Europe’s Militaries Have a Sharing Problem

Forget an EU Army. When close allies can’t even buy equipment together, closer defense cooperation is a pipe dream.

By Elisabeth Braw, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

No modern military today is complete without an air defense system — something that can protect citizens from intruding enemy aircraft. But for small countries, such acquisitions don’t come cheap. Just buying an air defense system costs almost $400 million; that’s not including maintenance costs, which tack on further millions of dollars. For a country like Latvia, whose tiny defense budget can barely cover the cost of the system itself, those kinds of numbers can push an indispensable piece of equipment out of reach — unless it can find a partner to team up with.

Latvia and Lithuania, neighbors on the Baltic Sea, are about to try just such a scheme. As part of a plan about to be signed by both governments, the two countries will not only buy a host of equipment together but also share maintenance costs. It’s an effort that could foreshadow the future of European military cooperation — for better or worse.

Ever since the United Kingdom, a longtime opponent of further EU military cooperation, voted this summer to leave the club, Brussels has revived its discussions about an EU army and a shared defense budget (or, at the very least, closer defense integration). Last month, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told the European Parliament that an EU military headquarters would be a first step toward building a joint military.

But most experts believe a massive undertaking like a “European Army” is unlikely to come to fruition anytime soon. And the fact that EU countries still haven’t mastered the far simpler act of joint procurement is typically cited as a case in point.

On paper, teaming up with an ally for joint military procurement seems like an easy choice. It’s not just that by ordering in larger quantities, countries can get discounts. By jointly ordering the development of new military equipment, friendly nations can also share the development costs. Successful joint procurements could, in theory, free up resources that could then be spent on other equipment. The buyers also get interoperable equipment — that is, weapons systems that can easily communicate with each other. That’s a huge plus for European countries, including NATO members and non-NATO members like Sweden and Finland, whose armed forces regularly exercise and conduct operations together. If the worst were to come, countries could also lend equipment to their allies, who would already know how to operate it. And as allies’ armed forces typically already cooperate closely, confidentiality and sovereignty concerns aren’t as big an issue as they otherwise would be.

Latvia and Lithuania seem like ideal candidates for such a scheme. Together, the pair are poised to buy an undisclosed number of German G36 rifles, which sell for about $1,100 apiece; the Swedish RBS-70 short-range air defense system; and, most importantly, the NASAMS mid-range air defense system made by the Norwegian company Kongsberg, which is used by the United States to protect the air space around Washington, D.C., and was recently sold to Finland for $370 million. It’s the first time either country has acquired mid-range air defense capabilities — a logical move given recent Russian aggression in the region, which has included incursions into Baltic air space, as well as over Sweden and Finland. “We would probably want to buy mid-range air defense anyway, but having Latvia as a partner makes us more effective,” explained Vaidotas Urbelis, the director of defense policy at Lithuania’s Ministry of Defense.

And yet such procurement efforts are still rare in Europe — largely because their history is full of disappointments. Take the A400M military transport plane. During the 1980s, eight European countries jointly commissioned the aircraft, which was being developed by companies from several of the countries. The partner countries were told to expect delivery of their planes by 2009.

Though the Cold War ended in the interim, European armed forces still desperately needed such an aircraft to transport troops and equipment, especially during their joint operations in Afghanistan. Having the same transport aircraft fleet would have been akin to having identical bus fleets, even allowing countries to borrow from one another if necessary. But delays intervened — and then intervened again. The first planes were delivered just three years ago. By that time, several buyers had already given up and bought other planes, partly because design requests made by one of the countries had added significant weight to the plane, reducing its lifting capacity.

Or consider the pan-European NH90 helicopter procurement, which was launched in the 1990s and immediately took a turn for the worse when virtually every country insisted on adding features, which caused delays and cost overruns. “In the end, there were 20 different versions,” noted Hilmar Linnenkamp, a former deputy director of the European Defence Agency (EDA) who is now an advisor to the international security research division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “It was not a joint project anymore.” Because of the delays, Sweden, for example, had to buy off-the-shelf American Black Hawk helicopters for its troops in Afghanistan; Stockholm didn’t receive its first NH90 helicopters until last December.

There’s also the sad story of the NFR-90, a frigate jointly thought up by NATO member states in the 1980s. (Frigates are navies’ warhorses, ships smaller than destroyers but larger than corvettes.) After the allies disagreed on virtually every possible feature, including which anti-ship weapon the vessel should have, the NFR-90 was consigned to the dustbin of history entirely.

