Europe Should Not Try to Go It Alone on Defense
Just over a year into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there is a growing sense that Europe’s reawakening on defense policy has already faltered. Germany’s much-hyped Zeitenwende, which promised a significant boost in defense spending, has so far yielded few tangible new investments in military capabilities and been overshadowed by the government’s various perceived prevarications on arming Ukraine. European militaries’ stores of critical munitions and equipment have been found wanting amidst the rush to support Ukraine’s resistance, and its defense industrial base faces significant challenges in ramping up production to replenish, let alone grow, its customers’ stockpiles.
As disappointment sets in over Europe’s perceived inability or unwillingness to increase defense spending, the question of who is to blame for this state of affairs has crept into the public debate. One trendy culprit has been the United States.
It is true that the United States has long sought to cajole or berate its European allies into bolstering defense budgets, albeit with limited success. But according to some analysts, it is the United States that bears a large responsibility for Europe’s defense dependency, having nurtured it for years by expressing skepticism of E.U.-led defense initiatives. Washington, they claim, is sacrificing European defense self-sufficiency in favor of American access to the continent’s market.
Max Bergmann of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Sophia Besch of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently argued “every American weapons sale to Europe weakens the European defense industrial base,” thereby contributing to long-term dependence on the United States. The United States would go a long way to strengthening European defense, they argue, if only it would put a leash on its own defense companies and instead promote Europe’s defense integration efforts. This would help to generate a European defense industrial base capable of fulfilling the continent’s requirements.
It’s a seductively easy explanation and solution, especially because U.S. defense strategy explicitly prioritizes the Indo-Pacific region. As an international business development specialist at Boeing Defense, Space & Security, a U.S. defense company, I have a personal interest in this issue. But I personally have a lot of experience in this field. In theory, Bergmann and Besch’s approach would only require the United States to throttle back on its own defense of Europe while relying on the power of its diplomacy to inspire its European allies to put their sovereignty and faith into an E.U.-led defense agenda that has proceeded only in fits and starts for decades.
For reasons both political and practical, such proposals will fail to achieve the shared objective of the United States, European Union, and European governments, strengthening Europe’s defense capacity and capability. Therefore, in the midst of the most significant armed conflict on the continent since World War II, the European Union and advocates of integrated European defense should not pursue initiatives that emphasize “buy European” policies focused on industrial base development if they come at the expense of current defense needs. Such an approach would limit the capabilities available to European militaries at a time when they badly need to restock and recapitalize. A stronger Europe is in the interest of both Americans and Europeans, but the path toward that goal lies in deeper collaboration that benefits both sides of the trans-Atlantic alliance rather than an unrealistic pursuit of “strategic autonomy” in defense.
Political Obstacles Are Paramount
The harsh reality with which advocates of European defense must contend is that pursuing deeper defense integration under European Union auspices is controversial within Europe itself and is unlikely to succeed for three main reasons. First and foremost, the European Union’s own internal political divisions make further integration of European defense unlikely to succeed in the near- to medium-term. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has revealed divergent threat perceptions that has exacerbated mistrust between eastern frontline states and France and Germany. Second, the E.U. member states that are the strongest from a defense-industrial standpoint have given no indication that they are prepared to shift toward the more collaborative approach to strategy and acquisition that would be required to realize a more integrated European defense. Finally, while European defense firms are highly capable and enjoy the support and advocacy of their home nations, they cannot address the continent’s defense requirements alone in a time of crisis.
Advocates of E.U.-led defense initiatives often cite the United States as the major barrier to their success. They trace U.S. hostility back to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s 1998 comments that there should be no decoupling from, duplication of, or discrimination of NATO in any future European defense arrangements.
Nevertheless, the European Union proceeded with the establishment of the European Defense Fund, Permanent Structured Cooperation, and an alphabet soup of other programs and initiatives intended to help bolster European defense integration. U.S. officials have voiced concerns about some aspects of these initiatives but ultimately have taken no tangible actions to stop these efforts. President Joe Biden has twice validated in joint statements with French President Emmanuel Macron “the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security.” The concept of a “stronger and more capable European defense” is not controversial in Washington. The question is how to make it a reality.
