Autonomy, Cacophony, or Coherence? The Future of European Defense
Even as the Kremlin once again massed troops on Ukraine’s borders last month, Europe has still not addressed the glaring capability gaps exposed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its proxy war of aggression in Donbas. Having been rudely awakened from their dreams of the end of history by the return of geopolitics, Europeans are concerned but seem unable to devise a common, realistic response, instead resorting to debates over what to do, including calls for “strategic autonomy.” In a recently published study, we and our colleagues looked under the hood of the military forces in Europe north of the Alps and were unimpressed. Based on granular, country-by-country analysis, combined with a review of NATO’s preparations for collective defense and a war game simulating a war in the Baltics, it is painfully clear that NATO and many European armies to this day remain ill-prepared to confront a peer adversary in a high intensity conflict. In fact, even with two weeks of preparations and support from U.S. troops stationed in Europe, NATO and its partners could currently probably not repel a swift Russian ground invasion into the Baltic states. Hence, while European efforts to assume a greater responsibility for their own security are absolutely necessary, largely symbolic initiatives or gestures should be avoided in favor of rebuilding the hard military capabilities that are still severely lacking, and of striking a balance between dealing with threats from the east and from the south. Europe can dramatically improve its own defense, but it will be costly and slow, and European efforts alone cannot replace the critical role of the U.S. military in deterring Russia for the foreseeable future.
The Twilight of Eternal Peace
Following the end of the Cold War, many Europeans embraced the idea that history had ended and that globalization would turn all countries into liberal democracies, thus bringing eternal peace. Accordingly, most European countries enjoyed the peace dividend and radically reduced their armed forces, configuring what remained primarily for stability operations overseas. But since 2014, Europe has been hit by a quadruple whammy: From the east it was rattled by a revisionist and revanchist Russia, from the south it was struck by mass migration and terrorism, from the west it was threatened with abandonment by America under President Donald Trump, and on the domestic scene the ruling elites were challenged by new forces of populism and nationalism. This has led to at least two lively debates, one on just how deficient NATO’s defenses against Russia are, and the other on how to respond to the threat of American withdrawal. In the latter debate, which at times has been acrimonious, French President Emmanuel Macron and other voices from Europe’s south have called for a reduced dependence on the Unites States and for more European “strategic autonomy,” whereas Atlanticist voices (often from the east and north) instead have argued for revitalizing NATO and improving burden-sharing by rebuilding European military capabilities, while a third group of allies seems to hope that the whole thing will pass and things will go back to normal.
Given Trump’s tirades against Europe and NATO while in the White House, and given the very real risk that he would have taken America out of NATO had he been re-elected, it is eminently understandable that Europeans started looking for the lifeboats in case the captain decided to scuttle the ship. In many ways, the Trump presidency was a near-death experience for NATO and the transatlantic link, and to judge from a recent survey it seems to have resulted in a widespread distrust of America as a security partner among European publics. Thus, given that an isolationist may return to the White House in four or eight years, appealing to a need for greater national or European self-reliance may be necessary in order to build the political support needed for greater defense efforts. However, moving from a strategic sabbatical straight to strategic autonomy in one go would seem like a very long jump. In fact, the kind of European strategic autonomy advocated by Macron could not replace the transatlantic link, since autonomy would effectively be limited to political matters, industrial policy, and intervening in Africa and the Middle East. Hence, Europe would still need America to balance out Russia militarily and politically, and to act as a backstop against the return of inter-European rivalry. True European strategic autonomy — i.e. the ability to hold its own against major powers, including Russia — will remain out of reach as long as Europe consists of separate and independent countries rather than of a single superstate. Indeed, there is a palpable risk that efforts to achieve strategic autonomy will instead result in “strategic cacophony,” given the widely diverging threat perceptions on the continent.
That said, greater European defense capabilities are an absolute necessity to improve deterrence against Russia and shoulder a greater share of the burden for defense of the continent, and for necessary interventions elsewhere. But, while a measure of signaling of reduced dependence on the United States may be both healthy and politically necessary, too much rhetoric about autonomy could undermine NATO reforms and provide ammunition to U.S. isolationists. Hence, instead of “talking loudly but carrying a small twig,” Europeans should focus on rebuilding their own military capabilities, with a focus on the near term. Here there is much work to do.
Quick to React, Yet Slow to Act
While Russia came back as a threat in 2014, many European armies to this day remain ill-prepared to confront a peer adversary in a high intensity conflict. With serious gaps in the existing organizations, European defense capabilities are less than meets the eye, and increases in defense budgets have tended to plug holes rather than create new capabilities. Progress has been made, for example, in readiness, planning, logistics, and training, but NATO would probably still come up short in case the Russians attacked the eastern allies.
