Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Ukraine Prompts a Critical Rethink on European Defense

Because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, governments across Europe are rushing to address lackluster spending on defense. Countries are independently buying military equipment off-the-shelf from third-countries or ramping up domestic production. They are also investing in defense systems that are produced externally.

However, this will lead to problems of its own. This lack of coordination will likely lead to the purchase of different kinds of military equipment, making it difficult for Europe to coordinate its collective defense. To address this, Europeans must invest jointly in projects that would help build a common European defense industry and ensure the interoperability of military equipment like tanks and missile defense systems that have proved critical in Ukraine’s effort to repel Russia.

After the Cold War, with no longer having to worry about the Soviets as its empire collapsed and became mired in corruption and neglect, Europe spent significantly less on its defense. In part, it didn’t need to because the United States still had a sizable military force based in Western Europe and the nuclear-security umbrella allowed Europeans to sleep soundly at night.

This changed with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 prompting NATO’s European members to commit to the alliance’s target of spending two percent of GDP on defense in an effort to prepare their militaries for high-intensity warfare. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the possibility of another major war on the continent became a reality, leading European governments to prepare accordingly.

Russia’s act of aggression also led the United States to reaffirm its commitment to European security. However, American primary security interests lie elsewhere. According to the U.S. National Defense Strategy, China remains the U.S. “most consequential strategic competitor and the pacing challenge.” Simply put, the U.S. pivot to Asia might have been paused or delayed by events in Europe, but not canceled. If these trends continue, the U.S. will eventually start reallocating resources away from Europe towards the Indo-Pacific to contain China. The American-led AUKUS and Quad security pacts are an effort to work with allies to contain China.

These trends suggest that Europe should start reducing its reliance on the U.S. for security and instead develop common defense capabilities. Europe’s military support to Ukraine has created a unique opportunity for European countries to become more responsible for their own security. Since European inventories have become depleted by the supply of military equipment being shipped to Ukraine, Europeans need new equipment to replenish their stockpiles and respond to increased demand. Instead of purchasing equipment from third-country suppliers, Europeans must focus their military spending on joint development projects like drones, fighter jets, and tanks. Additionally, they must create new projects focused on areas like anti-access/area denial and countering unmanned aerial systems as suggested by the European Defence Agency.

These initiatives will deepen European defense cooperation and modernize European arsenals. They will increase science and technology collaboration, integrate supply chains, improve economies of scale, ensure the interoperability of equipment, and strengthen the defense industrial base. The projects will also fill some of the key capability gaps in defense like the lack of coordination on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance gathering, main battle tanks, and an air defense system.

Developing these capabilities will also improve Europe’s ability to defend itself. The most prominent security threat to Europe is Russia. A Russian military attack will likely begin in the Baltic states since they are the closest to Russia and are weak targets given their small population and size. In the event of an attack by Russia, combat aircraft would be critical to defend and recapture territory. The responsiveness of airpower can be a useful counter to the sudden changes on the battlefield that armored and mechanized warfare often produces.

Similarly, as the war in Ukraine has shown, battle tanks and an air defense system would be critical assets against a Russian attack. Ukrainian air defense systems have played a decisive role in halting the Russian advance even before Western countries began to send weapon packages to Ukraine. On the other hand, modern battle tanks, like the ones Western countries recently agreed to send to Ukraine, would be useful in the recapturing territory. Due to the mobility, long-range accuracy, and firepower, experts predict that tanks will play a key role in helping Ukraine break through Russian defenses and retake Russian-occupied territory.

Military development timelines are extremely long, but Russia’s bumbling military performance in Ukraine gives Europe enough time to build its capabilities. Russian setbacks against the Ukrainian military have probably left Vladimir Putin and his lieutenants with little appetite for another conflict in the foreseeable future. Additionally, Russia will take several years to rebuild its economy and replenish the equipment and ammunition lost in the war.

Recent reports indicated that close to 200,000 Russian troops have been killed and wounded and roughly 8,000 pieces of equipment have been lost, including 1,500 tanks, 700 armored fighting vehicles, and 1,700 infantry fighting vehicles. As a result of these losses, Russia has had to draw on reserves and resort to buying drones from Iran and artillery shells from North Korea. Moreover, Western sanctions have blocked Russia from accessing technologies its military sector will need. Regarding economic sanctions, experts predict the Russian economy to contract by 5.6 percent in 2023.

Overall, it could take up to three decades for Russia to rebuild its economy and military. By then, Vladimir Putin will be over 100 years old and probably dead and the war in Ukraine will have prompted a radical rethink in the Kremlin that perhaps another unprovoked war in Europe runs counter to Russian interests.

Lastly, joint projects will also make the transatlantic alliance stronger by complementing NATO’s defense efforts. Following the example of similar joint projects like the Global Combat Air Programme by Japan, Italy, and the United Kingdom, Europeans must invest time and funds to ensure that their joint military systems and equipment are interoperable with the U.S. and other NATO allies. The U.S. would welcome these efforts as they will strengthen Europe’s ability to join the U.S. in securing NATO air and ground space.

Today’s security challenges require a new division of labor between the U.S. and Europe. And now, there is a unique window of opportunity for Europe to develop its defense potential. Only European leaders can take this opportunity and begin to forge a more capable European defense. If it is not now, when?