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Lucie Liversain EN
π Geopolitics

“In the absence of an army, Europe will have to cooperate”

Lucie Liversain_1
Lucie Liversain
PhD student at I³-CRG* at École Polytechnique (IP Paris)
Key takeaways
  • The technological complexity of military capabilities contributes to the increasing cost of armament programmes: faced with budgetary constraints, it is increasingly difficult to maintain an army with full-spectrum capabilities.
  • For medium-sized powers such as France and the UK, maintaining their military capabilities has been a cooperative process for a number of decades.
  • However, major programmes conducted between allied states and involving large industrial companies are complex to implement and the distribution of project management between partners reinforces a prescriptive approach to the detriment of innovation.
  • Faced with the emergence of New Space and dominant private players in certain AI, cloud and other technologies, cooperation is expanding to include a nebulous number of new players.
  • These European innovation ecosystems still seem to be missing a “ringmaster”, like the DARPA in the United States.

Recent events in Ukraine have brought the issue of defence to the fore­front in Europe. Full auton­o­my in this area pre­sup­pos­es an army with full-spec­trum capa­bil­i­ties. Mean­while, the USA and Chi­na have the means to finance this, whilst at the same time devel­op­ing the full range of defence tech­nolo­gies, the issue is dif­fer­ent for small­er states, includ­ing medi­um-sized pow­ers such as the UK and France, which have retained their ambi­tions in this area.

The financial challenge

The debate, tra­di­tion­al­ly held at a par­lia­men­tary lev­el, is ham­pered by the severe bud­getary con­straints that lie ahead. In France, a recent report by the Court of Audi­tors high­lights the need to make trade-offs in order to avoid across-the-board bud­get cuts that would impair over­all per­for­mance. Instead, invest­ments should be made in those capa­bil­i­ties deemed cru­cial (such as cer­tain major pro­grammes for the Air Force and the Navy, intel­li­gence, cyber defence, or space), and Euro­pean and NATO coop­er­a­tion should be encour­aged for the rest.

With­in the frame­work of NATO, one option favoured by many Euro­pean coun­tries is the off-the-shelf pur­chase of Amer­i­can equip­ment. How­ev­er, such pur­chas­es are not with­out strate­gic con­se­quences, since the use of such equip­ment is part­ly reg­u­lat­ed by the Unit­ed States, which has spe­cif­ic reg­u­la­tions (Inter­na­tion­al Traf­fic in Arms Reg­u­la­tions, ITAR) to con­trol the man­u­fac­ture, sale and dis­tri­b­u­tion of defence and space-relat­ed objects and ser­vices. For instance, the urgent acqui­si­tion of Reaper UAVs by the French armed forces to make up for a short­fall in MALE UAVs, which is par­tic­u­lar­ly nec­es­sary in the Sahel the­atres of oper­a­tion, was only pos­si­ble by accept­ing one of the con­di­tions imposed by the Amer­i­can side: the Unit­ed States’ right of veto on the use of UAVs in operations.

This is why a num­ber of Euro­pean coun­tries, led by France, are push­ing the idea of “strate­gic auton­o­my”, which includes coop­er­a­tive weapons programmes.

Working towards European autonomy

But on what scale should this be imple­ment­ed: for the EU as a whole, or sim­ply between a few coun­tries? The cre­ation of the Euro­pean Defence Fund in 2020 rep­re­sent­ed a sig­nif­i­cant step for­ward in Euro­pean coop­er­a­tion on secu­ri­ty and defence issues. But it also high­lights the dif­fi­cul­ties: its cre­ation was heav­i­ly debat­ed, both on the size of the enve­lope and on its very exis­tence. Dur­ing the nego­ti­a­tions, at the insti­ga­tion of the Finnish Pres­i­den­cy, its appro­pri­a­tions were reduced from €13bn to €7bn. Nev­er­the­less, this fund con­firms the will of Euro­peans to sup­port the con­struc­tion of a coher­ent capa­bil­i­ty, which is essen­tial to meet the “ITAR-free” objec­tive1 of Euro­pean strate­gic autonomy.

The design of mil­i­tary equip­ment is a com­plex mat­ter and, even between close allies used to work­ing togeth­er, coop­er­a­tion is not at all straight­for­ward: armies’ doc­trines of use may dif­fer, and indus­tri­al play­ers are caught up in the log­ic of “coope­ti­tion”. The devel­op­ment of new capa­bil­i­ties via a project man­age­ment sys­tem shared between sev­er­al Euro­pean coun­tries also comes up against ten­sions between the short term and the long term, bear­ing in mind that arma­ments pro­grammes often run over one or more decades. A recent exam­ple is the Future Air Com­bat Sys­tem (SCAF), a coop­er­a­tion between France, Ger­many, and Spain. This pro­gramme came under pres­sure when, wor­ried about the cri­sis in Ukraine, Ger­many decid­ed to increase its defence bud­get sig­nif­i­cant­ly but opt­ed to acquire the F‑35; at the same time the French, as is often the case, put for­ward their ambi­tions in terms of their strate­gic capa­bil­i­ties, as can be seen from Das­sault Avi­a­tion’s state­ments high­light­ing its « capac­i­ty to take on the pro­gramme alone ».

