In less than two years, the number of PESCO projects has increased from 17 to 47. More importantly, the projects are growing in scope and ambition too, with increased budgets and more advanced technologies and capabilities (see box on page 16).

The crucial aspect of PESCO, however, lies in its 20 common binding commitments, which each participating Member State agreed to fulfil when joining the PESCO framework. These are designed to help fulfil the EU Treaty’s level of ambition in defence which includes carrying out the most demanding missions and operations, boosting European defence cooperation, and developing national defence capabilities via multinational procurement projects that involve the most appropriate industrial entities, including small and medium sized enterprises. The long term vision of PESCO is to arrive at a coherent full spectrum force package – in complementarity with NATO which will continue to be the cornerstone of collective defence for its members.

To achieve those objectives, the PESCO countries have started embedding the commitments’ European perspective in their national defence planning, budgets, programmes, and joint efforts. Thus, the impact and benefits of PESCO should not be assessed against the size and value of the projects only; equally important are the permanent changes initiated and achieved by the 20 commitments.

Along with other players, the European Defence Agency (EDA) is a key PESCO facilitator. Taking the EU’s Capability Development Priorities (approved in June 2018) as a baseline, as well as the findings of the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), the Agency supports the participating Member States in implementing PESCO in both aspects, to develop a common understanding on the attainment of the commitments and to support capability development projects. Over time, this should contribute to improve the coherence of the European defence capability landscape and strengthen its defence and industrial base.

Commitments are important  

PESCO’s 20 binding commitments are grouped in five broad categories, related to: the level of national investment expenditure on defence equipment; the alignment of the Member States’ defence apparatus; the availability, interoperability, flexibility and deployability of their forces; the multinational approach to close capability gaps; and, finally, the use of EDA as the framework for major joint equipment programmes.

The commitments motivate national planners to assess the impact of their plans and programmes against the European defence capability landscape. One crucial question each planner will need to answer is: will my national programme boost that landscape’s coherence or lead to more fragmentation?

Clearly, that kind of thinking rises above a strictly national viewpoint. “It means embedding the EU perspective into national planning and taking into account all those EU inputs and tools such as the Global Strategy, CARD, CDP, the European Defence Fund and other initiatives. This demands a real change in thinking,” says Alessandro Cignoni, Head of EDA’s PESCO Unit.

Though PESCO’s first phase will end in 2025, the Member States will carry out a strategic review of its outputs in 2020 to take stock and define more precise objectives for its evolution. The review will generate data and evidence for better aligning the EU’s defence-related initiatives via stronger synergies and cross-fertilisation between PESCO and CARD, for example.


Improving project coordination

Meanwhile, the scope and definition of PESCO proposals have improved with each new batch of projects, particularly the latest, third round approved in November 2019. This is partly due to better consultation and coordination among the 25 national defence ministries as they develop their multinational capability ideas.

The PESCO Secretariat (see box on page 16) also helped by organising a series of workshops from June to September 2019 to advise them on ways to strengthen their proposals. “After those events, the proposals’ budgets and military requirements were clarified with more granularity. And the projects were also better aligned with EDA’s Strategic Context Cases, which help implement the EU’s capability development priorities in a coherent manner,” said Mr Cignoni.

Another encouraging sign is that there were more mature proposals in the third batch, he said. “Cooperation and preparation among Member States started earlier than during the previous two rounds, so there were proportionally more joint proposals, which were very well described and explained. This is an indicator of a shift towards more quality rather than quantity.” 

PESCO’s latest batch of 13 projects, approved in November 2019, ranges from operational projects, such as the special operations medical training project, to capability-oriented projects related to the airborne electronic attack technologies. Two projects from the latter category are MUSAS (Maritime Unmanned Anti-Submarine System) and TWISTER (Timely Warning and Interception with Space-based TheatER surveillance).

MUSAS, for example, will develop an advanced command, control and communications service architecture to counter underwater threats. It will also help to protect underwater infrastructures and sea-based energy systems. It will be coordinated by Portugal, with Spain and France as partners.

As for TWISTER, it will focus on countering hyper-velocity missiles and other platforms. It aims to boost the European Union’s ability to detect, track and counter such threats. This will be achieved by combining various enhanced capabilities for space-based early warning and endo-atmospheric interceptors. It will be coordinated by France, with Spain and Romania as partners.

Within the PESCO Secretariat, which comprises EDA and the European External Action Service (EEAS) including the EU Military Staff (EUMS), the Agency has a supporting role at various levels.

First, it serves as a platform where PESCO participating Member States can identify, assess and consolidate possible projects. EDA’s input at an early stage of project assessment helps to ensure there is not unnecessary duplication with existing initiatives, as well as  other institutional contexts. This is crucial because the aim is to move away from a culture of duplication of efforts towards more interoperability.

Second, EDA can support the practical PESCO project implementation, at the request of Member States. This role is particularly well suited to the Agency as PESCO’s two-layer approach is similar to the project governance structure in EDA: Member States have full control of the project content, with the Agency serving participating nations as a facilitator and service provider.

Third: EDA plays a leading role in the annual assessment of PESCO nations’ contributions and fulfilment of the binding commitments for the capability aspects.


The PESCO Secretariat is composed of the EEAS, including the EU Military Staff, and EDA. How do you assess the Secretariat’s work so far?

The PESCO Secretariat has so far successfully managed to fulfil all assigned tasks. All timelines have been met and I understand that participating Member States are satisfied with the service provided. As for the internal proceedings of the Secretariat, the professional attitude of all individuals involved and the output-oriented approach has helped to resolve every question that aroused naturally in the formation of what is a new institutional body.

From the angle of the EUMS: what are the main lessons learned so far?

Obviously, the success of the PESCO framework depends to the greatest extent on the participating Member States. To promote the success of project proposals some more time and opportunities for the presentation and promotion should be provided. With regard to the National Implementation Plans, success could be enhanced by elaborating more on the type of information participating Member States are required to provide in order to demonstrate their efforts to fulfil the more binding commitments. There are already 47 projects set up and running from the first three waves. It may be worthwhile to examine the projects and the extent to which they are related to each other. Activities in similar projects could be coordinated to achieve greater efficiency.

How to ensure PESCO will unleash its full potential from an operational point of view? 

Again, subject to the results of the upcoming 2020 PESCO Strategic Review, the criteria relating to the operational point of view may need some revision to better capture the benefit of PESCO project proposals that are focused on training, capacity building and operational readiness. Within the Strategic Review lessons learned and lessons identified from past or ongoing CSDP missions and operations could help to identify the most relevant capabilities/operational resources that may be made available through the PESCO framework. Our emphasis should be given to quality over quantity. From an operational point of view the PESCO framework is on track but needs to maintain and increase momentum in order to achieve the EU military level of ambition. We should keep in mind that the PESCO framework serves the purpose to deliver tangible results to mitigate existing shortfalls in CSDP missions and operations.

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