June 25, 2007 |  9 comments |  Print this Article  Your Opinion  

EU Battlegroups March Europe Toward Common Defense

Michael John Williams: The EU Battlegroups, though small, are a step in the right direction. The United States can and should play a role in promoting further advancement of European expeditionary capability.

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.

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Philipp  Rock

June 25, 2007

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One should not forget that the EU Battlegroups are not the only party in town. There is also the NATO Response Force which has a very similar profile. For the US it would make much more sense to support the further development of the NRF rather than the Battlegroups concept as the US retains more political and strategic influence when using the NRF while at the same time drafting in the Europeans as well.
It would make sense to define specific geographic responsibilities for the Battlegroups and the NRF. The EU can not stage major military operations beyond its immediate neighbourhood without relying heavily on NATO resources. It should therefore be earmarked to be implemented in theatres in Europe's backyard while NATO should concentrate on training its Response Force to become a truly global player.
 
Robert  Shawley

June 25, 2007

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I think there is some disapproval in Europe of the fact that the United States always tries to sideline efforts at pan-European militarisation. I agree with Michael that for this once, US should maybe support EU Battlegroups, rather than try to hinder seperate European military capacity or try to steer it back into a NATO framework. Sure, from a strictly realist perspective this makes the most sense as that way the US will maintain maximum control. But a constructivist approach would realize that US support for EU Battlegroups would be welcomed with much appreciation across the continent - and from a US perspective, the benefits of that may easily outweigh a greater degree of US control.

Further, it is not mentioned in the official discourse very often, but there is a certain element of jealousy that Europe has towards American capability, which has the effect of creating further antagonism towards US military endeavours. I don't mean this in any belittleing way, but, for lack of better words, small dogs always bark the loudest. Give Europe some of its military independence and responsibilities back and it may turn out to affect transatlantic relations very positively.
 
Michael John Williams

June 25, 2007

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Philipp, I do agree withy your comment, but I think that the US should support the development of the battlegroups concept as well. Robert makes the point quite well, that we should encourage some development outside of the NATO framework. The dangerous that this raises (as you note) is that the EU draws on NATO resources and that NATO will be a crutch for the EU Battlegroups - in the end weakening both NATO and the EUBG concept. I guess we'll just have to wait and see, but I think that the US should show that it is supportive of European efforts to create a deployable military force - at least they are thinking along the right lines.
 
Julianne  Smith

June 26, 2007

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Michael - increasingly, Washington is willing to accept and support the EU Battlegroups. There are even folks in the Pentagon that openly support this development. The question remains, however, when and how might the EU actually use this new capability? NATO faces the same question. Both organizations have worked hard in recent years to create an expeditionary capability that can be deployed on short notice. But neither organization appears to have reached consensus on the conditions under which such a capability might be used. My fear is that both the Battlegroups and the NRF will sit idle.
 
Valentina  Klausen

June 26, 2007

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Michael, I can only agree with you (and Philipp for that matter), that this is a step towards the right direction. But as already stated, its only a step, but I don't think anybody within the EU is actually seeing this any different. Just give it time, and as Julia his rightly pointed out, the US has no interest in diminishing the efforts, why would they? Its only in their interest if the EU could for once stand up, and take the lead in a military operation some time down the line.
Robert, I don't quite agree with your assessment of the Balance of Power, I think it is a vital interest of the US, to keep the West intact, "Imperial Over-stretch" comes to mind. In order to keep their advantage over rogue states, the US will become even more depend on other democratic regimes, hence I'd think (and again as Julia said) the Pentagon will welcome any effort by its European allies to share some of their burden.
 
Jon  Frost

June 26, 2007

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I find this contribution very interesting, especially because I wrote my undergraduate thesis on precisely this topic (in the context of the Iraq War, which was making even more waves at the time).

One comment: I always hear the same criticisms of EU countries in the debate, namely that they don't spend enough on their militaries because their publics oppose funding increases. My question is: is this really so unjustified? Europeans have had to shoulder high military budgets for decades (one only has to think of all the money Germany pumped into defense against the Soviet Union) and have now more than ever other pressing budgetary needs, especially in light of high unemployment and an aging population. I think it is quite understandable that the public and their elected politicians choose to enjoy the peace dividend. The counterexample is the US, where our enlightened president has bankrupted the Treasury and probably undermined our international economic footing with endless increases in military expenditures (not to mention additional spending on the Iraq War, which is slyly passed with bills in Congress and therefore not counted in the military budget). Is the US' military, which is simultaneously massive and overstretched, really so enviable?

To people who spend a lot of time engaged in the strategic debate, I know that security issues are of utmost importance. But, as recent experience shows, there are other national priorities everywhere which are (rightly) also competing for the money. I find that - in the case of many EU countries - the publics aren't far off the mark in their caution about new defense expenditure increases. Any real progress toward ESDP probably isn't possible without a bigger budget (although a shift away from costly conscription practices may be a good start) but I think one should have more understanding for the background to the publics' skepticism.
 
Robert  Shawley

June 26, 2007

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The problem is not necessarily one of spending, but one of management. EU countries as a whole spend upwards of $180billion on defense annually - the second largest expenditure on the planet (albeit still a far cry from the US’ $600+bn). EU Battlegroups are an important testing ground for how to channel this expenditure into a framework most appropriate for and effective in conducting 21st century warfare. Of course, expanding such a force requires a greater solidification of EU foreign policy as a whole. Yet, even this process may well be helped along by EU leaders now having to make decisions on where and how to deploy this pan-European force. As Michael mentions in his article, the creation of an expeditionary culture in Europe is an important factor. At the very least the way the EU reaches or doesn’t reach decisions on this matter will show the flaws of current pan-European foreign policy conduct.
 
Oliver  Hauss

June 29, 2007

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Philipp:
What's Europe's immediate geographical neighborhood? The southern Atlantic (Falklands), the Indian Ocean (Diego Garcia), Africa (Djibouti etc.), Oceania (Nouvelle-Calédonie, Tahiti etc)?

Without NATO infrastructure, the US would likewise find it much more problematic to operate across the globe. Costs, both financially and in human lives would likely be much higher.

The ledger should in my eyes not be set geographically but--looking at the new types of conflict--politically: NATO is all too often and all too easily seen as an extended arm of the US. Whether one agrees with that or not is totally irrelevant, what's relevant is that this perception can get in the way of the respective mission and pose a risk for the soldiers deployed.
 
Michael John Williams

June 29, 2007

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Julianne - I think you raise a very interesting point and one that I mention only briefly, will the EU be able to reach a consensus on how and when to use the BG. This is the same problem that confronts the NRF as you note. I suppose we have to hope that if you have the force, if the right pressing situation arises it will be put to use.

As for Jon's comment - um, I think the US also invested a heck of a lot in defending Europe from the Soviets and I think it is a bit false to say that Germany should enjoy the peace dividend. What peace dividend? Have you looked around lately - the world is incredibly more violent than it was during the Cold War. Just beause the threat is not directly pointed a Germany, does not mean that Germans should stop caring about what happens elsewhere. I agree about President Bush's misadventures and the complete waste of money that Iraq has become, but that aside, I don't think that Western countries can afford to sit by while a number of conflicts brew. There is an interesting debate to be had about the idea of 'liberal internationalism', but assuming one ascribes to it then it means that a state must have some expeditionary capacity. Germany spends a lot of money to maintain a Bundeswehr that is of little use in today's world. Germans don't necessarily have to spend more, but they must spend smarter. They must also come to realise that sometimes military force can be a force for good.
 

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