Technological needs 

Aside from these polit­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties, there are oth­ers that are more sub­tle but no less impor­tant. The main one con­cerns design, which is some­times made more rigid and less inno­v­a­tive by coop­er­a­tion. Indeed, the dis­tri­b­u­tion of project man­age­ment between part­ners who know lit­tle about each oth­er rein­forces the pre­scrip­tive aspect, which often goes against the inte­gra­tion of tech­no­log­i­cal innovations.

It is with­in this con­text that the notion of an ecosys­tem, which has been pushed for­ward in par­tic­u­lar with the cre­ation of the Euro­pean Defence Fund, is inter­est­ing to explore. Coop­er­a­tion no longer takes place on a polit­i­cal basis imposed by states, but based on aligned busi­ness strate­gies and com­ple­men­tary skills. Among the suc­cess fac­tors of these ecosys­tems, which are more flex­i­ble than the defence indus­tri­al and tech­no­log­i­cal bases (DITB), is the inter­ac­tion between tra­di­tion­al defence play­ers and new civil­ian play­ers who have invest­ed heav­i­ly in gener­ic tech­nolo­gies such as AI, cyber, etc. such as those which can be observed in “New Space”, they hold the promise of a faster adop­tion of new tech­nolo­gies, but also of an eas­i­er return of the div­i­dends of the defence invest­ment in the civil­ian fields.

Nev­er­the­less, the ques­tion aris­es as to whether the strat­e­gy and the resources allo­cat­ed will enable the emer­gence of cham­pi­ons capa­ble of impos­ing them­selves beyond the bor­ders of the Union, and not just of cre­at­ing short-term indus­tri­al coop­er­a­tion. To achieve this, the mech­a­nisms for link­ing research to devel­op­ment and a strong polit­i­cal will to encour­age the most promis­ing play­ers, based on a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) mod­el, are needed.

Beyond fund­ing, the Amer­i­can exam­ple high­lights the prob­lem of struc­tur­ing an inno­va­tion ecosys­tem and the abil­i­ty of play­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly the state, to lift bureau­crat­ic bar­ri­ers to bring about innovation.

Working together

There are many ini­tia­tives to ratio­nalise and encour­age Euro­pean coop­er­a­tion: joint equip­ment pro­cure­ment pro­ce­dures, such as the Fran­co-Bel­gian CaMo part­ner­ship; joint oper­a­tional exper­i­ments to align NATO/EU require­ments, such as the Taku­ba task force; or coop­er­a­tion through­out the life cycle of equip­ment, such as the BeNe­Sam agree­ment between Bel­gium and the Nether­lands on the main­te­nance of frigates and marine fighters.

How­ev­er, an essen­tial ele­ment still seems to be miss­ing with­in these Euro­pean inno­va­tion ecosys­tems: that of a leader, capa­ble not of direct­ing the ecosys­tem like a “plat­form leader” but rather of doing what Elie Cohen calls in his lat­est book on Indus­tri­al Sov­er­eign­ty “accom­pa­ny­ing from the bot­tom up”.

Giv­en the absence, for the time being, of a leader with­in the EU, the ques­tion aris­es as to whether cer­tain more agile nation­al play­ers capa­ble of play­ing a facil­i­tat­ing role might not be able to ful­fil this func­tion. In France, this could be the Defence Inno­va­tion Agency: it con­tributes to the orches­tra­tion of defence inno­va­tion by posi­tion­ing itself as an inter­me­di­ary between the explo­ration and devel­op­ment phas­es, by bring­ing investors clos­er to project lead­ers, by sup­port­ing the sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of acqui­si­tion pro­ce­dures, and by detect­ing and cap­tur­ing inno­va­tions from the civil­ian world for mil­i­tary use.

A large part of the chal­lenge for Euro­pean strate­gic auton­o­my there­fore lies in the devel­op­ment of new col­lab­o­ra­tions between states and indus­tri­al start-ups: this requires Euro­pean states to pro­vide indus­tri­al start-ups with the means, both finan­cial and in terms of sim­pli­fied access to mil­i­tary acqui­si­tions, to devel­op inno­v­a­tive and dis­rup­tive solu­tions for defence.

1Inter­na­tion­al Traf­fic in Arms Reg­u­la­tions. US reg­u­la­tions that con­trol the man­u­fac­ture, sale and dis­tri­b­u­tion of defence and space relat­ed items and ser­vices.


Lucie Liversain_1

Lucie Liversain

PhD student at I³-CRG* at École Polytechnique (IP Paris)

Lucie Liversain is a PhD student at Ecole Polytechnique's Centre de recherche en gestion (I³-CRG*). Her work in collaboration with the Centre Interdisciplinaire des Études pour la Défense et la Sécurité (CIEDS) has led her to delve into the heart of the problems of integrating innovation into armament operations.

*I³-CRG: a joint research unit of CNRS, École Polytechnique - Institut Polytechnique de Paris, Télécom Paris, Mines ParisTech

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