Europe’s Missile Conundrum

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The war in Ukraine demonstrated something that many already knew: Long-range strike weapons are of great utility for fighting wars. The ability to engage targets at operational and strategic depth critically enables the conduct of offensive and defensive maneuvers and can shape the conditions for victory on the battlefield. 

Yet, as a result of structural underfunding and different procurement priorities, European states have long ignored the shift towards stand-off range and precision strike in modern war. This has resulted in European missile arsenals not fit for purpose for high-intensity warfare. Deliveries of long-range strike weapons to Ukraine will further reinforce European stockpile shortages. 

 

 

To escape their missile conundrum, European states should mobilize their defense industries. The European continent is home to strong missile-manufacturing capabilities that can play a critical role in recapitalizing Europe’s dwindling long-range strike arsenals. In this regard, European states should pursue a three-pronged strategy aimed at increasing production of existing missile designs, accelerating and coordinating developmental efforts for new missile designs, and sharing the missile-manufacturing workload, which should include license-producing foreign designs. 

Long-Range Strike Weapons 

The term “long-range strike weapon” describes a category of conventional weapon systems that are capable of striking targets from stand-off range and with high precision. The category includes conventional cruise and ballistic missiles, conventionally armed hypersonic glide vehicles, long-distance drones, and long-range rocket artillery, for example. 

The meaning of “long range” is subject to the geographical context within which the strike weapon is used. For example, the term has a different meaning in the European context than in the Asia-Pacific one. Generally speaking, however, “long range” denotes a type of weapon system that can provide utility beyond the tactical level of warfare, by enabling strikes against the adversary’s operational and, ideally, strategic depth.

By fulfilling a diverse set of tactical, operational, and strategic-level functions, long-range strike weapons provide possessor states with a potent and versatile warfighting capability. The weapons allow the attacker to threaten targets across the entire theater, potentially even extending into the adversary’s homeland, and provide possessor states of long-range strike weapons with strong coercive leverage outside of war. The benefits attached to a capable long-range strike force are therefore significant. As a result, it is unsurprising that a growing number of states are doubling down on long-range strike weapons as key capabilities in their military strategies and deterrence postures. 

Prior to the war in Ukraine, Russia managed to acquire a substantial long-range strike capability. It has thousands of conventional cruise and ballistic missiles that are being used to terrorize the Ukrainian population. China has procured a diverse long-range strike arsenal, deploying over 2,200 conventional cruise and ballistic missiles and over 800 missile-carrying platforms that would likely play a key role in a Taiwan contingency. The United States, for its part, has engaged in a dramatic missile build-up in recent years, including both surface and air-launched capabilities, and continues to expand its long-range strike arsenal. In addition, several other states, such as Japan and Iran, have made efforts to build up their long-range strike arsenals to deter adversarial powers’ operations in their regions. 

Compared to this global missile expansion, Europe’s approach to long-range strike weapons is more reserved. Prior to the war in Ukraine, long-range strike weapons did not feature prominently in the military strategies of most European NATO states. Even after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, however, when territorial defense reappeared on the agenda, European states made no concerted efforts to grow their long-range strike arsenals.

This is surprising, given that long-range strike weapons provide substantial military and political benefits, especially in the European theater. The relatively compressed nature of European geography means that long-range strike missiles can, theoretically, reach a larger set of targets more easily. In addition, in the event of an attack, long-range strike weapons could serve as a powerful rapid reaction force to quickly disrupt enemy supply lines and neutralize enemy troop concentrations. This would make an enemy breakthrough at the NATO border much more difficult, thus contributing to NATO’s stated objective of forward defense. 

Europe’s Missile Shortage

In 2023, European NATO states combined deploy a long-range strike arsenal of approximately 3,100-3,300 missile systems that could be used to fight a war in the region. I based this assessment on confirmed or estimated order intake numbers (e.g., by looking at defense expenditure reports) and subtracting weapon systems used in combat, trials, and for training purposes. The estimate includes air- and surface-launched capabilities, including both cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 150 kilometers or longer (the estimate does not include numbers on Turkish indigenous surface-launched capabilities which are difficult to confirm). 

The vast majority of existing long-range strike weapons in Europe constitute air-launched cruise missiles like the British-French Storm Shadow/SCALP-EG, the German-Swedish KEPD 350 Taurus, and the American Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile. Only France and the United Kingdom deploy a surface and subsurface launched cruise-missile capability. A small number of states also deploy short-range ballistic missiles. 

