The establishment of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in late 2017 was a milestone in the EU’s efforts to boost security and defence capabilities as well as operational capacity.

Unlike other forms of cooperative arrangements, PESCO calls for 20 binding commitments for the 25 participating EU Member States. A substantial amount of political capital was expended to ensure wide participation and to identify an initial set of 17 projects adopted in March 2018. The launch of PESCO, combined with the introduction of other tools such as the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), raises expectations for quick and substantial gains in the EU’s security and defence arena. These expectations should probably be tempered, as PESCO will need time to fully mature and produce tangible results. As PESCO goes forward, at least four issues will require continued attention to ensure it reaches its full potential in the coming years. 

Synchronisation with CARD and EDF

First, it is important to remember that PESCO represents just one piece within a larger security and defence puzzle. It is still evolving and needs to be synchronised with the CARD process as well as the European Defence Fund (EDF) launched in mid-2017. There is already an implicit understanding that the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence – which among others aims to support EU Member States’ efforts to foster capability development addressing shortfalls – could serve as a basis for identifying future PESCO projects. Likewise, the European Defence Fund could support projects financially, making their completion more likely. The challenge is that these and other tools and instruments are maturing at different rates. The CARD process will not be fully implemented until 2019. The EDF will not reach full funding levels until after 2020. As a result, the full extent of these benefits will not be visible till after 2020. Other developments in 2019, such as the ongoing Brexit process, European Parliamentary elections, and the end of the current European Commission’s mandate are likely to impact progress from now on until the end of 2019.

Common vision on future threats

Second, and related to the first point, there is still room to strengthen the ‘joint vision’ among EU policymakers and planners, especially concerning emerging security challenges and their implications for EU capability development.

Formally enhancing such reflections should help answering questions such as “what future security challenges confront the EU?” and “what are the security implications of emerging trends, and how do they affect EU capabilities needs or operational requirements?” 

It may also help guide ongoing processes, such as the formulation of general conditions under which third states could be invited to participate in individual PESCO projects. 

Indeed such reflections, which to some extent are already contained in the Capability Development Plan (currently under review), should serve as the preliminary step or basis for the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence that primarily focuses on the monitoring of national defence spending plans to help identify new collaborative initiatives. Presently, there is clarity on strategic priorities – e.g. via the EU Global Strategy and the Implementation Plan on Security and Defence, also as written in the Council Conclusions on 14 November 2016. 

There are also shared views on capability requirements, for example as expressed in the Capability Development Plan, the Headline Goals, and the Long-Term Vision. There is, however, limited coherence across these different guideposts to extract a common vision on how evolving external threats and challenges will affect future EU security and defence postures. Greater clarity in this area could promote a more proactive PESCO, including one that helps the EU address future operational needs.

This is particularly relevant as PESCO also includes an operation-oriented focus, a domain that is currently on the backburner to give priority to capability development.

The right mix of strategic and operational projects

A third issue that will impact the evolution of PESCO are the projects themselves. The 17 collaborative projects adopted so far vary greatly in their focus and strategic outreach. Some can be traced to projects initiated prior to the launch of PESCO, such as the requirement for a European Secure Software Defined Radio. The table on page 8 summarises the initial batch of 17 collaborative projects organised into four indicative categories: capability needs (including those identified in CSDP operations); logistical / training needs; maritime surveillance needs and cybersecurity needs. The majority of PESCO projects are linked to operational needs, with several stemming from lessons identified in the field. 

As PESCO matures, sustained leadership will be important to ensure a good mix of strategic (such as the EUFOR Crisis Response Operation Core which aims to contribute to the creation of a coherent full spectrum force package) and operational projects (e.g. Military Mobility). A promising sign is the current identification of needs in non-traditional areas such as cybersecurity. Looking ahead, identifying needs in such areas will be increasingly vital to ensure that the EU has a broad toolbox to address a wider variety of security challenges. 

Adapting PESCO to a broadened security concept

Lastly, as PESCO moves forward, it will need to adapt to a changing security environment to remain germane. We already see a broadening of security concepts to include issues such as food security, health security, energy security, space security and water security. For PESCO, it will be increasingly critical to develop capabilities that can be applied to such domains under the general auspices of the EU’s integrated approach. 

Specific areas that will also require sustained attention are the possible security implications arising from advances in technology. Many of these advances are already known, such as developments in additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence, nanote chnolog y, biote chnolog y and cyberspace. 

Much less understood are their possible security implications as well as how these areas are linked. For instance, 3D printing may be leveraged to produce improvised explosive devices that are more difficult to detect. Trends towards the Internet of Things, whereby a greater number of gadgets are connected to the Internet, may magnify weaknesses in critical infrastructures and services – including societal transitions to smart cities, smart grids, and smart transport systems. Closer to the defence domain, developments in artificial intelligence – combined with advances in nanotechnology and computing power – are leading to concern over possible lethal autonomous weapons systems. 

From another perspective, we are seeing a return to great power politics. While this has the greatest implications for NATO, it also calls on the EU to maintain a credible defence posture. For PESCO, this means continued calibration and ensuring consistency with NATO capability development, especially in light of the 2016 EU-NATO joint declaration that identifies numerous areas for cooperation – many focusing on the need to address hybrid threats. 

Overall, PESCO provides a flexible tool to facilitate the development of capabilities and meet the operational needs of today and tomorrow. As it is a tool rather than an end in itself, it can evolve and adapt to changing circumstances. This adaptability, combined with gradual maturity, positions PESCO to positively contribute to more proactive and sustainable EU defence cooperation within the next few years.

Gustav Lindstrom

Gustav Lindstrom has been the Director of the EU Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) since January 2018. Previously, Dr Lindstrom served as the Head of the Emerging Security Challenges Programme at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP). While at the GCSP, he also served as Head of the Euro-Atlantic Security Programme, Director of the European Training Course, co-chair of the Partnership for Peace Consortium (PfP-C) Emerging Security Challenges Working Group, and as a member of the Executive Academic Board of the European Security and Defence College. Prior to his tenure at the GCSP, he was a Research Fellow and later a Senior Research Fellow at the EUISS. He has also worked with the RAND Corporation and the World Bank. His areas of expertise include CSDP, cybersecurity and emerging security challenges. Dr Lindstrom holds a doctorate in Policy Analysis from the RAND Graduate School and MA in International Policy Studies from Stanford University.

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