Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Fantasy politics

The Times seems to have woken up to the existence of the European Defence Agency (EDA), which we reported on last November. But its story today is such a travesty as to be almost laughable.

Headed: "High-tech weapons help Europe to close military gap with US", and written by the gullible Anthony Browne, the Times’s Brussels Correspondent, it is clearly a vehicle for Brussels spin.

Browne writes about initiatives "from the newly-created European Defence Agency" which represent the EU’s first step in military research and development. "They are aimed," Browne writes, "at transforming the EU from being solely a political power, in charge of policies such as agriculture and trade, to a military one, capable of sending troops around the world to enforce a foreign policy agreed by its member states."

That much is true and further reinforces this Blog’s concern that the march towards defence integration is proceeding apace, but Brown then goes on to write that: "the European Union is to develop unmanned drones, new armoured vehicles and advanced communication systems" but it then goes on to state that this is part of a strategy "to become a military superpower and close the defence technology gap with the United States."

Even at face value the story falls apart. The European Union, per se, is not in a position to develop any weaponry, much less high-tech equipment such as unmanned drones and new armoured vehicles. These are being developed variously by national arms procurement agencies and manufacturers and, as yet, there is no EU capability – nor is there likely to be one in the near future.

As for the EDA, with a current €20 million budget, and a staff which is only set to rise to 77 personnel, the capability of this agency is necessarily limited. In November, it set its objectives as "strengthening command, control and communications interoperability (between the forces of EU member states)," and it wants to enhance research and technology efforts on so-called "unmanned aerial vehicles". It has also set itself the target of further exploring ideas on defence procurement presented in the commission's green paper.

Now, according to The Times, its programme includes "setting up a joint EU fighter-pilot training programme" and co-ordinating the testing of military equipment on proving grounds and in wind tunnels.

The former is a joke – which goes by the name of Eurotraining. This is an 11-nation initiative which was launched in 1997, intended to provide basic and advanced training for 300 pilots a year. So far it has not trained a single pilot and even its delayed starting date of 2010 is in doubt. It is unlikely to be operational before 2015, and 2018 is being mooted. So far, there is no budget allocated to the project and one of its founder members, Greece, is now considering pulling out.

Nevertheless, The Times cites the CEO of the Agency, Nick Witney, who describes his role in terms of getting "more bang for the buck than is already provided". He is sure that "we can go a long way applying all the separate defence lines across Europe more coherently," specifically by boosting Europe’s "defence, technological and industrial base" by co-ordinating the military activity of EU members.

As to becoming a "superpower", though, even Witney admits that "(Europe) set itself the relatively modest initial ambition to be able to put 60,000 troops in the field for two months and keep that level of force there for a year, and frankly failed to do that."

He adds: "When you think that we have two million men and women under arms in Europe and you link that to €160 billion (£115 billion) of defence expenditure across Europe it suggests money is not being well spent."

Part of the problem, he says, is that Europe’s armies, as well as being fragmented, are still focused on fighting battles with the Soviet Union and have failed to move "to the information age" of warfare. "Is it really useful that we spend money in Europe maintaining in service 11,000 main battle tanks?" he asks. "Would it not be better to concentrate on more modern technologies such as communication? Modern warfare depends on intelligence."

The defence industries making the equipment are duplicated, he says. There are half a dozen tank manufacturers across Europe. Many member states are separately trying to develop a new drone (an unmanned aircraft for reconnaissance) and new armoured vehicles. It is one of Witney’s first tasks to put these many programmes together.

Witney may well succeed with this limited agenda but that is a long, long way from turning the EU into a superpower, but it is good to have the confirmation that the aim is to turn the EU into a military power, however feeble. As for closing the military gap with the US, that is sheer fantasy.

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