A new Headline Goal for Europe’s defence capabilities


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Paul Collins

Paul Collins is Senior advisor for Renaissance Strategic Advisors, having worked in both EU military staff and the European Defence Agency

When it comes to improving Europe’s defence capabilities, there appears to be no shortage of catalysts for action – the publication of the EU’s Global Strategy, NATO’s Warsaw Summit, further devastating terror attacks within Europe’s borders and the dark stain of unrelenting violence spreading throughout the Middle East and Africa. There have been wake-up calls before, yet European defence capabilities remain parlous, as fragmentation continues and gaps persist in national militaries. In fact, there has been no work undertaken to elaborate a relevant defence capability requirement since 2008, and that was only a superficial update of the original Headline Goal from June 2000.

The current Headline Goal, which was principally a result of defence weaknesses in the Balkans campaign, was central to strengthening the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy in 1999, but is clearly of little relevance today. The work, undertaken by representatives of the fifteen member states at that time, was based on four scenarios called the Petersburg Tasks – named after a hotel in Bonn, not the Russian city. The Tasks encompass a wide spectrum of possible military missions, from evacuation to peacemaking (separation of parties by force). On the surface, these potential missions may seem a valuable starting point, but the planning assumptions used sixteen years ago make the analysis irrelevant. If Federica Mogherini’s new Global Strategy is to be credible for Europeans and those nations looking in from outside – allies and potential adversaries – a structured plan to provide credible data is urgently required.

Resetting capability targets must not become a long-drawn-out process for the sake of maintaining procedure

In terms of developing defence and security capability, the initial task must be to reset the civil and military required capability targets. As this indicates, the work must see the civil and military sectors working coherently. And unlike previous exercises, the work must not become a long-drawn-out process for the sake of maintaining procedures. It must be centred upon the key principles highlighted within the Global Strategy; namely, operating within a security environment that remains complex and uncertain, with a threat spectrum that ranges across both state and non-state actors, which is asymmetric in nature and will probe all potential vulnerabilities in all environments, including cyberspace.
The exercise should still have its foundations in scenario-based analysis. Scenarios are a proven and powerful tool. They do not pretend to predict the future but can identify drivers of change, emerging risks, underlying trends, benefits and opportunities, and can test identified options. Well-constructed scenarios can uncover inevitable or near-inevitable outcomes and avoid the false certainty of a single forecast. Furthermore, when managed carefully, they can expand thinking, successfully fuse initially divergent ideas and challenge traditional thinking

The analysis should be transparent and auditable, and should draw on previous work by the European Defence Agency (EDA) for their Capability Development Plan (CDP), including using their ‘task-to-capability’ logic that has been so successful with participating member states. Guided by a small coordinating team responsible to the Secretary-General, a working group of both military and civilian planners from member states and relevant organisations could provide the basis for seamless cooperation. Such a broad-looking group could prevent ‘group-think’ mentality and test current concepts and policies for applicability and shortcomings.

Fragmentation continues and gaps persist in national militaries’ capabilities

The project’s outcome must be very different from the current Headline Goal. It should include a list of shortfalls in the EU’s ability to complete tasks, military and civilian, with options of how identified risks could be managed effectively over time. Potential solutions could be doctrinal or conceptual in nature, equipment-related requiring updating and upgrading inventories, or have an emerging technological component to underpin new methods of defence. To achieve this vital output, civil and defence staff from all member state, from appropriate EU institutions or agencies and representatives from industry, leading technology companies and academia will need to participate in phases of the exercise to ensure outputs are clear, comprehensive and consistent with national priorities and plans.

There is no doubt that Europe’s wider region is now more insecure and current threats provide a spectrum of danger as bad as Europe faced in the Cold War – perhaps more so. The EU does need to be a union ‘that thinks strategically, shares a vision and acts together’, and it must start by revisiting the origins of CSDP, focusing on comprehensive capability needs to produce credible, actionable outputs to make a stronger Europe. By doing so, the Headline Goal can be a real catalyst for action.

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