European strategic autonomy: the right level of ambition
Sven Biscop / Sep 2016
Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO, and Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy. Photo: Euoprean Union
The EU Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy (EUGS) is one of the most ambitious EU documents on defence to date. Presented to the Heads of State and Government by High Representative Federica Mogherini in June 2016, it is the first EU document to see strategic autonomy as the objective. Not a moment too soon, as security challenges inside and around Europe are rising, while the US has made it clear that it will not, and cannot, solve all of Europe’s problems.
The operational dimension of strategic autonomy comes down to the ability to act without the US whenever necessary. From that follows the industrial dimension: having a defence industry that can produce everything that this requires, notably the strategic enablers.
The EUGS sets out four major military tasks: to help protect the European way of life at home; to maintain stability in the broad neighbourhood; to maintain the freedom of the global commons; and to contribute to United Nations collective security. Together, these four tasks represent a clear increase in the burden placed on Europe’s armed forces.
The neighbourhood especially presents a challenge. The emphasis is on increasing resilience and building capacity, but where war is ongoing, the EUGS also commits the EU to protect civilians and to consolidate local ceasefires. That entails deploying troops on the ground with serious firepower, backed up by air support and ready reserves, who will not necessarily seek out and destroy an opponent but who will fight when the civilians for whom they are responsible are threatened. Without that determination, the EU will not have created a safe zone but a trap. For many Member States, land operations with such a high potential of combat go far beyond anything that they have recently undertaken, certainly in an autonomous European framework.
It is vital therefore that the implications of this and the other tasks are spelled out and fully taken on board by the political and military leadership. The EUGS provides for a “sectoral strategy” on defence to do exactly that, under the heading, recently announced by the High Representative, of a Strategic Implementation Plan on Security and Defence. What this really is, of course, is an EU defence white paper, which Mogherini aims to be adopted before the end of the year.
The EUGS itself calls for “full-spectrum land, air, space and maritime capabilities, including strategic enablers”. The white paper must now quantify the four military tasks and the desired concurrency: How many operations, of which size, should Europeans be able to undertake simultaneously, without relying on non-European assets?
When a new strategy demands strategic autonomy, it would be contradictory to set too modest a level of ambition. Some now propose to focus on the autonomous deployment of a brigade, presenting this as an increase as compared to the ambition to have two battalion-size Battlegroups on stand-by. That, of course, is the wrong point of departure: the existing level of ambition is the Headline Goal – to deploy and sustain up to a corps of 60,000. It is the Headline Goal that must be revised – upwards.
For sure, if after a Brexit the British contribution is withdrawn from the EU’s Force Catalogue, it will create gaps that in the short term cannot be easily filled by the existing capabilities of the remaining Member States. But the Headline Goal was set in 1999, for a Union of 15 Member States. A revised Headline Goal will be a target for a Union of 27, with 1.35 million troops and a total defence expenditure of $200 billion. At the very least, the current Headline Goal should remain eminently feasible.
But with such overall numbers even an increased Headline Goal can be achieved over time – on the condition that defence integration is pushed much further. And an increased Headline Goal will be necessary if Europeans want to be able to deploy, simultaneously: long-term brigade-size stabilisation operations and a high intensity crisis management operation of several brigades and squadrons in the neighbourhood, as well as long-term naval operations, and battalion-size contributions to UN peacekeeping, while engaging in capacity-building and military cooperation.
In light of the crises in Europe’s neighbourhood and the global geopolitical tensions, this level of ambition is none too high. It is but the reflection of the rhythm of operations of the last decade. Maintaining and, over time, even increasing the Headline Goal is the realist option therefore: in view of what is necessary, but also in view of what is possible, looking at Europe’s military potential. Realism not only means not setting unachievable objectives – it also means not setting the bar too low and underexploit the potential that is there.