Thirteen European allies are cooperating to keep the Baltic states and Poland safe under the umbrella of NATO—conducting joint exercises, coordinating decision-making, and preparing if necessary to sacrifice blood and treasure for the benefit of their neighbors. But they won’t cooperate on equipment. They’re using, among other things, seven different types of infantry fighting vehicles and four kinds of tanks. Three different European companies are now competing to sell Poland three different kinds of submarine.
This reflects a larger reality: Europe has too many defense manufacturers. The U.S. has one type of tank, while Europe has 17, according to a new report by the Munich Security Conference. While the U.S. has six types of fighter planes, Europe has 20. The U.S. uses four types of submarines; European countries use 16. The European defense industry needs to consolidate.
Rationalizing procurement not only matters for cost control and efficiency, but also would improve the ability of European armies to fight alongside each other. Yet achieving that rationalization remains a distant goal.
One plan is Permanent Structured Cooperation, or Pesco, a joint defense plan to which EU leaders recently agreed. This is supposed to create a framework for groups of EU member states to coordinate on research, development and procurement, encouraging both streamlining and “strategic autonomy”—the ability of the EU to competitively produce defense equipment and act on its own in world affairs.
“The goal would be to, for example, replace [France’s] Rafale, the Eurofighter and [Sweden-made] Gripen with a joint fighter,” Dick Zandee, a senior research fellow at the Clingendael Institute, says. Brussels plans eventually to invest €1 billion a year in R&D by European firms.
As encouraging as that sounds, Europe faces a steep climb. To start, EU governments will have to spend a lot more on defense procurement to provide enough business for European suppliers. At the moment the governments don’t, so their local contractors languish. Last year U.S. companies accounted for 58% of global arms sales, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Five percent of global arms sales were made by French companies, 2.7% by Italian ones, and 1.6% by German ones.
Then Europe will need to improve its R&D and procurement processes. Historically, European joint procurement has proved a swamp of delays, cost overruns and overengineering.
Consider the NH-90 helicopter. Originally commissioned in the 1980s by France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, it finally made its first appearance in 2006. The chronic delays arose from differing specifications demanded by the participating countries. Sweden, originally an NH-90 customer, had to wait for so long for its delivery that it instead bought American Black Hawks for its troops in Afghanistan. And owing to the NH-90’s needless complexity, once it was delivered it suffered from failures ranging from shattering windows to engine trouble.
This helps explain why many Pesco participants, including Poland, wonder whether building a European defense industry should be a primary goal at all. America—the largest military in NATO and a global technology leader—already produces a wide range of equipment, and buying it would make it easier to coordinate with the U.S. in the field.
Concerns about quality compound such worries. “EU-financed R&D through the European Defense Fund should help make the European defense industry more competitive, but a ‘Buy European’ Pesco would not,” says
a former Italian ambassador to NATO who has also advised defense firms. “Protectionism always kills competitiveness. And if Pesco prevents top-notch international competitive procurement, it will weaken European defense.”
“Strategic autonomy is not just about procurement but ultimately about our ability to conduct missions outside the EU, with everything this entails. Increased defense cooperation is supposed to make buying European a rational choice, not be a protectionist reflex,” says
a former Romanian defense minister.
European governments urgently need to agree on equipment specifications instead of insisting on national requirements that add costs and delays. That would mean acquiring products that are not ideal for anyone—but good enough for all. And here’s the good news: European defense companies can be trusted to figure out among themselves how to jointly innovate, cooperate, merge, and even build a competitive EU-boat instead of leaving three companies to vie for every submarine contract. European governments should encourage those companies by forcing them to compete on the open procurement market.
Ms. Braw is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.