COLOGNE, Germany — France and Germany should band together and build a European aircraft carrier to boost the continent’s defense capabilities, according to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a confidante and possible successor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Kramp-Karrenbauer, who leads the Christian Democratic Union since Merkel stepped down from that job last fall, pitched the idea in a Sunday commentary in the Germany newspaper Die Welt. The article was meant as a response to French President Emmanuel Macron's plea days earlier toward something of a European renaissance ahead of the European Parliament's elections in May.
“Germany and France already are working on a future European combat aircraft, where other nations are invited to join,” Kramp-Karrenbauer wrote, referring to the Future Combat Air System, or FCAS. “As a next step, we could start the symbolic project of building an aircraft carrier to give shape to the role of the European Union as a global force for security and peace.”
The proposal comes at a time when the armed forces here are preoccupied with maintaining a basic level of readiness. While the reasons for the crisis are debatable — some blame management faults, others point to underfunding — this much is clear: The idea of massive power projection by way of an aircraft carrier is squarely outside the country’s national security vernacular.
Perhaps that is why some French analysts dismissed Kramp-Karrenbauer's pitch.
“The 'European aircraft carrier' is such a ridiculous and meaningless proposal (don't get me wrong, I can imagine some French politicians having the same 'idea') that it does not even deserve a rebuke,” Bruno Tertrais, deputy director at the Paris-based Fondation pour la Recherce Strategique, wrote in an email to Defense News.
Ulrike Franke, a London-based defense analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations, struck a similar chord in a Monday post on Twitter: “I am all for strengthening European capabilities, yes please. … But this appears … not particularly well thought through...?”
And Wolfgang Ischinger, former German ambassador in Washington and doyen of the Munich Security Conference, suggested Germany wouldn’t really know what to do with such a ship.
“An aircraft carrier is an instrument of geopolitical/military power projection,” he wrote on Twitter. “A precondition for the employment would be a common strategy and decision-making process — Germany is light years away from that!”
That appears to be the crux of Germany’s defense debate: The Bundeswehr is so caught up in its disrepair that there is no space for formulating the kind of national strategy against which new capabilities could be evaluated. The lack of such a reference point gives all new military technology — from drones to artificial intelligence to naval power projection — the whiff of being far-fetched from the start, rightfully or not.
But Germany can’t afford to skirt urgent strategic debates that would animate such acquisitions, no matter the wisdom of Kramp-Karrenbauer’s specific carrier idea, says Sebastian Bruns, who heads the Center for Maritime Strategy and Security at the University of Kiel in northern Germany.
To that end, at least, there is no shortage of analysis. According to Bruns, the debate over a lack of a debate has been perpetuated “ad nauseam” by think tanks. And while that proposition is in itself debatable, Germany’s analysts are correct in asserting that there is insufficient granularity, in written form, toward national security objectives from which to derive the rationale for this or that weapon system, he argued.
Meanwhile, the topic of a European carrier comes up every so often, Bruns told Defense News. “There is an element of folklore to it.”
While Kramp-Karrenbauer was apparently trying to help along Franco-German defense cooperation, “I’m not sure she picked a particularly helpful topic in proposing such a technologically sophisticated and large project,” Bruns said.
Once again, he said, the German Navy has more basic, pressing problems. And besides, he added with a nod to Germany’s projected defense spending, a project of that magnitude would most certainly require 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense spending, not the approximately 1.5 percent that Berlin wants to reach by 2024.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.