COLOGNE, Germany — NATO members in Europe should band together and sharpen their focus on short- to medium-range air defense, with Germany taking the lead in forging a coalition, analysts on the continent argue.
The call by the German Council on Foreign Relations is based on the assumption that air superiority can no longer be taken for granted in future conflicts. Researchers argue that the playing field of air warfare has leveled out in recent years, with more countries deploying aircraft, missiles and drones capable of threatening NATO from the skies.
At the same time, European nations have divested sizable chunks of their air defense capabilities with the idea that shooting down enemy planes or missiles would be more of a tactical requirement in the future rather than a permanent, strategic one, according to Christian Mölling, a senior analyst at the think tank who co-authored a study on the issue.
“Air defense is a huge headache for NATO,” he told Defense News, adding that the situation is especially dire in the Baltic nations.
Germany already holds the designation of a so-called framework nation when it comes to missile defense within the alliance. And while defense officials in Berlin are fond of touting that responsibility in arguing for the ambitious TLVS program to replace the legacy Patriot air and missile defense fleet, there is little to show for, in a practical sense, until the new weapon is actually fielded.
That is especially the case when it comes to short-range air defense, which covers threats up to about 8 kilometers away. Within the alliance, those weapons were “largely dismantled” over the last two decades, according to the study.
“Building a multi-layered, integrated air defense is a common challenge for all European countries in terms of procurement and operation,” the study says. “Effective defense is only possible if threats can be identified early and jointly. National systems are not sufficient.”
On the longer-range side, Germany is holding out hope that the TLVS project can attract buy-in from within Europe over the coming years. In Italy, for example, the military brass appears interested in the technology, but the preferences of politicians in the government are harder to predict.
The idea of a European-wide, short-range air defense initiative has been on the table since officials at the European Defence Agency in Brussels concluded the inaugural Coordinated Annual Review on Defence of 2017 and 2018. Member states included the capability in their top priorities for future collaboration.
In that sense, there is reason to believe that the idea of a new PESCO project, as proposed by the German Council on Foreign Relations, could get traction. And if European Union officials are to be believed, whatever actual capabilities come out of that intra-continental process will also benefit the NATO alliance as a whole.
PESCO is short for Permanent Structured Cooperation, a key policy in the EU’s quest for greater defensive capabilities. A new round of collaboration proposals is expected to take shape over the summer to be approved by member states later this year.
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.