In the past several weeks, NATO allies have been deploying troops to the Baltic States and Poland, where they are participating in the alliance’s inaugural Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP). The EFP, which involves some 1,000 NATO soldiers on permanent rotation in each of the host countries, is NATO’s answer to Russian aggression in the neighborhood. With the troops has come a wide assortment of equipment made in many different countries. Europe might have a common currency, but it most certainly does not have uniform military equipment. Today EU member states—most of which are also NATO members—operate 154 different weapons systems. The United States, by contrast, has only 27. (A weapons system is a major piece of military equipment, including aircraft, tanks, helicopters, and large naval vessels.)

“Since we don’t have an integrated European defense industry, each country invents its own equipment,” Vincenzo Camporini, a retired Italian Air Force general and a former chief of defense, told me. “As a result, the name of the game is reinventing the wheel.” The United States has only one fighter jet in production, the F-35, which will also be exported to other countries including Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. By contrast, EU member states have a total of three fighter jets in production: France’s Rafale, Sweden’s Gripen, and the Eurofighter, which is flown by Italy, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Likewise, the U.S. Army uses only type of tank, General Dynamics’ M1 Abrams, while EU member states operate 19 different types. Germany’s Bundeswehr, for example, drives the German-made Leopard, the French army drives the French-made AMX Leclerc, the Italian army drives the Italian-made Ariete, the British Army uses the U.K.-made Challenger tank, and the Swedish army drives the Stridsvagn 122, a Swedish version of the Leopard. The same lack of uniformity plagues every European weapons system.

No politician would argue that duplicating military equipment is a good idea. On average, NATO countries spend around 20 percent of their defense budgets on equipment. Using fewer models could make that money go farther. According to the European Commission, the lack of military cooperation costs the EU’s member states 25 billion euros ($26.4 billion) each year. Streamlining military equipment could result in significant savings, which would be very welcome given that the United States recently delivered an ultimatum to its NATO allies on defense spending. “Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do,” Defense Secretary James Mattis told NATO defense ministers at a summit in Brussels.

There is also the problem of interoperability. The arms clutter didn’t really matter during the Cold War, when each force defended its own area. But today armed forces more often operate together, with each country supplying a small number of troops. Because of their different weapons systems, they all have to bring their own equipment. “In Afghanistan, for example, when our men finish their deployment it would be efficient if we could just leave the equipment for the country taking over the deployment,” noted Camporini. “But that’s not the case.” Instead, each country sending soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan has painstakingly transported its equipment, too. The same holds true for NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic States and Poland, where each group supplies its own equipment.

Part of the problem is that European countries with large arms industries—primarily France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and the United Kingdom—create jobs by buying domestic equipment. “Defense planning has always been done at the national level,” noted Zandee. “It’s natural to look to your own defense industry.” France, Zandee added, is “always opposed to doing things together in armaments procurement unless it needs other countries in order to create sufficient scale.” Although France has joined the United Kingdom and Germany in developing and procuring the A400M transport aircraft, large sections of the aircraft are made in France.

And that is why, although “there has been a tremendous amount of NATO and EU declarations on the need to consolidate defence procurement,” according to Dick Zandee, a senior research fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael and a former head of the planning and policy unit at the European Defense Agency, there has been far less progress.


Indeed, defense procurement presents the ultimate EU contradiction: although national security is a national responsibility, the EU is a single market whose members are supposed to give no preference to their own suppliers. Swedes living near dairy farms often find their grocery stores stocked with cream from Austria. In 2009, the European Commission issued a directive instructing EU member governments to be equally border-blind in defense procurement. But tanks are not whipped cream: EU Directive 81 includes an escape clause for “essential security interests.” Unsurprisingly, though, “countries where the government holds a large stake in defense companies take advantage of the escape clause,” said Anders Carell, a Swedish general who is now head of the army division at the Swedish Defence Material Administration, Sweden’s defense procurement agency. “Sweden is very obedient, but we feel a bit lonely.”

Although national security is a national responsibility, the EU is a single market whose members are supposed to give no preference to their own suppliers.

Several sources with insights into defence procurement within the EU confirmed Carell’s account, pointing to France and Italy as repeat offenders. Hilmar Linnenkamp, a non-resident senior fellow at the German Institute for International Security and Affairs and a former deputy chief executive of the EDA, told me that in addition to Sweden, the EU member states that adhere to Directive 81 are the ones that at any rate don’t have a domestic defense industry. Even in Sweden’s case, kindness is not the only motivation in abiding by the rules. “Our defense industry can’t just survive on Swedish contracts but needs exports,” said Carell. “We want to be a role model.”

But Sweden is unlikely to sway its fellow EU members as long as the union contains several large companies producing the same weapons systems. Why would, say, France buy Swedish Gripen fighter jets when Rafale’s maker, Dassault Aviation, employs some 12,000 people? In the first half of 2015, Dassault Aviation sold defense equipment for 471 million euros, 45 percent of it to the French government, its owner.

There are occasional moves toward further military equipment integration. Belgium, Germany, and Norway have just bought stakes in an A330 MRTT (Multi-Role Tanker Transport) aircraft built by Airbus, joining the Netherlands and Luxembourg. In a pioneering move, the aircraft will be procured through NATO and used exclusively by the five allies. And a German–Dutch division makes joint use of Bundeswehr tanks.


The EU was, of course, founded on the idea of a single market and economies of scale. Yet the answer to the arms clutter may come not from European Commission directives but from the industry itself. Despite growing defense expenditures, there’s simply not enough business for all of Europe’s defense contractors, and their exports will suffer when Chinese arms manufacturers catch up. In 2014 two leading defense firms—France’s Nexter and Germany’s Krauss-Maffei Wegmann—entered a strategic alliance and are jointly developing an armored personnel carrier (APC).  

In the future we may well see one European shipyard specializing in submarines and another in frigates, while one factory specializes in tanks and another in APCs. Until then, we’ll see a multitude of often-redundant tanks, frigates, and helicopters, and even bombs which provide jobs as much as they do security. The NATO EFP forces about to deploy to Latvia will bring two types of infantry fighting vehicles—and two types of tanks. 

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