Even among the closest of allies, joint procurements tend to go sour. The Swedish Armed Forces are about to end up with 48 cannons (officially known as artillery pieces) instead of the 24 they were originally looking for because procurement partner Norway decided the planned artillery didn’t fit its requirements. A recent attempt by the closely allied Nordic countries to jointly procure helicopters also failed, as did a planned submarine procurement by Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. In the end, only Sweden was interested in buying the submarines made by the Swedish firm Kockums.

“We’ve not even been able to do anything with Finland so far, though of course I hope that will change,” said Sven-Christer Nilsson, the former chairman of the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration.

According to Dick Zandee, a senior fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations and former head of the EDA’s planning and policy unit, joint procurements tend to go wrong for two reasons: diverging military requirements and conflicting industrial interests.

“Before a joint military procurement can be launched, the users [different countries’ armed forces] have to agree on common requirements,” he said. “This seems easy: ‘Yeah, we all need a new armored fighting vehicle.’ But it becomes way more difficult when the details are discussed: which maximum weight is acceptable, which caliber should the gun have, how many persons in the vehicle, what maximum speed, what communications, when is delivery needed.”

In an era of EU-wide common standards for everything from bananas to light bulbs, defense remains exempt from standardization. The EDA is supposed to facilitate joint acquisitions for EU countries, and it has had some successes with simple purchases: Lithuania recently teamed up with four other countries to buy ammunition, for instance. But the more complicated the project, “the bigger the chance of failure,” Zandee said. Disagreements on seemingly simple issues such as the caliber of an armored fighting vehicle’s gun can end up toppling entire projects.

In addition, most large and mid-sized countries have significant defense industries, and as a result, joint purchases are complicated by the messy business of domestic politics, with each government pushing for the largest possible slice of the cake for their own defense companies. The process “often leads to piling up requirements and irrational demands,” Zandee said. The ill-fated A400M transport aircraft, for example, was delayed partly because one of the countries insisted on an engine made by one of its companies — and in the end the engine added not just time but also significant expense.

European governments and defense contractors realize the current situation is untenable, particularly given that Russia is in the middle of a defense spending program aimed at increasing its share of modern weaponry from 10 percent of its arsenal to 70 percent. The EDA is gaining a bit more credibility in setting joint EU standards. NATO’s Standardization Office, which has been grappling with the same issues since the founding of the military alliance, is also running more acquisition programs than in the past. And on the contractor side, some companies including France’s Nexter Systems and Germany’s Krauss-Maffei Wegmann are successfully building a new generation of tanks and armored vehicles that will fit the requirements of both the French army and the Bundeswehr.

But the steps that would help most — common standards on, say, the size of mounted guns so that basic specifications don’t have to be negotiated with every new product development — remain a long way off, argued Nilsson. “That would also allow allies to help each other in crisis situations because each has equipment that could easily be used by the others,” he said. “But unfortunately every country thinks mostly about itself.”

There is some precedent for success: The Netherlands and Belgium’s naval cooperation program, Benesam, for the past two decades has featured not just joint training but operations as well, and the two navies share ownership and maintenance of a shared fleet. Benesam’s success is due in part to the fact that the two countries don’t have competing naval shipbuilders — and that their governments are willing to give up some military independence in return for pooled resources.

Latvia and Lithuania, the two Baltic states about to embark on a large-scale partnership, are also lucky in that they, too, don’t have large domestic defense sectors to consider. Their plans also don’t require any attempt at joint development; they’ll only be buying off-the-shelf products built in other countries (and in many cases already used by other countries’ armed forces). Urbelis even says, optimistically, that Lithuania may team up with Latvia, Estonia, or Poland for further procurements.

But the days of a true common market for defense, let alone an EU army, remain a distant dream — possibly one that will never come to pass. “Armed forces are the most powerful symbols of national sovereignty,” Linnenkamp said. “Countries want to have the ability to produce military equipment at home.”

The irony, he added, is that although the steel, mortars, and tanks may still be produced at home, the computer chips that direct the equipment’s actions now mostly come from countries like Thailand.

A previous version of this piece misstated the size of Latvia’s defense budget. 

Photo credit: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Image

Elisabeth Braw is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw