European defence has undergone several important evolutions since the establishment of the Helsinki Headline Goal in December 1999. At that time, the focus was on achieving specific quantitative goals with respect to military (and later on civilian) capabilities. Among the better-known goals was to be able to deploy 50,000-60,000 personnel within 60 days for a distance of up to 4,000 kilometres. Over time, the EU entered a second wave prioritising qualitative dimensions and establishing specific support bodies. Through the Headline Goal 2010, the emphasis shifted towards qualitative aspects such as achieving greater interoperability, sustainability, deployability, and other related objectives among European forces.

In 2014, a third wave of European defence commenced in the aftermath of the European Council ‘defence matters’ Summit held in December 2013. Trademarking this third wave were numerous defence initiatives aiming to intensify links across capability requirements, boost transparency among national defence policy plans (through CARD), and promote collaborate defence projects (PESCO) – all while introducing a new financing option (EDF). Besides strengthening European defence, these current initiatives serve to decrease industrial fragmentation and capability duplication.

European Defence 3.0 – Sustaining the momentum 

Leveraging this third wave will require attention to at least three issues. The first, and probably most crucial, is to consider amplifying the prominence of one of the four ‘elements’ that serve as the foundation of the Capability Development Plan (CDP). Presently, the CDP process examines four perspectives: 1) current CSDP shortfalls, 2) lessons from CSDP operations, 3) Member States’ defence plans and programmes, and 4) the long-term capability trends - recognising technological developments and changes in the security environment.

It is the last component, the examination of disruptive technologies and the security context from a longer-term perspective, which is increasingly critical to defence planners and policy makers – especially given how quickly the security landscape can change. Already now, we can discern how developments in areas such as the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, biotechnology and quantum computing might be employed via hybrid means. As countries and societies move towards ‘smart cities’, ‘smart grids’, and ‘smart logistics’ to name but a few, vulnerabilities and challenges will materialise in ways previously unseen – requiring new strategies, capabilities, and tactics.

From a different vantage point, trends in other (non-technological) areas such as climate change and urbanisation are also likely to impact defence requirements in ways unseen. For instance, the effects of climate change spread unevenly across the globe. They are more notable in the Polar Regions and along central geographic belts – affecting Africa and Asia in particular. As a result, some countries across those continents may suffer more from challenges associated with food security, health security, water security, or megacity governance to name but a few. These in turn will have implications for European defence, especially concerning its contribution towards the integrated approach and capability development.

Overall, these trends place a greater premium on more wide-ranging and frequent examinations of global and technological trends over the next five to ten years1. Such reflection should largely inform the CDP process, helping to identify future force requirements and new types of operational needs. It is encouraging that the capability development priorities approved in June 2018 include cyber responsive operations and innovative technologies for enhanced future military capabilities (under the heading cross-domain capabilities contributing to achieve the EU’s level of ambition). Guiding the practical implementation of these priorities are the Strategic Context Cases endorsed on 27 June 2019, which guide the 11 European capability development priority areas over the short, medium and long-term horizons up to and beyond 2035. Going forward, such reflections should ideally have ample space to guide future revisions, including with reference to the Overarching Strategic Research Agendas used to identify research and technology priorities and the Key Strategic Activities for industrial manufacturing capacities.   

As European defence efforts evolve, a second area likely to require additional attention is the degree of EU/NATO synergy. The need for continued EU/NATO collaboration is well known, anchored on the understanding that Member States’ have a single set of forces that they can employ in different frameworks. Currently, there are systematic exchanges concerning the new instruments (e.g. CARD and PESCO) with NATO processes such as the NATO Defence Planning Process. These exchanges serve to facilitate common prioritisation while minimising unnecessary duplication.

Looking ahead, however, there may be a need to seek synergies even further upstream, including at the strategic level. A possible starting point, while recognising the different nature of the two organisations and their responsibilities, might be to increase EU/NATO exchanges when either organisation enters a process to update or release new strategic guidance documents such as the EU Global Strategy or NATO’s Strategic Concept. To date, there were limited opportunities to do so, recognising for example that NATO’s current Strategic Concept dates back to 2010 (‘Active Engagement, Modern Defence’). Of particular value would be joint EU/NATO exchanges on the evolving global security environment and its implications, especially in light of the 74 EU/NATO common actions.

Lastly, steering European defence forward over the longer term might benefit from a joint vision or guidance document beyond the Headline Goals or PESCO binding commitments. While there are many calls for a White Book or its equivalent, an easier starting point might be to revive the long-term vision (LTV) process. In 2006, the European Defence Agency (EDA) released the Long-Term Vision report based on collaborative work across EDA, the EU Military Committee, the EU Military Staff, the EUISS, and EU Member States. NATO’s Allied Command Transformation as well as the defence industry likewise provided input into the process. The LTV served as a compass for defence planners with respect to capability requirements with a 20-year horizon, just as the EU Global strategy currently guides EU external action. Specifically, the LTV provided an overview of the global context, the specific challenges for defence, as well as the implications for capability development and military contributions on the ground. Besides communicating an understanding of future capability requirements, the exercise in itself facilitated discussions across a wide range of defence and security-related stakeholders. An enlarged LTV-process could eventually provide the initial groundwork or support for a future White Book or other strategic guidance document concerning European defence. 


The EU has progressively advanced when it comes to European defence. This will continue as we await the completion of the first full CARD cycle report in November 2020, a strategic review of PESCO at the end of its first phase in 2020, and a new call for PESCO projects in 2021. These processes, while representing a critical component of the European defence picture, are a ‘means to an end’ – supporting the EU’s evolving role as a security actor and partner. Other pieces of this puzzle, which over time should increasingly help anchor the new defence initiatives, include Europe’s vision of the evolving global landscape and its security implications, its levels of security collaboration with likeminded partners, and its selected posture as a global security provider – especially as it develops concepts on cooperative autonomy.

1 For some reflections on this, see ‘Exploring Europe’s Capability Requirements for 2035 and Beyond – Insights from the 2018 update of the long-term strand of the Capability Development Plan’, EDA, June 2018.

Dr. Gustav Lindstrom

Dr. Gustav Lindstrom is the Director of the EU Institute for Security Studies (EUISS). In his capacity as director, he also chairs the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific – EU Committee (CSCAP-EU). He holds a doctorate in Policy Analysis from the RAND Graduate School and MA in International Policy Studies from Stanford University.


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