On paper, NATO, or even NATO Europe alone, clearly outspends and outguns Russia when seen over the entire European theatre. However, funding does not equal fighting power, and troops at home in their garrisons cannot win battles. For political reasons, NATO has refrained from building a robust forward presence on the eastern flank, instead relying on tripwire forces and sending reinforcements rapidly if needed. However, many of the units on NATO’s roster have low availability and readiness and are based far away in Western Europe, making demanding movements of troops and equipment necessary. For example, the distance from the port of Bremerhaven in northern Germany to the Suwalki corridor in eastern Poland is almost as great as that between Omaha beach and Berlin. Thus, on the eastern flank Russia has a time-distance advantage and can easily achieve a favorable force ratio. Moreover, as the aggressor chooses a time and place of its liking for an attack while the defenders have to cover a broader area, the local balance of forces at the point of attack will be even worse for the defenders. Adding to that, as many European ground units are either light or have obsolete equipment, they are ill-suited for high-intensity maneuver warfare in open terrain. Light units may be great for deterrence, as they can rapidly be deployed, and can also be useful in defending close or urban terrain, but they are of limited utility once a war turns hot and if the enemy choses another axis of advance, making it necessary to regroup or to counterattack.
Alarmingly, we estimate that given a week’s notice, NATO and partner countries in Northern Europe could only stand up half the number of mechanized battalions in their peacetime garrisons compared with what Russia could west of the Urals. The availability of forces is surprisingly low even for such large and potentially powerful allies as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, and such forces that can be mobilised often have deficiencies in critical combat support elements — artillery, engineering, air defence, not to mention logistic support. Importantly, since many of these battalions are garrisoned in Western Europe, the only units that would face Russian forces in a short-notice attack on the eastern flank would be the units already there, or those that could be brought there quickly. Moreover, most of the units from the Baltic states, the Nordic countries, and Poland are unsuitable for mobile warfare or incapable of counteroffensives, which would be necessary once the locus of the main Russian attack had been determined.
Hence, in a short, sharp conflict in Northern Europe, the balance of forces clearly favors Russia with respect to ground units with offensive capabilities, and also attack helicopter units. The reverse is true for naval and air forces, but this would only really matter if Russia could be denied a quick win on the ground and if airpower could be quickly brought to bear, which requires planning and preparations in advance, as well as American air reinforcements to Europe ahead of the onset of hostilities.
Fighting for a Draw?
As part of the study, we also conducted a war game covering the initial stages of a Russian attack against all three Baltic states — from Russia proper and through Belarus into Lithuania — simulating the military balance as of 2020. Compared with 2014, the United States and the countries in the region (Poland, the Baltics and Finland) have started to improve their capabilities for defense against an invasion. For instance, Finland has significantly enhanced the readiness of its conscript army and has improved its long-range precision fire capabilities, the Baltics are mechanizing their armies and are taking deliveries of self-propelled artillery and anti-armor missiles, while Poland has embarked on an ambitious program of upgrading and modernizing its armed forces. All of these front-line states have defense budgets north of 2 percent of GDP.
Furthermore, what would have been a nightmarish contingency in 2014 — a swift Russian attack against any or all of the Baltic states — is now such a well-known scenario as to almost have become cliché. Plans and preparations are being adjusted accordingly, with large-scale, international exercises having increased considerably since 2014, and battalion-sized enhanced forward presence battlegroups are in place in the Baltic states and Poland as multinational tripwires to enhance deterrence.
The downside is that currently, given Russia’s continuously improved military capabilities, NATO could still probably not repel a swift Russian ground invasion into the Baltic states even with support from American troops stationed in Europe and with two weeks of preparations. In a previous study, we have sought to dispel some of the exaggerations surrounding Russian anti-access/area denial capabilities in the region, particularly its ground-based air defenses. While suppressing Russia’s air defenses in the region will probably not be as difficult, costly, or time-consuming as previously thought, it would still have to be done before Western airpower could be effectively employed against the attacking Russian tank columns. Crucially, this means that NATO’s ground forces would need to delay the Russian advance sufficiently for NATO airpower to come into play, and that NATO must be able to generate a substantial number of suppression of enemy air defenses sorties and ground attack sorties from day one. Thus, the initial duel between NATO airpower and Russian ground-based air defenses could very well prove decisive. With substantial air support early on in a confrontation, NATO ground forces in the Baltics might inflict very substantial damage to any attacking force and possibly even stop it. However, if NATO’s air forces are late coming out of the starting blocks, or if Russian ground-based air defenses and other assets deter, delay or, sufficiently degrade NATO airpower, NATO’s ground troops would in all likelihood be overrun. In such an air operation, the American contribution would be key in providing planning, striking power, and scarce high-end capabilities such as suppression of enemy air defences, offensive electronic warfare, stealth capabilities, remote sensing, and advanced munitions.
