European countries are facing a hard financial time that triggers hard political and strategic choices. States are cutting defense spending and abandoning sectors of their defense industries. These individual decisions pose significant risks to the whole Euro-Atlantic security community by creating capability gaps. These hard choices need not be the only option for European governments: Smart defense is a solution for ensuring effective transatlantic defense and overcoming budgetary pressures in the long term.
Smart defense means that two or more countries seek to pool and share existing capabilities and/or to jointly develop new programs that would have been unaffordable for an individual state. Shared sovereignty on equipment can help bridge capability gaps and guarantees access to technologies and capacities as well as security of supply.
Now, how to implement Smart defense effectively? On this matter, bilateral (or trilateral) cooperation can provide significant advantages but it requires that states finally break some political taboos.
First, when working bilaterally, partners can be chosen according to geographic or cultural proximity but also in an ad-hoc manner when a common need is identified. Second, one country can work on various projects with different partners according to its own needs and capacities. Third, the reduced number of countries involved in each program makes it easier to negotiate and harmonize procurement processes and timing. Fourth, bilateral initiatives can prevent technical difficulties such as those encountered on the A400M program. Thus, it is a flexible and efficient solution.
Just like pooling coal and steel would have been a difficult task if carried out among 27 partners, developing and sharing defense equipment is almost impossible with that same number of countries. However, bilateral or trilateral programs do not impede multilateral cooperation and interoperability with other partners. Exchanges of officers, common training and multilateral exercises remain an easy and inexpensive solution for building mutual trust and interoperability on the ground.
The main challenge for the success of Smart defense is coordination. Indeed, specialization among European countries must be supervised so as to avoid that the same problems we currently face with unilateral decisions on budgets and equipment be replaced by bilateral ones.
Here, NATO clearly has a role to play in conjunction with the EDA. Together they must ensure that no single European country is abandoning sectors of its defense industry while a bilateral or multilateral solution could have been found and that no country is launching a new program without having first considered a joint solution. Besides, multilateral institutions have to make sure that European countries have easy access to information concerning planned cuts and developments among their fellow members.
Now, there are two possible pitfalls. First, bilateral initiatives are often viewed as lying outside the framework of multilateral institutions. Yet NATO member states now have to acknowledge that finding solutions to the decrease in defense budgets will benefit every NATO country even though the solutions are bilateral ones. Bilateral-multilateral cooperation is not a zero-sum game.
Second, and more importantly, defense cooperation is often perceived as being either EU- or NATO-oriented and frank discussions are avoided on this matter. But the institutional framework of defense cooperation must not be a taboo. We need not consider NATO and the EU as competing or complementary organizations. as they rely mainly on the same states and their capabilities. Preserving critical capabilities and embracing technological progress are one thing, institutional competition and political debates are another.
When working on a joint project, small can be beautiful but it can also be smarter. Hence, bilateral or trilateral initiatives should be encouraged among NATO partners. This must be done with careful monitoring and coordination and in this matter NATO and the EU should work in conjunction and transparently. The main challenges facing NATO countries as far as Smart defense is concerned are neither financial nor technical: they are political. In order to make progress in the pooling and sharing of capabilities, NATO member countries need to break the EU-NATO taboo as it can only be detrimental to mutual trust and efficient cooperation.
Alice Pannier is a postgraduate student in International Relations at Université Paris 1.