Despite the broad unity of the European Union and NATO in the face of Russia’s aggression, the war has also exacerbated significant divisions in threat perceptions and strategic priorities between European nations that will make deeper defense integration, and particularly “buy European” policies, difficult to impose.
For Poland and the Baltic states, the invasion of Ukraine represents the realization of the countries’ worst fears: a reckless and revanchist Russia seeking to re-impose its sphere of domination in Eastern Europe by force. Even though the Russian military has far underperformed prewar expectations, it is still a force that is capable of inflicting immense damage on its neighbors.
For France and Germany, the Russian invasion is certainly a cataclysmic event warranting major policy shifts on defense and energy. However, the threat seems much less immediate and there remains a hope of an eventual return to more constructive relations. Macron, for examples, has repeated warnings that Russia should not be “humiliated” or “crushed” and calls for a new European security architecture in which Russia would have a stake. However well-intentioned, such statements are at odds with how many Eastern European nations view the conflict and how to end it. Similarly, Germany’s apparent foot-dragging in supplying arms (particularly tanks) to Ukraine, even as it has become one of the country’s largest European providers of military assistance, has engendered significant mistrust and criticism in the East.
As advocates of “buy European” approaches recognize, major international defense procurements have a multi-decade-long tail of sustainment and training. But what those advocates sometimes elide is the need for the procuring nation to have confidence that it will have the support it needs from the supplier to actually operate and sustain their weapons. This is where Germany’s reticence over supplying Ukraine with tanks and other weapons hinders the cause of European defense integration. If a country like Poland believes that it fundamentally cannot trust France or Germany to share the same view of the Russian threat then the leadership is not likely to prioritize support for a continental defense-industrial policy. This is one reason why, for example, Poland’s massive post-invasion defense spending spree has focused on procuring new weapons systems from the United States and South Korea.
This East-West division within the European Union is the most prominent fault line, but it is also not the only one that limits the prospects for greater defense integration in Europe. It is far from clear that the major defense exporting nations of western Europe can agree on the mutual sacrifices of sovereignty and potential losses for domestic industry that would come with more integrated E.U.-led defense. If, as many analysts argue, Europe needs to pool its resources more to develop and acquire common equipment, that will entail many even more complicated challenges associated with picking winners and losers.
So far E.U. defense initiatives like the European Defense Fund and Permanent Structured Cooperation have largely dodged this challenge because they are relatively small-scale and focused on research and development projects that enable all the major industrial players to remain in the game. But the defense industry of Europe tends to be dominated by a handful of national champion corporations, some of which are at least partially state-owned, and as a result industrial disputes between companies tend to quickly become political disputes between governments. Marquee cooperative European defense programs like the Future Combat Air System and Main Combat Ground System have already been delayed due to intellectual property and workshare disputes between the primary French and German defense contractors that required government intervention to resolve. All of this indicates that any path to European defense integration will not necessarily be smoothed over by simplistic calls to “buy European.” Much deeper cultural and structural reforms will be needed in order to increase political will to make the dream of a more unified European defense a reality.
Why Buy American?
The final primary reason Europe cannot go it alone on defense is that the continent’s defense industry on its own is not sufficiently prepared to address the near-term requirements for European militaries to recapitalize, particularly against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.
While it is true that the European defense market is fragmented across national borders, Europe has substantial defense-industrial capacity and capability. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, four of the top eight global arms exporting nations are E.U. member states (France, Germany, Italy, and Spain), with the United Kingdom also among the top 10. European companies produce a broad spectrum of weapons systems well-known around the world, from missiles to fighter jets to warships. Despite perceptions that the United States dominates the European defense market, key segments are dominated by European companies. For example, 14 E.U. nations operate the German-made Leopard 2 tank, while no E.U. member had procured the American M1 Abrams prior to Poland’s 2022 order. European navies do not operate American-built warships.