The top-line number, however, may be misleading, as the number of operational capabilities, compared to stockpiled systems, may be lower. In Germany, for example, only around 150 of 600 Taurus cruise missiles are reported operational. It is unlikely that German serviceability numbers are representative of the overall state of European long-range strike capabilities. Extrapolating from previous figures on the readiness of European defense equipment, however, it is reasonable to assume that overall serviceability is below 100 percent. 

The stockpiles of long-range weapons vary by country, and exceptions exist. Turkey, for example, has acquired a substantial long-range strike capability over the last decade which it continues to improve both in terms of arsenal size and quality. In addition, several European states have recently signed ad-hoc deals to procure missile and rocket systems following Ukraine’s apparent success in employing longer-range weapons to confront Russia on the battlefield. 

This includes the Netherlands, which has announced its intention to procure a conventional long-range strike triad by arming its surface and sub-surface vessels, as well as its fighter aircraft fleet with U.S.-made long-range strike weapons. In addition, the Baltic states and Poland have contracted the delivery of rocket artillery systems and long-range ammunitions, including American and South Korean short-range missiles. 

Europe’s strike capabilities lag behind operational needs, however, particularly in regard to a dedicated long-range land-attack component. This is especially the case for the four largest European states by GDP — France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom — whose long-range strike arsenals have been neglected since initial orders were placed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In addition, where contemporary procurement efforts are made, they seem hardly sufficient. Germany, for example, has recently requested the sale of 75 extended-range Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles to arm the recently purchased F-35 Lighting. In light of the munition requirements of modern war, this order appears incredibly underwhelming.  

 

Europe’s limited missile arsenals will be further strained by calls to supply Ukraine with its own long-range strike capability. Ukraine has for several months negotiated with the United States about the delivery of ATACMS short-range ballistic missiles. So far, U.S. decision-makers have hesitated, citing escalation concerns and the need to retain ATACMS as part of U.S. contingency planning.

Instead, the United Kingdom and France have decided to step up, announcing the delivery of Storm Shadow/SCALP-EG cruise missiles in May and July 2023, respectively. This constituted an important step and will certainly help the Ukrainian military in the coming months. 

British and French missile stocks are limited, however, and unless the United States or other countries step up soon, France and the United Kingdom will be forced to make a difficult decision: Keep supplying Ukraine with long-range strike weapons while undermining their own long-range strike capabilities, or stop deliveries and see Ukraine eventually run out of these key weapon systems. European states have little excess capacity to share with Ukraine and any deliveries will reinforce stockpile shortages. 

Overall, countries in Europe are faced with a missile conundrum. Existing stocks of missile capabilities seem insufficient for providing the sustained long-range fire support required to effectively fight a modern high-intensity war. Ukrainian demand for long-range strike weapons will further reinforce existing shortages. As a result, a new European approach to long-range strike capabilities is needed. 

Mobilizing European Industry

To escape its missile conundrum, Europe needs a missile strategy. This strategy should be centered around mobilizing and bringing together Europe’s (at times fractured) defense industry. 

The main player in Europe’s missile industry is the European armaments group MBDA (itself owned by Airbus, BAE Systems, and Leonardo), whose national subsidiaries operate missile manufacturing facilities and research and development centers in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom. In turn, MBDA’s national subsidiaries own a sizeable set of smaller companies that act as suppliers of critical parts, including missile engines, warheads, and sensor technology. This missile-manufacturing web centered around MBDA is complemented by several other national actors, including Germany’s Diehl, Norway’s Kongsberg, and Sweden’s SAAB, among others. 

In general, Europe’s missile industry is already characterized by a relatively high degree of cooperation (as indicated by several European missile projects), including beyond group boundaries. The challenge will be to promote closer integration across national lines to support Europe’s missile rearmament. This is necessary, given that the United States’ massive buildup of long-range strike capabilities in an effort to prepare for war with China will take up the vast majority of American industrial capacity in this area. As such, U.S. industry likely cannot be involved to the extent necessary to overcome Europe’s weaknesses in the missile domain within a reasonable timeframe. In addition, it makes sense from an industrial policy and strategic autonomy standpoint to retain the largest possible share of missile-related expertise and manufacturing in Europe. 

To mobilize their defense industries and recapitalize their long-range strike arsenals European states should employ a three-pronged strategy. First, where it makes sense, European states should consider placing orders for existing long-range strike capabilities, such as British-French Storm Shadow/SCALP-EG or German-Swedish Taurus KEPD 350 land-attack cruise missiles. Several states in Europe already deploy these systems, are currently in the process of receiving them, or may place an order soon. This means that these missile systems are already integrated with the armed forces of several European states, and that production lines are currently open or may open soon. 

