The scornful proverb ‘Never fight the last war,’ is not lost on Stefano Cont. As a general on leave from the Italian military, he knows that throughout history, his sort have been accused of preparing for conflicts based on past experience, even when technology, geography and circumstances change. So he starts with a note of caution.

“A future conflict, even a prolonged or intense one, could be quite different from what we are observing right now in Ukraine,” he says. What’s more, he says, there is no air war to speak of. So far, there has been no naval combat either, at least not on the scale of the Battle of Midway in 1942. “The way the conflict has been developed means it will not offer us too many lessons in the air or naval domain.”

With those disclaimers, Cont can speak about EDA’s preliminary assessment, which was presented in greater detail to EDA’s Steering Board in May and could serve as a basis for capability planning, especially as EDA will present revised priorities for Ministers of Defence to approve in November.

“The first element to emerge is that you need to have a fully integrated command and control system,” Cont says, pointing to former U.S. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s command during the 1990-91 Gulf War and its well-integrated joint operations tied platforms, units, and action. “You definitely need that to collect, analyse and distribute the information within a decision-making system.”

Protection, electronic warfare

Surely, European Union Member States already have such systems? Cont is clear that each Member State has structures that are developed and integrated in the NATO context. “But if you are really honest, interoperability when you’re talking about command and control, especially intelligence systems, is not perfectly integrated. So, technologically speaking, you need to conceive the system as a whole and then to plug in different elements,” he explains.

That feeds into today’s talk of ‘cognitive superiority’ and the so-called speed of relevance. In future warfare, decision-making will need to be faster, not only at the tactical level, but also at the operational level and strategic levels. That could be harder in a coalition of the willing, Cont says, so procedures will need to be clear from the start. “You cannot develop them during a crisis situation or a conflict,” he adds.

The return of full-scale war to European soil has raised another alarm: the threat to the EU’s critical infrastructure. The issue was not a great consideration over the past 30 years, Cont asserts. Russian air strikes on Ukraine’s electrical power stations are a lesson in themselves. “We need to consider how we increase protection,” he asserts.

A lesson to be drawn is the importance of the electromagnetic spectrum (see Elettronica interview, EDM page 24). “In warfare, it is becoming very relevant, because it would be nonsense to have a multi-billion euro satellite system jammed by equipment costing just €10,000,” Cont says. “Ukraine shows that highly sophisticated weapons system can be deceived or defeated by confusing the guidance systems, or taking control of the system itself.”

As defence spending increases across Europe in response to Russia’s invasion, EDA’s message is that Member States must use increased resources wisely. In the case of electronic warfare, that capability is “an excellent complement” to traditional ones, Cont says.

The quality of quantity

EU armed forces must use technology. But the ways to do that are changing. Ukraine has used commercial technologies as assets. Ukraine has also used limited capabilities and older weapons successfully by tailoring them precisely to the threats they face.

“Ukraine has shown a good mix between high-end technologies and the commonly available off-the-shelf technologies to achieve a superiority in the operational field,” Cont explains, citing small drones produced in garages mounted with cheap optical sensors and rudimentary weapons controlled by a mobile phone that can be bought in a shop.

“You have to try to be innovative in a way that solves typical problems, the usual problems,” Cont says, citing Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter’s belief that innovation happens when humans figure out how to craft inventions into something constructive.

Cont says that in the past, EU efforts to develop technology reached the highest level in small quantities, in part given the reduced size of defence budgets, less money for production and sizing industry for the needs of the day. “Now we have definitely seen in this high-intensity conflict in Ukraine that quantity can be a quality,” he says, referring to the war of attrition along parts of the front line with Russia.

The need for European armament makers to ramp up production for a high-intensity conflict might be obvious. “What we are saying is that the industrial base is a capability by itself. It is a capability to have a proper industry able to maintain competitive internal pricing and delivery, with the potential to grow,” Cont says, referring to EU’s Defence Technological and Industrial Base (EDTIB).


  • EDA

So now what?

EDA’s analysis of the war in Ukraine aims to be a means of discussion for Ministers of Defence. It also comes at a time when EDA is revising the Capability Development Plan (CDP), the latest version of which dates to June 2018. The CDP contains the jointly agreed European capability development priorities, which are updated on a needs basis under EDA’s auspices, in close coordination with the EU Military Committee and the EU Military Staff.

“There are some capabilities that we recognise in our analysis of Ukraine that cannot be achieved by individual Member States,” Cont says.

Some in Europe’s defence community might worry that all this sounds like duplication of work at NATO. But Cont sees the EU and the Western alliance heading towards the same solution. Europe, too, must be able to develop its own capabilities, not always relying on the United States.

“Just to be very, very clear. EDA data shows that Member States spent €214 billion on defence in 2021. Given that the U.S. defence is three times that amount, can you say that we in the EU have a third of their capabilities?” Cont asks. “If the answer is yes, well, I will stop my work.”

Perhaps unfortunately for a general nearing retirement age, Cont cannot answer in the affirmative. And so the work goes on. “There’s a common objective to be reached.”


  • EDA
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