However, we contend that given the Russian aversion to a drawn-out conventional war of attrition — which it would probably lose unless it escalated to nuclear weapons — NATO and its partners would not have to win in a conflict over the Baltic states; they simply must not lose. This should be within the realm of the possible, if not immediately achievable. For instance, in our assessment, an addition of a handful of mechanized brigades suitable for offensive operations in the Suwalki corridor area, improved combat support — especially artillery, air defense, and engineering — and particularly improved capabilities for suppressing Russian air defenses, would shift the likely outcome of this scenario considerably. None of this is easily or cheaply achievable, but neither should it be insurmountable.
Building Capability and Cohesion, but Not Pursuing Full Autonomy
In a nutshell, Europe’s dependence on American military support to balance out Russia remains for the foreseeable future, regardless of debates over strategic autonomy. And even with support from the Unites States, it currently seems difficult for Europe to defend the eastern allies against a short-notice offensive by Russia, especially if this remains limited in geographical scope and ends quickly. Moreover, as Russia seems prone to play the nuclear card in conflicts, having America on board becomes a sine qua non in a confrontation. Nevertheless, a reduced European dependence on America should be within reach, as Russia is not the Soviet Union and has finite resources, while Europe has untapped economic and manpower reserves. A key measure would be to improve the readiness of existing European units and to ensure that they are given the necessary combat support units rather than creating new units or acquiring exotic new technologies. Given the balance of forces and the geography of the eastern flank, improving suppression of enemy air defenses capabilities could be a key force multiplier.
Furthermore, improving operational planning and properly organizing the chain of command for defense is extremely important, relatively cheap and would have good optics; i.e. this would be noticed as a signal of seriousness and determination in Moscow without necessarily causing major political protests in the West.
Improving European defense capabilities is already a work in progress, but this is mainly true for countries bordering Russia or Belarus, while the big three — Germany, France, and the United Kingdom — still do not seem fully committed and could and should do more. While improvements are underway, they are not happening at a speed that add up to a credible NATO Europe deterrence anytime soon, and France seems to be the only of the majors determined to rebuild a capability for waging high-intensity war. Military capabilities can quickly be abolished but often take a decade or more to reconstruct. That said, as seven years have already passed since the annexation of Crimea, and as the time of maximum danger may lie only a few years ahead — as illustrated by Russian sabre-rattling on Ukraine’s borders — it is crucial to identify and exploit any opportunities to plug existing capability gaps as quickly as possible. Instead of pursuing largely symbolic “autonomy” without credible military substance, Europe should focus on the nuts and bolts of rebuilding its military capability and nurture its strategic cohesion, the key source of its strength.
In doing so, America and the northern European allies and partners would be wise to accept and adapt to the fact that many allies situated farther from Russia consider the threat from the south and the Levant as more urgent and serious. Russia’s power and reach is, after all, much reduced as compared with the Soviet Union’s, and it aims primarily to divide and dominate, not conquer, the European continent. This means that it should be much less demanding to deter Russia militarily than it was to contain the Soviet Union. Russia constantly tests and probes the boundaries constraining its return to great power status, looking for weaknesses while carefully watching Western reactions. In responding to this, Europe needs credible capabilities, not grand slogans or lofty long-term plans.
A continued tug-of-war between NATO’s southern and eastern perspectives or over strategic autonomy could be as needlessly divisive as it is barren, and it would be better for both camps to mutually accept and support each other’s underlying concerns. If NATO is to have a new lease on life, and if the southern members are to feel motivated to really engage and contribute, the alliance needs to address both these perspectives and to add substance to the slogan “NATO 360.” For Europe north of the Alps and the eastern Balkans, this would mean taking a major role in deterring Russia, with especially Germany needing to play a more assertive role. At the same time, the European allies need to adapt to the long-term shift in America’s attention from Europe to Asia and shoulder more of the burdens, while America needs to realize that transatlantic trust has been dented, accept and encourage a greater role for Europe, and not be so instinctively suspicious of all European initiatives.
Robert Dalsjö, Ph.D., is a research director in the Department for Strategy and Policy at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI), specializing in politico-military matters in the Euro-Atlantic region. Robert has also served at the Ministry of Defense and on the Swedish NATO delegation and he is an active reserve officer in the Armed Forces.
Michael Jonsson, Ph.D., is a deputy research director in the Department for Strategy and Policy and the head of the Defence Policy Studies program at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI). Michael holds a doctoral degree from Uppsala University, has previously served at the Swedish Defence Headquarters and is the co-editor of Conflict, Crime, and the State in Postcommunist Eurasia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).
The opinions expressed in this article reflects the assessments of its authors’ alone, and do not represent any formal position of FOI as a government agency.