20th May 2019

End cold war thinking, defence expert urges

The EU should update its military thinking to take into account the defence needs of today, rather than continuing to look to the past, the director of the European Defence Agency (EDA) has said.

Speaking to a group of journalists on Wednesday (7 September), Nick Witney said the nature of military operations have changed but member states are still stuck in Cold War thinking.

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"Most of the armed forces across Europe are still too much configured to waiting for a Soviet threat, which is not going to materialise", says Mr Witney.

"It is really rather hard to conceive of when European forces will find themselves involved in an all out shooting war with a well-organised conventional state opponent".

This outdated military thinking manifests itself in the equipment that member states still have to hand - such as 10,000 main battle tanks.

New technologies

Instead, says the British defence expert, the military should be looking into new technologies that allow operations to be much more accurate so that it can cope with the "difficult, ambiguous peace-keeping operations" that the EU now takes part in.

Another aspect to factor in is that governments and the public at large are much less willing to tolerate casualties.

Applications of force have to be done with "extreme precision and extreme restraint within very tight rules of engagement", says Mr Witney.

But realising what the problem is and something actually being done about it are two different things, and the defence agency, set up in 2004, has to tread very carefully in this bastion of intergovernmentalism.

Mr Witney stresses several times that the 80-staff agency, with a small budget of 20 million euro a year, is mainly a forum for bringing "defence ministers together".

But he points out this can have its useful side as before the EDA made a note of it "no one was aware that there were 23 separate programmes for new armoured fighting vehicles in Europe".

However, the lack of money spent on research and technology remains a large obstacle where Europeans are "very substantially outspent by the Americans".

Although Mr Witney rules out any "Pentagon-like ambitions", he concedes that the agency's own €3m research budget is very small.

A little bit of competition

A major step that would help the EU's defence capabilities would be introducing competition to defence procurement.

At the moment, it is all done at national level but here the agency has an ally in the European Commission which last year published a paper looking at introducing competition to this area - the industry commissioner Gunter Verheugen also sits on the steering board of the EDA.

This opening of the market would mean that Europe gets more out of the €160 billion a year it spends on defence. At the moment, says Mr Witney, "when you look at what you get out of it (€160bn), it's surprisingly little".

"There is no longer enough money in the defence budgets, even of the biggest member states, to sustain a really healthy and competitive defence industry on a national basis", he concludes acknowledging all the while the length of time it is likely to take before member states really come round to this way of thinking.


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