For example, Greece is currently in the process of receiving SCALP-EG cruise missiles as part of a larger ammunition package from France for its Rafale fighter jets. According to industry contacts, Germany may place an order for a second batch of Taurus cruise missiles, potentially upon completion of the cruise missile system’s integration with Germany’s Eurofighter fleet. Other states that already deploy Storm Shadow/SCALP-EG and Taurus cruise missile systems (France, Italy, United Kingdom, Spain), or have considered procuring these systems in the past (e.g., Sweden), should consider following suit to increase overall order intake. 

While these weapon systems do not represent the most modern generation of land-attack missile capabilities, they incorporate an effective suite of warhead, guidance, and propulsion technologies that currently prove their worth on the Ukrainian battlefield. By consistently incorporating software and hardware upgrades, these systems will remain viable for another 20 years, if not longer. As such, they would serve as an important stopgap measure while next-generation capabilities come online and are acquired in sufficient numbers. Furthermore, additional orders of existing capabilities may facilitate much needed missile deliveries to Ukraine in the coming months.

Second, a more focused effort surrounding the development of future long-range strike capabilities is needed. While the United States and China are working at full stretch on next-generation long-range strike capabilities, including hypersonic designs, European development efforts appear more reserved. 

For several years now, France and the United Kingdom have cooperated on the Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapon program, which is supposed to replace anti-ship and land-attack cruise missile capabilities currently in service with the British and French Armed Forces from 2028 onward. Italy recently announced that it would join the program. 

Germany should consider following suit as soon as possible. This constitutes a logical step, given that these countries already share an integrated European missile industry with the above-mentioned European missile group MBDA. While missile systems are vastly less complex compared to next-generation platforms like fighter aircraft, and a duplication of effort can in theory be accepted more readily, it should nevertheless be avoided. 

In developing Europe’s next generation of long-range strike weapons, European states should pay attention to the lessons of the ongoing war in Ukraine. Low-flying subsonic missiles appear more vulnerable to air defense than previously assumed, at least against an adversary deploying a capable air and missile defense network. Future long-range strike capabilities should therefore put a premium on low-observability features, better maneuverability, and potentially higher speeds. This will inevitably drive up development and per-unit costs and constitutes another reason why European states should split the bill.

Third, European states should make greater efforts to share the industrial workload of long-range strike production by mobilizing and coordinating its independent missile manufacturing centers to multiply output. 

MBDA Germany, for example, has recently announced the establishment of several “missile hubs,” referring to centers for production, maintenance, repair, and modernization for different European and American missile systems. This is an excellent example of how European states can leverage their missile-related industrial expertise to increase ammunition output in a time of accelerated demand, including by license-producing foreign designs. 

A prime candidate for such a European missile cooperation could be Norway’s Joint Strike Missile. This missile is a next-generation land-attack cruise missile capability, developed and produced by Norwegian defense contractor Kongsberg in cooperation with Raytheon. It has a range of 300 or more kilometers, incorporates low-observability features, and can be carried internally in the F-35’s weapons bay. As such, the weapon system constitutes a key capability for Europe’s growing fleet of F-35 aircraft. 

Yet, the Joint Strike Missile’s existing manufacturing facility located in Tuscon, Arizona, will likely not be able to meet growing European demand within reasonable timeframes, while also keeping up with U.S. and overseas orders. Kongsberg and Raytheon may therefore consider opening the system for licensed production in other European countries to increase overall output. There is no guarantee that such industry cooperations can be agreed upon and several potential hurdles stand in their way, but it would be worth exploring these options in any case. 

Escaping the Conundrum

While no silver bullet, there is no future warfighting scenario in which European states will not wish to have access to large arsenals of long-range strike weapons. Unfortunately, European states have long neglected their long-range strike capabilities, resulting in dangerous shortages and missile stockpiles that are not fit-for-purpose for 21st- century high-intensity war. 

Luckily for European states, the continent has the wherewithal to change this situation. By mobilizing their industrial capabilities and pursuing a three-pronged strategy of producing existing missile designs, increasing developmental efforts for new designs, and sharing the missile manufacturing workload, European states can escape their self-imposed conundrum. 

 

 

Fabian Hoffmann is a Ph.D. research fellow at the Oslo Nuclear Project (ONP), University of Oslo, Norway. His research focuses on defense policy, missile technology, and nuclear strategy. Prior to joining the Oslo Nuclear Project, Fabian Hoffmann worked as a research assistant for the International Institute for Strategic Studies — Europe Office. The views expressed in this article represent those of the author alone.  

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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