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This article is part of the special report on Europe’s strategic helplessness.
At NATO summit after NATO summit, European leaders get a clear public message from Washington: increase defense spending.
Privately, there’s another equally clear message: Make sure that much of that extra spending goes on US weapons.
European leaders resist.
« We must develop a truly European defense technological and industrial base in all the countries concerned and deploy fully sovereign equipment at a European level, » said French President Emmanuel Macron. She said at the GLOBSEC conference in Bratislava last month.
Decades of flattery from Washington are paying off. While most EU countries are still falling short of NATO’s target of spending 2% of GDP on defense, the alliance has recorded eight years of steady increases in spending. In 2022, expense from European countries rose 13% to $345 billion — nearly a third more than a decade ago — largely a reaction to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Now the question is how that money will be spent.
The United States wants to ensure that European countries – which already spend about half of their defense purchases on American kits – don’t make a radical shift to spend more of that money at home.
Some European leaders hope that is exactly what happens, but it is an open question whether the continent’s defense industry can make it happen.
« Traditionally, there was suspicion of a change in Europe’s defense capabilities going back more than 25 years, » said Max Bergmann, Europe, Russia, Eurasia program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington. “Which direction would the EU go, would it mean that the EU would separate from NATO, what would be the impact on US defense industrial policy?”
Buy at home
The current tensions in Brussels are over whether new EU-level defense policy should be limited to EU companies, a position spearheaded by Macron and Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, a Frenchman. This confirms suspicions in the US about European protectionism when it comes to allowing US companies to compete for EU contracts.
« Our plan is to directly support, with EU money, the effort to boost our defense industry, and this for Ukraine and for our own security », Breton She said last month.
But there is an inconvenient fact for supporters of European strategic autonomy: when it comes to weapons, Europe still depends on the United States
While European companies have deep defense expertise — building everything from France’s Rafale fighter to Germany’s Leopard tank and Poland’s Piorun man-portable air defense system — the size of the US arms industry, as well as its technological innovation, make it attractive to European arms buyers.
The most common item is Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, costing $80 million each. There is also an immediate increase in demand for standard items such as shoulder-fired missiles and artillery shells.
« After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, European states want to import more weapons, faster, » said a relationship of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
The war in Ukraine underlined the dominance of the US defense industry.
Several European countries are purchasing Javelin anti-tank missiles manufactured by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin; Poland this year signed a $1.4 billion deal to purchase 116 M1A1 Abrams tanks, as well as another $10 billion deal to purchase high-mobility artillery missile systems manufactured by Lockheed Martin; Slovakia is buying F-16 fighters, while Romania is in negotiations for the purchase F-35.
These deals are raising fears in Europe about weaning themselves off US defense suppliers. In one example, France and Germany worry about Spain’s intentions as it kicks the tires on F-35s while also being a partner in the development of the European Future Combat Air System jet fighter.
But the need to replenish arms depots and continue shipping materials to Ukraine is urgent, and after decades of contraction, the continent’s defense industry is having a hard time adjusting.
« Our European allies and partners have never experienced anything like this, » said a senior US Department of Defense official, referring to the spending pangs caused by Russia’s invasion. The official was granted anonymity to discuss the situation. “They still don’t have the defense production authorities they need [to move quickly] and they’ve really come to us to try and figure out how to increase production, and I think they’re learning a lot from us. »
To help Europe get there, the United States has expanded the number of bilateral security-provision agreements it has with foreign partners since the Russian invasion, signing new agreements with Latvia, Denmark, Japan and Israel since October. These allow countries to sell and trade defense-related goods and services more quickly and easily.
The Biden administration also signed an administrative agreement with the European Union in late April to establish working groups on supply chain issues, giving both sides a seat at the table in internal meetings at the European Defense Agency and at the Pentagon.
But there are limits to how far and how fast both sides are able and willing to go.
In the short term, capability issues and political will mean that the rhetorical sea change in EU military spending is unlikely to make a huge dent in US military industrial policy.
While the last 18 months have seen a huge increase in defense budgets – Germany announced a special debt-financed fund worth €100bn after the Russian invasion of Ukraine; Poland’s defense spending is set to reach 4% of GDP this year as EU-wide projects are facing significant hurdles. European companies say they need longer lead times and long-term contracts to make the necessary investments.
“You need that visibility and certainty to make those investments. We are in a game of chickens between governments and industry, who are the first to put money on the table,” said Lucie Béraud-Sudreau, program director of military spending and weapons production at SIPRI.
Ultimately, the global defense boom means there should be a lot of military spending to be incurred, at least in the short term, as countries scramble to prove their worth to their NATO and EU allies and the Russian threat remains acute.
Paul McLeary reported from Washington and Suzanne Lynch from Brussels.
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