Thursday, February 17, 2005

Mood music on defence

Watching as we do so closely the machinations of the "project", following every twist and turn – or as many as we can – in order to keep our growing band of readers informed, the antennae become so highly tuned that one can often hear the "mood music" that perhaps escapes the less discerning observer.

And within the broad sweep of EU activity, there are few issues of greater interest than the emerging defence policy and the rush towards defence integration. This is a subject that is marked out by the almost total failure of the "legacy media", which has wafted above the issue, seemingly unaware of what is going on.

But, in listening to that "mood music", of late the rhythm seems somewhat disrupted. We are detecting a discordant jangling, the nature of which makes analysis very difficult.

At one level, some of the events related to the overall defence scenario seem surreal. Not least is the determination of the "colleagues" to burn bridges with the Americans who are notionally – and in fact – our allies in the global war against terror, and much else.

One of the key issues, of course, is China and the lifting of the EU arms embargo. There is still something inexplicable about the willingness of EU member states to incur the wrath of the US in their rush to sell more military equipment to the Peoples' Republic.

Here, the puzzling becomes distinctly surreal with the recent report from France, where defence minister Michèle Alliot-Marie is arguing that sales of weapons technologies to China could slow Beijing's push to develop its own capabilities. This, she maintains, is part of the reason why her country backs lifting the embargo.

Alliot-Marie is apparently insisting that France has strict export regimes that would prevent most lethal technologies getting into China's hands – despite there being substantial evidence that French companies have been selling high-tech defence systems, in defiance of the embargo.

In an interview with the Financial Times, she has said that Beijing was likely to have advanced arms in five years with or without western help. In that context, "The lifting of the embargo could be a better protection for us than maintaining it." She continues:

China is rapidly developing its industry, and today our experts say that in five years China could make exactly the same arms that we have today. And they will do it if they cannot import. So maybe if we can sell them the arms, they will not make them. And in five years' time, they will not have the technology to make them.
Frankly, any which way you look at it, it is impossible to accept that the woman can be so stupid as to believe what she is saying, or indeed that anyone else is stupid enough to believe her. The Chinese have highly skilled engineers and are notorious for buying examples of Western technology and reverse engineering them in order to copy and then reproduce them.

So the "mood music" jangles. It does not make sense.

Another puzzler was Schröder's recent speech delivered to the Munich conference on security policy, when without warning he called for a high level commission to reassess the relationship between Europe and America, warning that Nato was at risk of becoming "outdated". In response to an emollient Rumsfeld, his speech then contained this declaration:

…German foreign and security policy is determined by our geographic and political location at the heart of Europe. We are formulating it in Europe, for Europe and from Europe. It is in Germany's, as well as the international community's interests, that the European Union assume greater international responsibility. The step towards creating its own set of political and military instruments with the European Security and Defence Policy is therefore necessary.
Schröder is an experienced politician and has been on the international scene for many years. He must know that, if you are looking for a positive response from an international partner – and especially from the Americans, you do not "bounce" them with surprise announcements. Schröder's speech did not make sense.

More discordance comes in the form of the speech in Madrid by Nick Witney, the former senior civil servant in the Ministry of Defence, who is now the chief executive of the newly formed European Defence Agency.

Actually, Witney's appointment doesn't make sense either. Formerly from the Foreign Officer, he is clearly a high flier and, in his MoD post was in the top levels of the department, responsible for high-level policy formulation. You do not remove a man from that job and put him in charge of an obscure (ostensibly) European agency dealing with procurement. This is akin to putting the chief executive of Tescos in charge of a corner shop.

Nor indeed would you expect the chief executive of the European Defence Agency to have made such an overtly political speech, pointing up the "embarrassing gap" between Europe's aspirations for a leading defence role on the world stage and its limited military strength.

However, at least Witney is in tune with Schröder and his call for the EU to assume greater international responsibility, "creating its own set of political and military instruments with the European Security and Defence Policy". But how does that fit in with Italy, which has just cut its defence budget by €1.57 billion – down 3.6 percent from 2004 - bringing it to below one percent of GDP?

So impoverished is the Italian defence ministry now that it is having to raise €1.2 billion by selling off military barracks and other property. But even with that cash injection, it can only meet current commitments and has no spare funding for planned procurement programmes.

Much the same is happening in the UK, with the prestige contracts for two super-carriers and the Army’s flagship Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) running late, with no budget allocated for them. Neither the Italian nor the UK parsimony make sense.

Then, elsewhere, out of the blue, we hear that India is signing up with the EU to join the Galileo satellite navigation programme, after all. As we left the story in early December, India was ready to pull out and join with the Russians in redeveloping the former Soviet Glonass system.

Although India had agreed in principle to join Galileo – with a down-payment of €300 million – it wanted to be an "equal partner", with access to the system for military purposes, which the EU was refusing to guarantee. With the EU still pretending that the satellites have no military application, the current deal – on the face of it – does not make sense.

In fact, the only conclusions that can be drawn from all these disparate strands is that nothing makes sense – the "mood music" is all wrong. And that is worrying.

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