In the following article, the European Defence Agency (EDA) Chief Executive Jorge Domecq argues that strategic autonomy is too important an ambition to be flogged to death in endless theoretical talk on its end-goal. What counts, he says, are practical steps allowing the EU to move closer towards this goal.

It is time we Europeans, but also our transatlantic partners, approach strategic autonomy in a more constructive spirit and with pragmatism. Strategic autonomy has to be looked at as a positive endeavour, not something directed against NATO, the United States or anybody else.

In fact, it’s about putting EU Member States in a position where they can autonomously develop, operate, modify and maintain the full spectrum of defence capabilities they need. It’s about giving EU Member States the option and ability – technological, industrial, operational, political – to be able to take military action whenever needed to defend its values and interests, either together with partners (notably NATO) wherever possible, or separately if required.

This ambition was strongly reiterated last June when the European Council agreed on the EU’s New Strategic Agenda 2019-2024 which highlights the need to pursue a strategic course of action and increase the EU’s capacity to act autonomously. Therein, Member States’ Heads of State and Government insist the EU takes more responsibility for its own security and defence, in particular by enhancing its defence investment, capability development, technological expertise and operational readiness.

Instead of undermining transatlantic trust and security, as some fear, a more robust and autonomous European defence will ultimately lead to a stronger NATO. It is in the interest of our transatlantic partners to have a more capable and efficient EU in defence.

The US wants Europe to take its fair share of burden in defence? A stronger and more credible European pillar in NATO will contribute to that.

Ambition and action 

The EU’s ambition, as stated in the 2016 Global Strategy, is to reach “an appropriate level of strategic autonomy” in order to “ensure Europe’s ability to safeguard security within and beyond its borders”. However, it takes more than ambition and political will to get there.

Strategic autonomy presupposes at least two things. First, that our Member States’ armed forces have at their disposal the full spectrum of military assets that, taken together, could enable the EU to take military action and on its own, if necessary. Second, that the functionality and usability of these assets are not restricted by any technological or political caveats controlled by non-European actors.

Today, admittedly, this is not the case.  Hence the need to invest more, and better, in defence. The good news is that we are moving in the right direction, both in terms of ‘more’ and ‘better’.

Spending & planning

Spending figures are there to prove that more is already being done: EU Member States consistently increased their defence budgets in 2018 and 2019. By 2020, the vast majority of Member States also intend to increase to 20% the share allocated to defence investment. 

But more spending does not automatically guarantee more efficiency or interoperability.

To achieve that we must plan and invest better, through cooperation: from joint priority setting to the development, procurement and deployment of cutting-edge defence capabilities. Over the past two years, we put in place an end-to-end defence planning framework at EU level with the Capability Development Plan (CDP), the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund (EDF).

Prioritisation is the foundation stone on which all subsequent steps must build, and it is already in place: the CDP, developed through the Agency and revised in 2018, lists Member States’ joint priorities for the years to come. One of them targets cross-domain capabilities that can contribute to strategic autonomy.

Using the priorities as a compass will ensure efforts and funding are spent on assets that are really needed and contribute to making EU Member States, as a group, more efficient and coherent in military terms. The CARD will help keep the focus on agreed priorities.

This being said, the proof of the pudding is in the eating: cooperation must lead to projects which must produce a tangible outcome, i.e. usable defence capabilities.

Several cooperation platforms are available, including EDA, which, since its creation in 2004, has gained robust expertise and track-record in initiating and managing collaborative capability programmes. PESCO, a first-choice framework for cooperation for the 25 participating EU Member States has been put in place. These Member States have taken binding commitments, inter alia to increase their engagement in collaborative projects and use of EDA as the European forum for joint capability development.

In PESCO, Member States should therefore be bolder and collaborate more on assets and capabilities directly focused on having a real impact on the European capability landscape, thereby inspiring strategic autonomy. However, today, not all PESCO projects put forward have genuine strategic clout; moving forward CARD will ensure they will. Finally, the EDF must serve as a potential financial incentive and reward projects relevant for this.

Knowledge, skills, capabilities

To achieve strategic autonomy, the EU must also be able to master cutting-edge technologies and their integration into defence products. That’s why it is so crucial that it acquires, maintains and develops the technological knowledge and industrial manufacturing skills required to produce the defence equipment it needs.

Those Key Strategic Activities have to be preserved and strengthened if we want to turn the goal of strategic autonomy into reality.

EDA, which is the EU hub for defence innovation and collaborative capability development, has been involved in this critical work since several years. At the Agency, we identify critical research areas and other key strategic activities underpinning the EU’s strategic autonomy. The aim is to identify, and then support, ‘must-have’ technologies and industrial abilities without which strategic autonomy isn’t possible. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) is only one example of such critical disruptive technologies that are reshaping defence. Although Europe still has a leading edge in AI (behind the US but ahead of China), it must raise its game to remain relevant. EDA also does its bit: the Agency’s network of research experts explores potential AI applications in defence to help industry develop them into usable military capabilities.

Besides that, there is a plethora of new technologies and components which, if fully mastered by our researchers and manufacturers, can contribute to building Europe’s strategic autonomy.

Gallium Nitride, for example, has been identified as a crucial component for satellite communications and various defence applications, such as radars. Member States invested some €100 million over 10 years through EDA to develop a complete European supply chain, helping to keep related skills and business in Europe. System on chip (SoC) and field-programmable gate array (FPGA) technology is another example. As military operations get increasingly digitalised, Europe must have capacities based on technologies such as advanced signal, digital processing (data fusion, big data, deep learning) and encryption.

Here too, Member States started investing through EDA, €25 million, with more to come. In the satellite communication domain, EDA is helping governments develop a common, European solution to better protect governmental and commercial SATCOM systems, for instance against jamming. Another example is air-to-air refuelling (AAR), a strategic enabler for military operations. As the future of AAR lies with automation, EDA works on harmonising the operational requirements to guide industry and help governments make the right investments.

Defence cooperation is not an option but a necessity for strategic autonomy. It’s through concrete action in defence spending, planning and technologies - not political or academic rhetoric - that we can progress towards it. At the same time, we must of course ensure coherence and avoid any unnecessary duplication with NATO which continues to be the cornerstone of collective defence for its members. This is not in question.

EU strategic autonomy is not just around the corner, but not unattainable either. The closer we get to it and the more additional defence cooperation it triggers, the better. We will be more able to stand up to our defence commitments, including, as regards collective defence with our allies.