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Passing on the Lessons of Bonn, Madrid, Kabul and Brussels

Axel Butenschön joined the EDA as a Capability Development Plan (CDP) project officer in March 2012 – his experience in the field has given him an invaluable insight into the realities of what is really needed to boost Member States operational capabilities. This article was first published in the second issue of the EDA magazine "European Defence Matters".

Axel ButenschoenProject officers at the EDA need special skill sets if they are to make a real difference to enhancing Member States military capabilities and help close the gaps that can hamper joint operations. Operational experience, a firm grasp of the blockers and enablers to improved capabilities and a determination to succeed, no matter how complex the problems might seem, are often key ingredients. Like all EDA staff members Axel Butenschön will be with the Agency only temporarily before returning to a national post in the German armed forces in four, or at most six, years.

“If you come from operational background and a national capability development unit, as I did in the Ministry of Defence in Germany, you see the benefits of national processes but also see their limitations,” he said, “Especially in operations - we had some situations where we had very good national equipment but we were not able to interact the best way we could with other Member States.

“For example the coordination with units of other nations especially in a high intensity situation was challenging during my slot in 2010 due to different national communication systems and procedures. So that was my motivation to join the EDA - I realised there were definite limits of national capability development and at some stage you need coordination from something like this Agency to really build something together.”

Capability Development Plan

The Capability Development Plan (CPD) is a key EDA initiative to overcome the challenge of increasing collaboration between EU countries and improving capabilities. Axel moderates and organises with his team the set-up of the CPD between Member States on closing the capability gaps. “It’s up to the Member States to assess future threats. Then we can integrate our experts from the Agency with those of the Member States. For example, in the future we most probably will see - due to various strategic drivers like global warming, new technologies or shortages of resources - new areas and modalities of conflicts and new threats and challenges. First we look at this from the point of view of a possible adversary - what can he or she do with that? As a second step we assess what we would then need to counter it and ask what should we start to develop now to be fit for purpose in time. The CDP gives an objective orientation and supports our Member States in the assessment of whether future challenges can be met by existing assets or whether a new capability needs to be developed now and, preferably, jointly.  The strength of the CDP is that Member States work on this assessment together and agree on a common picture of the future threats as the starting point for cooperative answers to that.

The findings of the CDP can highlight the area where Member States should invest, said Axel Butenschön. “In cooperation with them the Agency has to prepare and offer as a follow-on step substantial actions to convince its members to participate to their real benefit.  As an example of this, recalling my time as a national representative until 2008, let me mention the Helicopter initiative. Although already highlighted as a CDP prioritized area only the concrete EDA proposal of a helicopter pilot training initiative convinced my national stakeholders to participate in a significant manner to prepare aircrew before sending them to real operations such as Afghanistan. “

Operational experience

Axel Butenschön is a German General Staff Officer with expertise in logistics. As well as staff officer training in Germany he joined the Spanish General Staff Course in Madrid for 12 months and had a chance there to learn about the multinational perspective on defence matters. When he returned to Germany he was the national German representative to several EDA activities. 

He also served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, one of it as a Battalion Commander.

“I commanded quite a complex battalion in Afghanistan composed of logistic, communication, reconnaissance and engineer assets, which is useful to the job I am doing now as it gives me a kind of intellectual reality check on all the theoretical things I do on a daily basis,” he said. “I think it’s important that in an Agency like the EDA you have more credibility if you can show Member States that besides your technical skills you also know what is going on operationally. Not each operation is the same; Atalanta is a different story from Afghanistan and the Afghanistan as I experienced is a very different story to the Afghanistan of today and tomorrow.

“However, if you make clear that what the Agency does is to support troops in missions it gives you more credibility if you have had time out there. To understand what the overall aim is. My job is not to produce a huge amount of papers - but to assist Member States to take the right decisions in capability development and by that help to deliver the right equipment, training or concepts in support of our troops in operations”

This experience helps him to analyse national capability plans with colleagues from Member States and to look for what is missing. “For example, you can look at the cyber or nano technology areas, assess how this will change future war fighting, look what Member States have already planned to develop and then assess with experts how to the best way to approach the issue in a cooperative manner .

“We look at the issues from the European side of what is needed and try to match that with what Member States have and what are the shortfalls to be matched by collaborative actions.”

The financial crisis across Europe has increased the willingness of national ministries of defence to cooperate and Axel Butenschön detects a more positive attitude to the EDA initiative than ever before. “The CDP has received more importance now than maybe in its initial stage when we came up with the first priorities in 2008. If you look at pooling and sharing in a more structured way and really think not only about cooperation for cooperation’s sake, but really start tackling the important things, then you do start to see the added value. And that’s what Member States are interested in.”


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