Through U.S.-based subsidiaries and partnerships, European industry has also made some notable inroads into the American market. The U.S. Navy selected the American subsidiary of Italian firm Fincantieri for its next frigate, based on a design already in service with the Italian and French navies. Key U.S. weapons systems such as the Naval Strike Missile and National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System were designed by Norway’s Kongsberg and produced in partnership with Raytheon. Boeing partnered with Italy’s Leonardo and Sweden’s Saab to win the U.S. Air Force competitions for the MH-139 helicopter and T-7A jet trainer, respectively.
However, the European defense industry is not able to fulfill all of the capability needs of the continent’s military forces, some of which have become more urgent in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Certain platforms and capabilities are not available from European suppliers. For example, there is no current E.U.-based manufacturer of heavy-lift helicopters or rocket artillery systems (such as the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, which has become so well-known for its exploits in Ukraine that it now features in internet memes). A country with an urgent requirement for such systems would naturally pursue a U.S.-produced solution.
In some cases, frustration with the performance of an existing system or supplier leads to the selection of a new U.S. supplier. For example the Norwegian and Swedish governments abandoned the NH90 multirole helicopter, produced by a European industry consortium, in favor of the American Blackhawk over system performance and reliability issues. In certain other cases, European industry also simply loses government competitions on cost and capability. In 2021 both Switzerland and Finland selected the F-35 fighter jet over European alternatives like the Eurofighter, French Rafale, and Swedish Gripen following open competitions that required in-country flight evaluations and in which evaluation criteria, including procurement and sustainment costs, were well defined for prospective bidders.
One can quibble with individual nations’ decisions on defense procurements or selection criteria or their sense of their own defense requirements, but these realities raise a number of questions for advocates of a primarily “buy European” approach. Part of the reason why European industry is not as well positioned to address the urgent capability gaps as that of the United States is that its most significant multi-national modernization efforts remain fixated on the more distant future. For example, some analysts, including Paula Alvarez-Courceiro in these pages, criticized Germany for opting to procure F-35s to replace a portion of its decades-old Tornado fighter-bomber fleet rather than prioritizing the Franco-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System. But this fighter program, one of the European analogs to the U.S. Next-Generation Air Dominance program, will not be operational until the 2040s. The view that Germany (which has continued funding Future Combat Air System development anyway) should not have filled this urgent requirement with an existing platform but instead prioritized a new development program that is two decades away from delivery is fundamentally unserious, particularly in the current European security environment.
Similarly, the Franco-German Main Combat Ground System program, intended to produce a common future tank, was established in 2012 but isn’t projected to deliver any actual capability until the 2030s. Unsurprisingly, nations along the European Union’s eastern frontier like Poland aren’t holding their breath. The Maritime Airborne Warfare System for future European maritime patrol aircraft remains on the drawing board with operational capability targeted for 2035, and Germany moved ahead in 2021 with an acquisition of P-8s to fill the gap created by the retirement of its P-3s.
Furthermore, the idea that the procurement of U.S. systems brings no value to European industry is simplistic. Formal and informal industrial participation requirements are a feature of the global defense marketplace, and Europe is no exception. U.S. firms frequently partner with European counterparts for defense sales on the continent and the extent to which U.S. firms shape substantive roles for European industry can be a key competitive discriminator when trying to close a deal. This can include everything from the provision of specific subsystems to production (such as the F-35 wing assembly and final assembly and checkout line in Cameri, Italy) to sustainment and training services. These participation opportunities may be limited by U.S. government policies, and European governments and companies will naturally be inclined to press for more industrial benefit than they may ultimately receive. But this reality is a far cry from the assertion that every U.S. arms sale in Europe represents some kind of theft from European industry.
The Way Ahead
Stronger European defense capabilities and the industrial base to support and sustain them are in America’s interest, particularly as U.S. policymakers focus on the Indo-Pacific as the critical theater. But the way to achieve that objective is not by leaving Europe to its own devices, but rather ensuring that European nations, most of whom the United States is treaty-bound to defend, have access to the capabilities they need to enhance their ability to defend themselves, whether built in Europe, America, or another allied state like South Korea.
