, which is participating very highly in our projects. It also could entail access to various consultation fora within EDA.
We are currently in the phase of member states discussing a mandate for EDA starting negotiations about an administrative arrangement with the U.S. side. Once we have that mandate, we will actually begin negotiating. We still don’t have much clarity concerning U.S. expectations and interests. That includes the question of how the U.S. sees some fundamental conditions like reciprocity or contributions to the ends of an EU common security and defense policy and the EU defense industrial base. Because these are the goals and conditions for what we do.
It is in our interest to find agreement on that framework as soon as possible.
Sebastian Sprenger is Europe editor for Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multinational investments in defense and global security. He previously served as managing editor for Defense News.