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For Its Own Long-Term Security, US Must Support a More Autonomous European Defense

Analyst Joshua Huminski argues the US should push Europe to become more independent in the defense space, even at the expense of American defense contractors and American influence on the continent more generally.

In the wake of Russia’s vicious attack on Ukraine, nations across European are more willing than ever to refocus on their own defense. In the op-ed below, Joshua Huminski, director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs, argues the US should encourage that impulse, even if it looks like the Washington loses out in the short term.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the show of solidarity in Europe for its eastern neighbor has been unprecedented. As of writing, collectively European nations and institutions have provided approximately $30 billion-worth of military aid to Kyiv. That figure is, however, outstripped by aid from the United States alone, which is around $42 billion.

That the combined effort of many European nations, while laudable, falls short of America’s is further evidence that not only were continental governments not ready for such a geopolitical earthquake, but its defense sector was not either. Beyond Paris or Berlin, this should concern policymakers thousands of miles away in Washington, DC.

This is because a Europe that is prepared to better defend itself and take on a greater leadership role for security in their own backyard is in the long-term strategic interests of the US, allowing America to perhaps, finally, truly pivot to the Indo-Pacific. For too long European countries have looked to the United States and the broader NATO alliance for security and defense, underinvesting at home and, consequently, finding themselves unable to ensure continental security. The expansion of NATO to include Finland, and eventually, Sweden, should not be the end point of European defense transformation—if anything it increases the urgency of and opportunity to do so.

Right now, Washington must push for greater European security and defense integration, and, concomitantly, autonomy. Failure to do so will see the window of opportunity close and American resources spread increasingly thin as it seeks to do all things in all theaters. Such a transformation will require that Washington relinquish some political control and influence in Europe and cede space in the global defense industry. But it would be strategically worth it.

As a concept, strategic autonomy is loaded and controversial both in Washington and in Europe. First appearing in the European Union’s “global strategy” document in 2016, it has remained a rather nebulous concept. One security analyst in Paris framed European attitudes on the subject as strategic autonomy for France, strategic patience for Germany, and a strategic embrace of America for Poland. In my conversations with French policymakers and diplomats in Paris earlier this summer, strategic autonomy in practice represented everything from the highly aspirational development of autonomous heavy lift capacity through to (perhaps more attainable) better integrated defense industrial bases on the continent.

The conceptual vagueness and cynicism aside, French President Emanuel Macron’s vocal aspirations for European strategic autonomy should be seized upon as an opportunity for a long-overdue recalibration and transformation of continental security and defense policy. Encouraging European strategic autonomy should serve as a foundational American policy, regardless of the administration in power.

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Russia’s expanded invasion of Ukraine served as a wake-up call for the continent and created a space for greater integration and increased strategic autonomy. Ironically, Ukraine could have been the perfect demonstration of this independence. Had continental defense and security apparatuses been in a stronger position, Europe could well have shouldered more of the burden both prior to and immediately following the outbreak of hostilities. This is not to discount any of the contributions of countries like the United Kingdom, France, Poland, and others, or to question the commitment of European nations to Ukraine’s immediate defense and long-term security.

Washington bears some of the blame for not substantively enabling European strategic autonomy prior to the conflict. Rather than view it as an opportunity, policymakers in Washington largely dismissed it as a French stalking horse for Paris’ unrealistic view of its power and position in the continental architecture, to say nothing of competition for domestic defense industrial interests.

Pressure from Washington, delivered both publicly and privately, to meet NATO defense spending targets of 2 percent—a commitment reaffirmed in the most recent communique — was largely seen as a means of increasing the purchase of American arms, rather than an opportunity to reinvest in Europe’s defense industrial base.

But greater European strategic autonomy would be both complimentary and supportive of NATO efforts; they are not mutually exclusive prospects.

What would European strategic autonomy look like in practice? At a tactical level Europe and the United States would do well to re-learn the lessons of commonality and standardization. The proliferation of different weapons systems and standards of 155mm artillery shells, for example, is vividly on display in Ukraine, forcing Kyiv to operate a “frankenforce”. Establishing common standards for munitions, mounts, and data-sharing would greatly enhance operational performance, while still creating room for competition.

More strategically, the high-intensity conventional conflict in Ukraine has shown that meeting the demands of modern warfare is proving difficult, if not impossible, as production lines were operating at sustainment levels at best. Expanding operations to meet European-wide demand is a lengthy process, but one that should have started much sooner than it has. The failure of European governments to give the necessary demand signals to industry continues to be a significant obstacle.

In the longer-term, greater national investment in defense industrial bases would mean greater continental capacity to sustain both the ongoing war in Ukraine, but also prepare for the future. The Vilnius NATO communique recognizes the criticality of the defense industrial base: “A strong defence industry across the Alliance, including a stronger defence industry in Europe and greater defence industrial cooperation within Europe and across the Atlantic, remains essential for delivering the required capabilities.”

The United States would do well to encourage European strategic autonomy for several reasons. First, increased European burden sharing for continental security and defense means that the United States would not have to play as significant a role, freeing it for other more pressing strategic concerns. A more strategically autonomous Europe would be one that is capable of a measure of deterrence, able to secure its borders, and respond to continental emergencies as they emerge.

The demands of ensuring European security and Indo-Pacific deterrence will strain America’s defense and military capacity. Containing China’s hegemonic ambitions and deterring its designs on Taiwan is Washington’s main strategic concern, and as such it should focus its efforts on that domain. While different theatres with different operational requirements, avoiding strategic overreach should be a core priority for Washington. A stronger and more strategic autonomous Europe would help avoid the risk of overreach.

A more strategically independent Europe at a time when America is looking to the Indo-Pacific does not mean Washington will leave the continent to its fate. Far from it. America’s role will and should change: instead of acting as a leviathan, it would act as primus inter pares.

This would, however, naturally result in several trade-offs. Increased European defense spending and the expansion of Europe’s defense industrial base would result in greater competition for American defense companies. This is, in and of itself, not necessarily a bad thing. Greater competition should lead to greater innovation, investment, and opportunities for profit. This will also necessitate a measure of strategic humility as Washington works by, with, and through its European partners. Washington will need to relinquish some measure of control and influence, though European countries will certainly need to step up if the transformation is to succeed.

This is not about the loss of authority or influence, but about maximizing resources and leveraging interests in a strategic manner. Building European strategic autonomy requires time and resources, and it is now more urgent than ever that both are used smartly to ensure the continent’s security – and, in the process, America’s.

Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.

Source : Breakingdefense