Strengthening the EU's Defence Capacity: the role of the European Defence Agency

6 June 2005

Nick Witney, the Chief Executive of the European Defence Agency, said the mission of the EDA was clear: “To support the Member States in their efforts to improve European defence capabilities in the field of crisis management and to sustain the European Security and Defence Policy as it stands now and develops in the future.”

The EDA was not a supranational organisation. It was an agency of the Union, directed by the Council, but with an intergovernmental character, funded by the Member States. A total of 24 nations were members, with the exception of Denmark.

The EDA was intended to be a capabilities-led organisation. It had been created following the growing realisation among governments that Europe was under-performing on defence-related issues. At the same time, ambitions for European defence policy were growing, evidenced by the operational missions to the Congo and Macedonia. Europe was defining its role in the world, particularly through the 2003 European Security Strategy (ESS). The EDA was a concrete development out of the priorities outlined in the ESS, in an effort to aid Europe in achieving its targets, notably the Helsinki Headline Goals. Much still needed to be done, however.

A crucial part of the Agency’s work was to coordinate the operational needs for European missions with EU Member States. There was no future for the defence industry if it was not providing what the military required. In this respect, the EDA had four main functions. The first was to concentrate on capability development, or ‘think transformation,’ i.e. “spending resources on the right things.”

Secondly, armaments technology had to suit changing requirements. In other words, European countries had to spend more money together. It did not make sense when Europeans were spending one fifth of what the US did on research and that less than five percent of this sum was spent collectively. It also did not make sense that Europeans had 23 separate programmes to develop armoured fighting vehicles. It was equally senseless to have technology that was not complementary in operational terms, such as radios that did not talk to each other.

Thirdly, the EDA was committed to working on the demand side of research for technology and armaments. If successful, this would create conditions for more consolidation on the supply side.

Finally, the agency would help develop policies that could strengthen the technology base in Europe.

Some had questioned whether the agency – with a small staff of 80 and a budget of only 20 million euros – could possibly make any difference. To these sceptics he responded that a breadth and width of activities was necessary and was dictated by the development of policy. Progress on research and technology could only be made if everybody agreed on what the priorities were. There was also a better chance of moving forward on capabilities if a consensus could be achieved regarding the needs of the European military sector.

For example, Europe needed more large aircraft to deploy forces to troubled areas around the globe as part of its peacekeeping efforts but there was little use trying to get all Member States to buy C17 planes from the US, as this would not work politically or economically. Instead the purchase of the A400M, made by Airbus had been a “happy marriage” of responding to real capability needs and a feasible practical solution.

Mr. Witney briefly explained the functioning and organisational set-up of the Agency. The Agency’s remit fell under the authority of the High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana. Mr. Solana chaired a steering board of the 24 national defence ministers, who met three times a year. Other meetings between national armaments directors and military capability planners also took place on a regular basis. This meant that every six weeks the EDA met with its stakeholders. This had the double effect of “keeping the agency on its toes and giving it the chance to badger national authorities.”

In terms of funding, EU defence ministers had a total of 160 billion euros at their disposal. It made a tangible difference if these ministers invested their resources on individual or joint projects. In this way, the EDA was playing the dual role of a “conscience and catalyst,” Mr. Witney said.

Flagship programmes

Mr. Witney also highlighted the four flagship programmes run by the Agency in 2005. Its first project on the European defence equipment market focussed on the need to restructure the defence market in Europe, to enhance specialisation and cross-purchasing. In turn, there would be measures to promote cross-border defence procurement in Europe. This did not currently happen as the defence market was exempt from internal market rules. Governments awarded contracts to national companies as they were not required to open up the market to competition.

Mr Witney said he did not expect the internal market to be applied to defence any time soon but that the Agency was pushing for a voluntary code of conduct to offer equipment to other countries and allow competition. He said he was hopeful this could be achieved by the end of the year, marking a significant breakthrough.

The second flagship programme was in the field of command and communication. There were ongoing problems with cryptology and secure communications, he said. An EU study was due to be discussed in a few weeks time. The newly created EU Battle Groups faced particular challenges as national headquarters were often based in different countries.

Thirdly, the Agency was focussing on the usage and compatibility of unmanned air vehicles. A number of large Member States had separate and incompatible programmes and the Agency wanted to ensure that significant technology work was jointly funded.

Armoured fighting vehicles were the fourth and final priority of the EDA. Currently, 23 different programmes existed in Europe – a fragmentation that was mirrored on the industrial side.