Defending Europe: Forget the big guns and aim for 'smart' warfare

Frankly Speaking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt warns that increased defence spending on ‘white elephant’ projects risks starving more innovative ones that could revolutionise military thinking. 

Ukraine’s David may not have felled the Russian Goliath, but so far he’s stopped him in his tracks. The significance of how Ukraine unexpectedly stalemated Russia’s invasion should dominate Europeans’ increasingly frenzied defence debate, although the signs are that it hasn’t.

The arguments and recriminations between EU governments are mostly about the size of their defence budgets. The focus should be less on how much to spend and more on where to spend it.

The war in Ukraine is one of contradictions. Dazzling technological innovations contrast with muddy trench warfare reminiscent of 1914-18 and battles between tanks that had long been dismissed as outdated. It’s a throwback war that is also a testing ground for the future.

Europe’s governments face massive re-armament costs to deter further Russian aggression

But while pondering their options, they risk drawing the wrong conclusions. Ukrainian David has been fighting a ‘smart’ war, and Russian Goliath only recovered his balance by following suit.

The ‘fourth industrial revolution’ is still gathering pace as it transforms our lives, and its most dramatic impact may be on warfare. Drones are not only revolutionising the command and control of infantry troops but also of naval warfare. Russia has lost 25 warships – a third of its Black Sea fleet – to unmanned devices. Ukraine’s grain exports, an economic lifeline, have resumed and Russia’s air supremacy has also been badly dented by drones.

What lessons are there for Europe? The “military industrial complex” that US President Dwight Eisenhower once complained of is still a force to be reckoned with, but it’s far from an unalloyed strength. In spite of breakthroughs in AI (artificial intelligence), the big EU defence companies’ answer to the Russian threat is to press ahead with hugely expensive aerospace and naval projects that would mop-up the lion’s share of enlarged defence budgets.

The immediate challenge for Europeans is to beef up their budgets as four-fifths of NATO’s defence spending is by non-EU members. That doesn’t mean, though, that the extra money should be funnelled into the aerospace sector’s unaffordable white elephants.

Forty years ago, Lockheed Martin’s CEO wryly observed that if costs continued to rise exponentially, by 2054 the Pentagon would only be able to afford a single aircraft

Those costs haven’t slackened, and the outlay for getting Lockheed’s new F-35 stealth fighter into service is reckoned at $1.7 trillion. Development costs in Europe are no different.

The need to update ageing combat aircraft is plain, and EU governments are understandably reluctant to become over-reliant on US weapons systems. But the tangle of inter-locking corporate partnerships and national rivalries in Europe’s aviation sector has not only led to decades of development delays but also risks leaching support away from innovative technologies. If successful, some of these could consign significant areas of current military thinking to the history books.

So where should Europeans be spending more? The answer is clearly on advanced technologies with defence applications, yet most EU governments seem to ignore this. The EU’s European Defence Fund has a niggardly €1 billion a year to co-finance collaborative projects, and is paralleled by a similarly modest €1 billion NATO-backed private sector fund for defence start-ups in AI, space and biotechnologies.

These small steps are in the right direction, but the EU’s earlier Defence Industrial Development Programme shows how little funding ever reaches smaller and more innovative companies. Of 40 participants, just five ‘national champions’ have taken half the projects and three-quarters of the cash.

A major drive on electronic warfare technologies could make up some of the ground lost to the post-Cold War ‘peace dividend’. Communications and information have been key factors in the Ukraine war, yet governments have been cutting back on EU efforts to boost research and so reduce reliance on the US for them.

Now that Russian assertiveness has become aggression, Europeans must re-think their long-neglected defence and security arrangements. The role of the EU, and its executive body the European Commission, will be central to this, and will be the focus of the second part of this article.

This two-part Frankly Speaking article on ‘Defending Europe’ will be concluded on 9 April. The views expressed in this Frankly Speaking op-ed reflect those of the author and not of Friends of Europe. 


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