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What will Tomorrow’s European Defense Look Like?

Despite being among the leaders on the global defense equipment market, Europe is currently suffering from a sub-optimal disposition of its production base. With an increasing level of military integration, both on NATO and EU levels, the old continent needs to re-think its intra-continental cooperation so as to maintain itself ahead of the game, find a new post-Brexit balance and protect itself from the mounting competition of emerging countries.

The ground is shifting under European feet on the global battlefield of military equipment sales. After centuries of un-coordinated development, Europe is now rife with equipment development and building capacities, but in such a state of limbo that the continent loses much of its power in the transfer. France has completely abandoned the small arms sector, with the closure of the Saint-Etienne arms manufacture, leaving production scattered across Europe and the world. The Small Arms Survey writes: “More than 1,000 companies from some 100 countries produce small arms and light weapons and their ammunition.”

In more strategic sectors, naval equipment is produced by the Italians, the French, the British, and the Germans (this last one being in an advanced state of disarray), with no integration whatsoever, which deeply worries experts as to the European capacity to face international competition. Defense analyst Tom Kington writes: “As European shipbuilders prepare to transform their nations’ rising military budgets into naval power, local priorities are acting as formidable forces against the integration of a fragmented market. Two years ago, Italian defense think tank CESI produced a document lamenting the fractured state of the European naval industry, warning that firms on the continent would be swept aside by foreign competition if they failed to team up and take on the world.”

And, to make matters worse, the imminent departure of the United Kingdom from the EU block, leaving access to the domestic naval industry between question marks, is bound to profoundly shift the structure of Europe’s military defense apparatus. So, what next?

Before the questions of design and production are even addressed, the question must be asked: “who will lead the defense and industrial strategy, on the continental scale?” Here, the contenders are few. Italy has traditionally had an important role in industrial production, including military shipyards, but its historical shyness from international military operations have given it no vantage point for strategic vision. With minimalistic participation to inter-ally deployments, Italy pretty much contains itself within a production role. Germany is roughly in the same configuration, as it has been on the receiving side of orders, since World War 2, and has shown little interest in taking leadership on strategy matters in Europe or elsewhere. This leaves the United Kingdom and France, the two main European military powers. But the undecipherable future of relationships between London and the mainland rules the UK out, as a strategic leader. This brings the count down to one, with France, a major player in international operations, a long-lasting military culture, and several key assets (such as nuclear submarines) for European defense.

Other major players on the European defense scene, such as Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Italy, have every reason to tighten their cooperation with the continental leadership if they wish to stay in the race. None of these countries will engage in a new major armament program on a solo basis: such programs have reached a technological complexity which led them to drop out of that race. But the game isn’t over: French and German leaders will increasingly resort to European partners, thus building industrially European defense which could never be built politically. France and Germany, unlike the United States (which built their F-35 fighter almost alone), plan to mobilize Europe’s rich industry in future programs such as the next battle tank and the next fighter jet. France is likely to become the main integrator given its operational track record and its reputation for independence from Russian and Turkish influence.

But if Germany can hardly take leadership on defense matters, that doesn’t mean Berlin is out of the game – far from it. It does mean, however, that both French and German industries would need to receive government support. France because the country providing leadership could hardly do so without its own military industry, and Germany for the added output capacity which it provides. Besides, German and French engineering capacities in land defense systems are two separate and complementary gems in the European crown.

Germany, with its industrial capacity, is a major asset for the defense capacities of Europe. Rheinmetall AG is the producer of several top-notch pieces of heavy military hardware, such as the Leopard 2 and the Panzerhaubitze howitzer, which rank among the best in the world. Its reputation for quality and innovation isn’t new, as the infamous WWII Karl-Gerät siege mortar, often known as “Big Bertha,” can attest to. Defense analyst Sebastian Sprenger sees Germany as a major industrial partner of Europe’s defense landscape: “The jury is still out on whether PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation Mechanism) can generate the kind of defense-industry momentum some want it to have. But German companies should be in a position to participate in projects when it does turn out to become a major driver, argues the industry group.” France, which would lead the way in the European land defense industry, could not face demand, by itself, without its German partner.

The naval side of power, however, is a different matter. Germany has been undergoing tremendous turbulence in its military shipyards, and its building capacities have been reduced so drastically that there is a question of simply closing them down – thus putting an end to a century-old tradition of naval excellence. France and Italy, however, could fill that gap, with their respective naval building capacities. Here again, entrusting France with leadership and Italy with production could make sense, as France has the larger naval experience and is also the guardian of nuclear power. The revival of the Russian naval threat means that under no circumstances can Europe afford to leave its underwater borders unguarded and will need tip-of-the-sword equipment to address the Eastern threat. Germany is in no state to rise to the challenge, and the UK’s entire military industry is slumping. The BBC reported in February 2019: The Ministry of Defence has a funding black hole of at least £7 billion in its 10-year plan to equip the UK’s armed forces, according to a report by the Commons spending watchdog. The Public Accounts Committee said the MoD lacked the ability to “accurately cost programmes” and that the shortfall could reach £14.8 billion by 2028. France and Italy, together, are best suited to rise to the task.

According to the Munich Security Report, “Europe’s three greatest military powers are still far from replacing the US military on the continent.” The withdrawal of a major military power such as the UK from Europe, the consequences of which are still to be determined, will not leave Europe unscathed and compels the main EU countries (now down to two, France and Germany) to figure out the next step. Nothing good will come from a “wait and see” strategy, because smaller competitors which, traditionally, formed no threat on the global market are now not so small anymore. Likewise, honing the industrial capacities but neglecting leadership, or vice versa, will have the same result: the fall of one of Europe’s most sizable powerhouses, and a maintained sovereignty loss towards the United States.