What Does “European Defense” Look Like? The Answer Might Be in the Sahel


A few weeks ago, the Danish government announced it would submit to its parliament a request for the deployment of two medium lift helicopters AW101 and about 70 military personnel to the Sahel region as part of the French-led counter-terrorism operation “Barkhane.” Once the deployment is approved by lawmakers, as appears likely, Danish assets would join the operation in late 2019.

This announcement has received little attention, but it is significant — both for the fight against jihadist groups in the Sahel region and for the future of European defense cooperation. It provides an insight into a new approach to the project of building European defense, one that does not necessarily rely on the structures or complex institutional settings of the European Union, but instead focuses on pragmatic and operational cooperation between states.

The State of Play

Combat operations remain intense in the Sahel. Of the 600 combatants neutralized by French forces since 2014, 200 were killed in 2018 alone. Some of the most important jihadist figures in the region have been recently taken out.

In this context, air lift capabilities are crucial for at least three reasons. First, given the breadth of Barkhane’s area of operations, air lift capabilities are necessary to sustain and rotate forces over a vast network of permanent bases (Gao in Mali, N’Djamena in Chad, Niamey in Niger) and temporary operational platforms (Kidal and Tessalit in Mali; Abeche and Faya-Largeau in Chad; Madama and Aguelal in Niger) from which forces then operate. Second, such capabilities are decisive to conserve precious time and space so that force posture can be swiftly adapted, and raids can be carried out against highly mobile targets. Third, air lift capabilities significantly reduce risks for troops, in particular exposure to improvised explosive devices and ambushes, which are inherent to ground movements.



No European country — not even France and its largely expeditionary force structure — possesses enough tactical air lift capabilities to sustain such a demanding operation over many years. This is even more valid when considering how harsh the Sahel environment is on equipment. As a result, availability rates of key capabilities deployed in the area have fallen, in particular air lift helicopters, as recently reported by the French Senate (although this is not the only explanatory factor). The U.S. military has been providing indispensable air lift to Barkhane at the strategic level, but in-theater requirements remain high.

Given these limitations, succeeding in the fight against jihadist groups in Sahel will require some serious and sustained international cooperation.

A Crucible for European Defense 2.0

Danish soldiers are expected to deploy with 4,500 French soldiers currently taking part in operation Barkhane, as well as other European forces that joined last summer. The United Kingdom is providing strategic airlift with three CH-47 Chinook helicopters and Estonia is deploying 50 soldiers from its Scouts Battalion to secure the strategic base of Gao, Mali. In addition, German, Spanish, and U.S. forces provide essential logistical support to the overall operation. Many more European countries are also involved in distinct but related missions, including the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) headed by Sweden — which provides important intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities — the E.U. Training Mission in Mali, and the E.U.-capacity-building missions in Niger and Mali.

This operational cooperation between European states to address a common threat to their security, in an ad hoc format, debunks quite a few myths about European defense. Such myths prevent a better understanding of the potential benefits of this European cooperation.

First is the idea that Northern and Eastern European countries have their eyes set to the East (i.e., Russia), whereas Western and Southern Europeans would only focus on the South (i.e., Africa and the Middle East). Obviously, the reality of the threat posed by jihadist groups in the Sahel is felt throughout Europe. It would of course be absurd to negate nuances or even differences in threat assessments throughout the continent, but to infer that Europeans limit their operational areas according to their history and geography is a mere cliché. Europeans have a largely and increasingly common perception of their security environment. Italy and Spain both deploy forces in Latvia as part of NATO’s enhanced forward presence, and France deploys 4,000 French soldiers in Eastern Europe every year. Norway adopted just last year a specific national strategy for the Sahel, and Finland deploys over 190 troops in Lebanon.

Second comes the myth that European (defense) means E.U. (defense) — and that complex decision-making, obscure institutional arrangements, and unpalatable acronyms necessarily follow. The European Union has some unique instruments to support the European industrial and technological base, research & development, and capability development. Its Common Security and Defence Policy provides a vast array of tools for crisis management. But “European defense” goes way beyond that and should now be understood as encompassing all forms of defense cooperation between Europeans — whether in E.U., NATO, U.N., or ad hoc formats — that make European armed forces more capable.

The third and final preconception is that Europeans are good at non-combat operations (peacekeeping, conflict prevention, capacity building, etc.) but they are not willing and/or able to conduct combat operations, especially in a demanding environment. Operation Barkhane, with its high operational tempo, drastic logistical challenges, and aggressive raids to neutralize high-value targets and destroy jihadist groups, demonstrates that this is not true. On the contrary, one of the reasons why Europeans are providing forces to a French national operation is precisely to acquire such experience in a complex theater of operations. What is done in and learned from the Sahel today will make forces more capable and interoperable in any other scenario that could occur tomorrow.

These three lessons could constitute the basis for a new approach to European defense, focusing on pragmatic cooperation, operational achievements, and flexible formats. It is the same philosophy that inspired the European Intervention Initiative (EI2), an informal group of ten European countries (Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom) intended to promote military-to-military exchanges and joint operational planning, with no affiliation to the European Union.

“Only the Difficult Inspires the Noble-Hearted”

Challenges to the future of Barkhane and European engagement in the Sahel region should not be underestimated. Jihadist groups remain active and aggressive. Despite the planned Danish involvement, key capabilities remain scarce, and U.S. strategic air lift will continue to be vital to support Barkhane. Close coordination with U.N. peacekeeping operation MINUSMA must be sustained. The Joint Force created in 2017 by members of the “G5 Sahel” (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad) to fight terrorist groups and human trafficking has made some important progress but is still confronted with funding problems. And, ultimately, stability in the Sahel cannot be achieved solely through military means. It will require a political solution and a comprehensive strategy to address the root causes of instability — combining political, economic, development, and human rights approaches.

Yet Denmark’s intention to join Operation Barkhane illustrates that Europeans are adopting a more pragmatic and results-driven approach to European defense, in operations as well as in other areas, and are doing more for their own security. In an increasingly toxic discussion over burden-sharing, the European effort in Sahel at least deserves to be acknowledged and encouraged.



Quentin Lopinot is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he focuses on European security issues. He previously served in different capacities with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, covering nuclear non-proliferation, E.U. defense policy, and NATO. Views expressed in this article are strictly personal.

Image: TM1972 – Eigenes Werk