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EU: Plans For Military Force Seen As Losing Steam

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union has pledged to create an independent military capability by 2003, under which it can deploy up to 60,000 men in the field. The force is meant for use in operations in which NATO as a whole does not wish to become involved. Defense experts, however, say the ambitious project is running out of momentum, and it appears that the deadline for creation of the force is unlikely to be met. The EU's Military Committee denies any problems. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke gathers some opinions on the subject, and reviews the situation.

Prague, 13 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- European military experts are saying that there is little hope the European Union's projected Rapid Reaction Force will be ready on time. The target agreed on by EU leaders was for the Union to have the capability by 2003 to deploy up to 60,000 men in the field and maintain them there for a period of up to one year.

But after a brisk start, analysts say, the project appears to be running out of steam as a result of tight European defense budgets and a loss of collective enthusiasm to grapple with the many logistical problems involved. One London-based independent defense analyst, Alexandra Ashbourne, puts it this way:

"It's unfortunate, because the idea is really sound, it's what the EU needs. But until there are serious increases in European defense budgets and serious physical commitments, the Rapid Reaction Force will remain more of an ideal than a functional entity."

Another expert, Berlin-based Christoph Bertram of the Foundation for Science and Politics, largely agrees with Ashbourne:

"Well, [the EU] can meet the target, but unfortunately it is not showing enough enthusiasm for doing so. So the question of whether the target can be reached is highly in doubt."

Bertram says that in view of the situation, the most likely development is that EU leaders, at their December summit at Laaken in Belgium, will downscale their goal and aim to have a smaller force ready, instead of the major 60,000-man capability. He says the original intention to have such a large force on call by 2003 was "illusory from the start," and that practically everybody knew that.

But much credibility is at stake -- not only that of individual Union politicians, but of the EU as a whole in regard to NATO and the United States.

Failure to make at least some progress towards the creation of an independent military force would tend to undermine the EU at a time when it is taking on a broader role than ever before in international affairs.

London-based analyst Ashbourne says:

"There's far too much political credibility invested in this project, not least by Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, who takes much of the credit for the whole European defense policy. But what they are going to have to do -- and we are seeing this in Britain and especially in Germany -- is that their leaders are going to have to fight with their treasury secretaries for increases in the defense budget."

By contrast, Bertram in Berlin sees little chance that European defense budgets will be increased significantly any time soon. He favors a different approach:

"The probability that defense budgets will be increased is not very high, but don't forget that our military establishments in Europe are still establishments designed for a different era -- [namely, the Cold War] -- and if we could put together [instead] a common basis for logistics, for equipment, for training, one could make very significant savings. The task is to try to find savings in existing budgets, with a much more convincing structure of armed forces."

Bertram says that one means of creating credibility is to have in hand as soon as possible the material and equipment needs for the projected full 60,000-man force.

The Kosovo campaign brought to light serious defects in the Europeans' military capability, in part because of the division of roles among the allies in NATO. These deficiencies include a lack of heavy transport aircraft and satellite-based intelligence-gathering facilities. They are supposed to be overcome in the course of building the planned Rapid Reaction Force. But Ashbourne notes that the procurement drive is also going through a rough patch. She says:

"At the Paris air show last month (June), we had the signing of [initial documents for the purchase of] the [new Airbus] A400M military transport aircraft. This aircraft is meant to be the cornerstone of the Rapid Reaction Force -- to be able to take Europe's troops where they are needed. Yet only three countries were able to sign the memorandum of understanding."

Bertram notes that one positive spin-off from the EU defense initiative is the way it has stimulated the impulse towards increased cooperation in specific areas. He writes in a recent report that, for instance, France and Germany are planning a joint effort to develop an autonomous European capability for military satellites. Likewise, Britain and Germany have undertaken to work together on a project to suppress enemy air defenses electronically.

In Brussels, a spokesman for the EU Military Committee, Naval Commander Andreas Jedlicka, denies the rapid reaction project is losing momentum. He notes that planning is going forward on schedule and according to an official work plan.

Jedlicka says that EU member states made tentative commitments of personnel and equipment to the planned force last November. Those offers are now being analyzed and the next concrete step forward will come this November, when the member states' commitments are finalized at a conference.

Joint "command post" exercises to test political and military coordination will start by May of next year.

Jedlicka confirmed that the Laaken summit in December is expected to issue a statement on progress. He says the statement will not deal purely with military forces, but more with the ability of the Union to react in humanitarian fields like crisis response and conflict prevention.