When it comes to the European Security and Defence Policy, the United States suffers from slightly bipolar condition. Washington has consistently tried to balance the need for Europe to develop an expeditionary capacity with the worry that such a capability would diminish, discriminate or duplicate NATO. Now, for the first time ever, the EU is creating an actual expeditionary force in the shape of the EU Battlegroups – whatever should Washington do? The answer: wholeheartedly support them and encourage additional capability enhancement.
The fact of the matter is that the EU Battlegroups represent no threat to the US role in the world, as they are a rather negligible force. The Battlegroups are roughly 1,500 personnel strong and supposedly high-readiness—deployable in five to ten days. Serving as a stand-alone force or as the initial component of a much larger operation, the Battlegroups should be sustainable in a foreign theatre of operations for 30 days, extendable to 120 days with resupply. In comparison to what NATO or the US can deploy, this is a pretty paltry expeditionary force. The sad reality is that after aiming too high, the European Union aimed too low this time around. The EU Battlegroups are after all a second go at a demonstrable EU expeditionary military capability. Back in 2003, the EU was supposed to have a Rapid Reaction Corps that could deploy 60,000 troops within 60 days, sustainable for one year. Such a capability would have been a significant step forward, but it was an unrealistic goal and the EU failed to achieve it. Now, in a world that needs a strong EU presence in places like Afghanistan, Africa and the Middle East, Brussels is sending the junior varsity team to play ball. It would have been good to set the bar a bit higher.
Nonetheless, Washington must support this initiative. One of the principal benefits may be that the Battlegroups help create an expeditionary culture among some countries in Europe unaccustomed to such tasks. Fostering such a culture would be a major step forward. Furthermore, it helps create a (quasi-)independent European capability to intervene in places where the US refuses to take an interest, as long as the EU can generate consensus on where and how to act. The one thing that Brussels must be careful of is that the Battlegroups do not drain resources away from NATO operations in Afghanistan. In an era of overstretch, what Europe really needs is restructured armed forces with additional capability, not more hats for the limited resources already at the beck and call of several organizations.
The creation of the Battlegroups cannot hide the reality that most European countries are poorly placed to act in an expeditionary manner. European publics are not willing to devote additional resources to the military, and policy makers fail to impress upon their publics why expeditionary forces are necessary and why financial resources should be invested there. What Europe needs now is a little courage among the politicians to match that of European soldiers who will man these Battlegroups in some very dangerous places.
Dr. Michael John Williams is from the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.
Related Materials from the Atlantic Community:
- The ENP Three Years On: Where From - and Where Next?
- Julliane Smith: The EU Can and Should Do More in Afghanistan
- Executive Summary: How the EU Could Do More in Afghanistan