During a recent meeting of European defense ministers, cash-strapped militaries revealed for the first time exactly which capabilities they felt could viably be “shared” across borders. Whilst there are reasons to be skeptical about such non-binding promises to pool and share (P&S) military equipment, this is a positive step towards programs with real potential to save money.
If done well, it could even increase military effectiveness and re-assure frustrated allies in Washington that Europe is not militarily irrelevant.
With criticism over conduct in Afghanistan and more recently Libya ringing in European defense leaders’ ears, ministers gathered here in Brussels were aware that, given the long-term time frame of defense investment, cooperation would need to begin now if P&S is going to work.
The program chosen to organize this is the so-called “Ghent Framework” - a P&S initiative that intends to coordinate the development, procurement, and maintenance of new military equipment in targeted capability areas. Under the guidance of the European Defence Agency (EDA), ministers have debated for almost a year behind-the-scenes. A list of 11 “concrete” projects have been presented.
Some areas chosen fall into non-contentious logistical and training capacities, places where “un-glamorous” savings can be made without axing national projects. Thus, helicopter and fast-jet pilot training have both been put up to joint-investment. Transport hubs for supply aircraft, naval logistics, and the procurement of smart munitions are also now on the table, with the latter carrying particular significance after Libya and that military operation’s logistics issues.
However, it is not all nuts and bolts. One “quick-win” identified would be the co-purchase of commercial satellite communications (SATCOM) capabilities. Noting a “once in a 15 year opportunity” for five separate national SATCOM programs to be amalgamated under the EDA’s roof, ministers perceive an immediate 10% investment saving from this program alone.
Perhaps the most ambitious project on the agenda is in the area of air-to-air refueling aircraft. This has been a perennial weakness of European air forces for some time, with only a handful of nations capable of operating a mere 42 viable tanker aircraft. (The U.S. has 650, albeit rather old, tankers.)
After European defense manufacturer EADS failed to secure the coveted U.S. tanker fleet renewal contract earlier this year, many have speculated that a joint European procurement deal could see Airbus producing a new European fleet.
Minister’s indeed feel that the glaring need for investment in this area meant that “significant interest is expected” in some kind of co-procurement deal. This seems especially viable, as the aircraft is already designed, thus avoiding the disastrous cost overruns of previous co-development projects like the A400M.
With ministers are promising these projects are to begin “immediately,” we can only speculate at this stage how meaningful this cooperation will be. P&S is a deeply contentious policy option, which will see European nations surrendering sole sovereign control of certain capabilities. Despite grand sentiments, many details about how such projects will work remain opaque.
Yet with some dramatic defense capability cuts this year, European defense minister’s are starting to face up to a certain reality - that in the financial crisis, the only option is to “pool it or lose it.” The immediate result will probably not be astonishingly deeper defense integration, but it is one firm step in that direction and away from military irrelevance.
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