The extent to which the European Union or other multilateral arrangements can help to facilitate that through joint procurement or pooled funding mechanisms redounds to the benefit of U.S. strategy, provided that they focus on addressing current capability gaps or generating industrial capacity that will quickly fill those gaps. But it does not make sense for the United States to endorse efforts that prioritize European industrial development at the expense of the near-term capabilities needed to rebuild and restock Europe’s militaries. As of now, this approach is simply not feasible given the absence of internal E.U. consensus. Some European governments recognize this reality: European parliamentarians representing multiple nations have pushed back on “buy European” provisions in proposed E.U. legislation to promote multinational procurements through an incentive fund. Similar concerns have been raised around the European Commission’s €1 billion proposal to supply artillery ammunition to Ukraine and rebuild the stockpiles of contributing European nations.
There are, however, opportunities for the United States to expand its defense cooperation with Europe in ways that promote a truly trans-Atlantic industrial base equal to the challenge of supporting Ukraine today and ensuring the defense of NATO and the European Union tomorrow. With the Administrative Agreement between the United States Department of Defense and the European Defense Agency now concluded, there is a range of innovative options for cooperation with the European Union that could be explored. For starters, the U.S. government should step up its efforts to actively promote co-production of key equipment, particularly munitions, through partnerships between U.S. and European firms. There have already been promising signs on this front with reported progress toward the manufacture of HIMARS in Germany, but many other weapons could be candidates for similar arrangements. The Department of Defense should, in coordination with the European Defense Agency, identify key components, subsystems, munitions, and potentially even platforms where the establishment of additional production capacity in Europe would enhance U.S. and European security. Where necessary, the Department of Defense should develop incentives to encourage U.S. firms to pursue partnerships that enable co-production of those priority items and also take a proactive approach to assisting industry with the necessary export licensing and legal arrangements to make these partnerships a reality.
In addition, both the United States and Europe would benefit strategically and economically from displacing Russia as a leading global arms exporter, particularly in key regions like south and southeast Asia. The European Defense Agency and U.S. State and Defense Departments could establish a coordination, advocacy, and financing mechanism to help jointly identify and support the best industrial candidates, whether American or European, to help drive Russia from key defense markets. This would deprive the Russian government of a key source of income and strategic influence while improving relationships and interoperability with emerging global partners.
The U.S. government should also take steps to make it easier for European industry to do business with the U.S. defense establishment. It should, for example, ease the burden of export controls on NATO allies to enable more information sharing and cooperation between U.S. and European industry. This issue has gained a renewed salience as the AUKUS agreement on defense technology-sharing is implemented, but the process cannot end with the United Kingdom and Australia. Serious efforts to create carve-outs for NATO nations similar to those being considered to support AUKUS will help to strengthen trans-Atlantic defense-industrial partnerships by enabling the sharing of advanced technologies and removing some of the risk that European-developed capabilities would fall under the cumbersome and restrictive U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations, one of the major concerns that drives U.S. allies to avoid co-development of key capabilities.
Ultimately, the way for the European Union and its institutions to demonstrate value and credibility to its member states on defense issues and thereby advance European defense integration is to establish itself as a trusted interlocutor with the continent’s indispensable defense partner rather focusing on trying to stand up alternatives to the United States. This means that in the near term it should prioritize bolstering European capabilities to respond to Europe’s current security crisis, not exclusionary industrial policies and long-term developmental projects. Finding ways to be relevant today in collaboration with the United States is a more productive direction for the European Union’s defense agenda.
Brian M. Burton previously served as a defense and national security staffer in the U.S. Senate and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is now an international business development specialist at Boeing Defense, Space & Security and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent those of his employer.
*Correction: Due to an editor error, this piece was not specific enough about the authors interest in the argument until his biography at the bottom.