COLOGNE, Germany – A collection of European Union initiatives for improving the bloc’s military prowess is at risk of failure unless member countries tighten the reins on how the projects are managed, a new think thank study has found.
The analysis by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies calls for reforms in the so-called PESCO framework, which is short for Permanent Structure Cooperation. European defense leaders have touted PESCO and its funding mechanisms, including the envisioned multibillion-dollar European Defense Fund, as a major breakthrough in consolidating military capabilities scattered across EU member states.
To date, participating member states have launched 34 projects, one batch in March 2018 and another in November. Their objectives target aspects across the spectrum of military capabilities, everything from software-defined radios to reconnaissance airships to maritime security, cyber operations and military logistics.
But the efforts “seem to face common challenges related to stakeholder coordination, funding, and importantly, an understanding of what the projects are actually meant to achieve,” IISS researchers write in an upcoming report. In addition, many of the projects examined by the analysts come without a clear understanding of how the results would “help in relation to EU missions.”
“These risks raise the real possibility that PESCO may become yet another missed opportunity on the long road to more integrated European defense cooperation,” states the report.
European Union officials plan to add yet more projects by this summer. At the same time, IISS researchers argue that the collection of initiatives is ripe for weeding out those with little promise of success. Notably, programs that existed before coming under the PESCO umbrella show the greatest signs of progress, according to the analysis.
Tossing out certain initiatives will become even more necessary if it becomes clear that the full plate could exhaust available funding, Yvonni-Stefania Efstathiou, one of the authors, told Defense News. “What happens if the funding doesn't come through? What happens if you have to prioritize?”
“We noticed that there is a lot of talk about launching projects,” Efstathiou said about the impetus for the study. “But we heard little on implementation.”
Officials at the European Defense Agency, which oversees the PESCO framework, have defended the plans, arguing the initiatives are so new that more time is needed to judge their success. In addition, the argument goes, the projects shouldn’t be evaluated only by specific outcomes, but more broadly by the commitment of member states to collaborate on defense matters at all.
At the same time, it appears that the call for a greater focus on implementation isn’t lost on the agency. Defense News reported earlier this month that the upcoming batch of new projects likely would be smaller than the previous two and include a more “mature” organizational setup, as one official put it.
Meanwhile, senior U.S. defense officials have lodged fresh complaints against the EU’s internal defense-cooperation policies, warning that excluding Washington would risk damaging transatlantic relations, Der Spiegel reported on its website on Tuesday.
The latest barrage of criticism comes from Pentagon acquisition chief Ellen Lord and Andrea Thompson, the under secretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, in a letter to Frederica Mogherini, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.
The two want unrestricted access by U.S. defense companies to all PESCO projects, plus the ability for Washington to decide on its own where to export any military gear developed under EU auspices, according to the Spiegel.
While there has been a general willingness in Brussels to allow non-EU members into specific defense initiatives, officials have said such access would come with strings attached.
Some Trump administration officials have watched European efforts to boost the bloc’s common defense capabilities with mistrust. At the same time, they have argued America’s NATO partners on the continent must do more to boost their own security and allow Washington to dial back its funding commitments over time.
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.