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Guns. Lots of guns. That is what Europe needs. Two years after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine the war is continuing with no end in sight while other fires are also burning around the world. A key challenge for the EU and its Member States in 2024 will be how to supply Ukraine ‘for as long as it takes’ as well as rebuild our own arsenals. To this end, the Commission and the High Representative are busily preparing an eagerly awaited European Defence Industrial Strategy (EDIS) and accompanying European Defence Investment Plan (EDIP) to be presented at the end of next month.

However, with much of Member States’ acquisition budgets already committed to existing programmes, there is little room for a major restructuring of the European defence industry in the short term. The EU could however play a key role by supporting demand for key dual-use strategic enablers such as air transport and Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) systems. Both are priorities agreed by the Member States in the recently approved 2023 EU Capability Development Priorities. This would not only strengthen the European defence industry but also enable a more strategic EU.   

There is little room for a major restructuring of the European defence industry in the short term.

In 2022, total defence expenditure of the 27 EU Member States rose to €240 billion of which a record 24.2 % (€58 billion) was dedicated to defence investments, according to the European Defence Agency. Even more money followed in 2023. Over the past two years, the EU has also successfully coordinated the delivery of billions of euros worth of tanks, artillery systems, fighter aircraft, air defence systems, missiles and ammunition to Ukraine and trained tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers. New and unprecedented financial tools to encourage European joint procurement and production of ammunition have been approved by the EU in record time. Meanwhile, the European Defence Fund (EDF), launched in 2021, funds collaborative research and development of innovative defence technologies in areas ranging from advanced unmanned systems to anti-air and missile defence technologies, and space-based early warning capabilities.     

However, more needs to be done. To further strengthen European defence cooperation, in a keynote speech to the EDA on 30 November 2023 the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen forcefully called on the EU to take ‘strategic responsibility’, stressing the need to identify ‘flagship capabilities at European level’ of common interest that are ‘European by nature’. Alluding to ‘complex platforms that are beyond the capacity of individual Member States’, she especially mentioned satellites, strategic transportation, and air defence systems.  

This is indeed a very pertinent call and one that we at the EUISS have made as well. Since there are no agreements among EU Member States on European-wide single armaments programmes in key areas such as Main Battle Tanks, fighter aircraft or submarines, the EU would do well to focus its efforts and resources on dual-use strategic enablers where there is strong agreement. Just two weeks before von der Leyen’s EDA speech, the EU defence ministers approved the 2023 EU Capability Development Priorities. Coordinated by the EDA in cooperation with the EU Military Staff, these priorities reflect lessons from the war in Ukraine, Member States’ existing defence plans and future technology developments, and should lead to collaborative projects.      

Strategic enablers such as strategic transport and airborne surveillance, command and control assets are among the agreed priorities. They are also necessary capabilities for the 5 000 strong Rapid Deployment Capacity (RDC) that the EU in its 2022 Strategic Compass pledged to ensure is fully operational by 2025.

The lack of strategic air transport in Europe is a well-known shortfall. While there are some successful instances of cooperation on pooling and sharing such as in the European Air Transport Command and in the Strategic Airlift Capability Programme, more needs to be done. To address this gap, a PESCO project on Strategic Air Transport for Outsized Cargo (SATOC) was set up in 2021 to identify demand and then harmonise requirements for a common European solution. If the EU were to designate strategic transport as a ‘flagship capability’, the case for more procurement of strategic transport aircraft and for a European SATOC solution would not only strengthen the global reach of the EU but also benefit European industry.

The lack of strategic air transport in Europe is a well-known shortfall.

With continent-wide borders and air and sea lines of communication stretching from across the Atlantic to the Strait of Malacca and from the Arctic to the Cape of Good Hope, the EU needs comprehensive air and maritime surveillance, and command & control capabilities. So-called Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft are a key capability for integrated air defence, border controls and search and rescue operations. As the war in Ukraine has shown in the East; the migration crisis and illicit trafficking in the South; and melting sea ice in the North, the demand for AEW&C capabilities will be ever-increasing, and NATO assets may not be available to the EU for operational or political reasons. If the EU were to designate airborne surveillance, command and control a ‘flagship capability at European level’, the EU could initiate an AEW&C programme that would strengthen European sovereignty and industry in this key dual-use technology sector. 

Both an EU strategic air transport capability and an AEW&C programme could be organised along the lines of the successful Multirole Tanker Transport cooperation in which six European countries agreed to jointly procure and operate a fleet of Airbus A330 air-to-air refuelling tanker aircraft. Likewise, EU Member States supported by European entities could jointly procure and operate air transport and AEW&C platforms for the needs of the Union and Member States, as well as complement the capabilities of NATO and other partners across the globe. Another option, however, could be to organise them in an ‘EU Agency for the Air Programme’, perhaps somewhat like the existing EU Agency for the Space Programme, and thus more directly under the Commission and financed by the EU budget. These strategic dual-use capabilities could then be built by the European defence industry and procured, owned and operated by the EU.