Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Paris, Copenhagen and Berlin has been hailed as India’s reach out in a post-Russian strategic future in Europe, or engagement with an emerging ‘third pole‘ in international relations. All of it—the visuals with world leaders and the wildly enthusiastic crowds—made for heady viewing back home, and justly so. But a standoff analysis of Europe’s independence in defence, a quality so necessary to emerge as a separate centre of power, has not just been absent, but may not emerge anytime in the near future, given ground realities. That, in turn, affects how India and Europe are likely to engage with each other.
Squabbling pax Europa and googly from the US
Europe has long been regarded as an economic powerhouse, but never a grim eyed military power. A dream of ‘European defence’ flowered briefly in the late 1990’s, and then seemed to die out, with, however, continuing flickers of determination. A Franco-German brigade was set up in 1992 that later became the node of a Eurocorps joined by Belgium, Spain, and Luxembourg and held up as the foundation of a European army.
Unkind jokes were made about the brigade, where commands had to be given in five different languages and that used widely different weaponry. Efforts at coordination began again in 2016 and thereafter with the wonderfully detailed Coordinated Annual Defence Review putting forward at least 55 areas of possible defence cooperation and coordination between States. Other efforts followed like the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), and the launch of the European Defence Fund (EDF). But the end result? Nothing much.
The blame does not rest with the Europeans alone, however riven by national divisions and a flatulent bureaucracy. The United States, and by extension the United Kingdom, did everything possible to sabotage such an effort. For Washington, the spotlight was always on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and constant demands that Europe ‘do more’ to contribute to this, than follow independent initiatives. Besides, the US remained suspicious of France, as the major—and some say the only—independent nuclear power in Europe.
Paris always saw itself in a leadership role, with even President Emmanuel Macron being a protagonist of a European defence identity. That idea resurfaced after the ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan when European powers were not even consulted by Washington. By September 2021, European Commission President Ursula Van der Leyen was calling for the EU to take up role missions that did not include NATO and the United Nations and announced an EU defence summit in France. NATO’s Secretary General Jans Stoltenberg almost immediately ‘warned’ against such a move and duplication of structures, especially since Von Der Leyen also called for a Joint Situational Awareness Centre in the EU, shared intelligence, and improved defence production. The European Commission reacted to this with a whole roadmap on all this, notably observing the need for coordinating “where possible”, with the US and NATO. Washington probably had a fit. In the event, the move was incredibly timed. Barely ten days later, Russia invaded Ukraine.
Europe in shock and trouble ahead
Shocked out of its apathy, the European Defence Summit must have been a sober event. Yet it was convened only as an ‘informal meeting’ of the Heads of State and Government on 11 and 12 March. The Joint statement noted the ‘tectonic’ shift in European history, declared that it would consider speedily Ukraine’s application to join the EU (made four days after the Russian attack) and provided directions on defence that were far more specific than before. They agreed to increase defence expenditures, with a significant share for investment in strategic shortfalls investments; develop capabilities for the full range of missions and operations, including cybersecurity and space-based connectivity; and inter alia fostering of synergies between civilian, defence and space research—much of this to be done collaboratively. It also agreed on measures to strengthen Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in defence. And the key sentence? That a stronger EU “is complementary to NATO, which remains the foundation of collective defence for its members”. European defence identity again seemed to wither away as the threat won over opportunity.
Following Ukraine, several countries have declared an increase in the defence budget. The most astonishing turnaround was Germany’s pledge to ramp up defence spending in 2022 alone by €100 billion ($112 billion), taking this from 1.53 per cent of the GDP to above 2 per cent; (incidentally, the target set by NATO months ago). Six others followed with commitments of a total of $33 billion so far. More are expected to follow. All this is for the good of the European defence industry. The trouble is its wide dispersal and uneven size.
An analysis indicates that while the UK, France and Italy dominate the market, there are some 1350 small SMEs unevenly spread across the region. Germany’s defence industry has been lagging with even industry giants like Rheinmetall finding the going tough and a public disinterested in their activities. Besides, apparently huge ‘European’ giants like Boeing Aerospace have a huge chunk of US investment. Smaller countries moreover, are unlikely to benefit much from the jump in defence spending and will look to the European Defence Fund, pegged recently at 7.9 billion euros, for aid. This has two lines of funds, one for collaborative defence research (up to €2.6 billion), and the other for those collaborations complementing national contributions (up to €5.3 billion).
The fund will subsidise projects carried out by at least three operators from three different Member States. That sounds good, but first, the amount is not a lot. For a relative understanding, consider that the US budget for this year is 764.2 billion euros and its allocation for the European Deterrence Initiative—which aims to shore up its capabilities here—is $4 billion. In addition, as even the most optimistic analysts note, apart from the sheer bureaucracy involved, competing national priorities, sovereignty issues, and, most of all, differing perceptions of threat, make successful defence planning, let alone coordinated production, an extremely difficult task. Simply put, it hasn’t happened so far, and it does not look that great for the future.
Ahead lies the task of shoring up the EU national armies, now in a state of virtual inertness. The Bundeswehr, for instance, has been chronically underfunded with experts noting “lack of tents, body armour and winter clothing…as well as units having to use unsecured mobile phones to communicate during a NATO exercise due to a lack of radios”. The Luftwaffe suffers not just from a shortage of guided missiles, but low pilot training of only 140 hours per year—40 below the NATO standard—due to funding issues. Then the Germans also need to change their rules of engagement as do the others. Germany is honed only for defence, with its version of the Eurofighter planes, for instance, only configured for air-to-air operations. Others have similar problems. An exhaustive report observes severe fragmentation and protectionism resulting in a “patchwork” of national forces of low readiness. When European nations have gone to war—and that includes France in the Sahel—it is the US that often provides critical support. This low state of readiness is now sought to be remedied, which means that European defence output will be largely reserved for Europe itself. Rheinmetall, for instance, has been tasked with quickly providing whatever it has in stock for German defence.
The sum of all this is probably seen in the various joint statements signed during the Modi visit. All—barring that of France—has a preponderance of green initiatives, energy and other topics, but relatively little on defence. Certainly, both Germany and France have committed to co-production and R&D. Hopefully, the dismal case of both countries pulling out of the long-awaited Project 75, due in a large part to flawed Request for Proposals parameters, will lead to a honing of the Indian Ministry of Defence procedures, and a directed effort to bring in Armed Forces expertise into this process. Consider a Comptroller and Auditor General report that no technology transfer took place despite contractual clauses, at least till 2020.
Clearly, a lot needs to change. Apart from urgently needed domestic reform, this seems a good time for India to engage in co-production with European countries, even as they expand their industry. Keep in mind, however, that production lines will be primarily aimed first at Europe’s own dire needs, assuming that they do follow all their declared ‘roadmap’. On the other hand, if it does not, any expectation of Europe rising as a ‘third pole’ is doomed to failure.
As of now, the threat has led to Europe once again leaning on the broad shoulders of the US, which, in turn, means that the world in terms of technology sharing and joint production remains within existing parameters as laid down by the US. In such a situation, one might just ask, Vodka anyone?
Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)