Author : Manoj Joshi

Published on Mar 22, 2024

The EU is now taking a multi-pronged approach to strengthen its defence capabilities in the midst of  Russian invasion of Ukraine and rise of Trump in the US

Strengthening Europe's defense amidst Russian invasion and rise of Trump

The writing on the wall has been there for sometime. since the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, it has been clear that Europe needed to get its act together on its defence. Yet, the sense of urgency has only hit after the full-fledged Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Now it has been magnified with the emergence of Donald Trump as the leading contender for the US presidential elections later this year. Trump’s disdain for NATO, the alliance which is committed to defending Europe,  is well-known. He has long believed that it is “a drain on American resources by freeloaders.”

Trump created a political earthquake of sorts in early February when at a rally in South Carolina he recounted that the leader of a “big country” asked him whether he would defend  an ally against the Russians even if they were delinquent in their payments by failing to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defence. “No, I would not protect you,” said Trump, “In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want.”

Speaking to the conservative British GB News on Tuesday, Trump did say that he would “100 percent” keep US in NATO if he returned as President as long as the European countries pay their “fair share”  adding tartly that “The United States should pay its fair share, not everybody else’s fair share. In any case, a pullout from NATO will not be easy for Trump. In December, Congress passed a bill to prevent a president from withdrawing from the alliance without the approval of Congress.

The most immediate impact of Trump’s thinking on Europe would be on Ukraine. In the past two years since the Russian invasion, NATO has played a key role in helping Ukraine defend itself. Trump claims he would have settled the war in 24 hours if he was president. Just what he means by this is not clear, but his other remarks suggest that he would push  a deal in which Ukraine would have to surrender its eastern lands to Russia.

Already there are signs of Trump’s influence in the refusal of the Republican Party  to pass a US$60 billion bill to continue funding the war in Ukraine in 2024. Starved of ammunition, the Ukrainians are confronting a revitalised Russia whose arms industry has expanded dramatically in the last two years.

A Ukrainian collapse would have widespread repercussions in Europe and raise fears of possible Russian aggression against Baltic States like Estonia and Latvia, each of whose population comprises of nearly 25 percent ethnic Russians. It would, of course, undermine American security guarantees globally, especially in the Indo-Pacific.

Expanding European defence 

Slowly but steadily now, the Europeans are making haste in revitalising their defence posture. As of now European NATO members spend about US$380 billion on defence, which is the same as Russia in PPP terms. But because this expenditure is distributed among many countries its impact is less. The challenge before the EU is not just spending the money, but doing so while ensuring a certain sense of equity among its 27 members and Norway who constitute their defence grouping.

Last week, the European Commission allocated €500 million  under its Act in Support of Ammunition Production (ASAP) to enable the European defence industry to ramp up its ammunition production capacity to 2 million shells by the end of next year. This would effectively double the current capacity. The Commission has selected 31 different projects to boost European ammunition production.

There is little doubt that the  ASAP has been motivated by the developments in Ukraine where the diversion of ammunition by the US to Israel last October has been a severe setback for the Ukrainians.

The Commission also addressed the issue of consolidating European defence industry which is scattered in various countries by encouraging European Defence Industry through Common Procurement (EDIRPA) work programme and the European Defence Fund (EDF). These programmes have a combined budget of €2 billion and they seek to reinforce the somewhat moribund defence technological and industrial base.

The EDIRPA with a total budget of €310 million will support common procurement in three areas—1) ammunition for small arms, artillery, mortars and rockets; 2) air and missile defence;  and 3) platforms and replacement of legacy tanks, armoured vehicles, drones and support systems. It hopes to get proposals in these areas from member states by July this year. The EDIRPA is aimed at enhancing defence capabilities by encouraging EU members to commonly procure equipment for their armed forces.

To ensure European capabilities in defence technology, the  EDF work programme has called for proposals for which it has allocated €1.1 billion which includes defence start ups operating through the EU Defence Innovation Scheme (EUDIS).

The plan is to fund projects in counter hypersonic missies, developing air and ground unmanned vehicles, ensuring secure communications in space.

The EDF is the instrument through which the Commission is hoping to boost defence R&D and cooperation by promoting research between large and small companies throughout the EU and Norway. It has established a fund worth €8 billion for the 2021-2027 period to support collaborative R&D of new defence technologies among its members.

 All these measures are being underwritten by the Commission’s European Defence Industry Programme (EDIP) which seeks to ensure a longer term approach for industrial readiness. The first ever European Defence Industrial Strategy was approved at the beginning of March this year. It has outlined an ambitious set of actions to support the competitiveness and readiness of Europe’s defence industry.

As part of this, the Commission has approved its first operational measure, a  European Defence Industry Programme (EDIP) to start implementing concrete measures under the EDIS.  Under this financial support will be made available to European defence industry. In addition, it would aim at strengthening the competitiveness and resilience of EU’s Defence Technological and Industrial Base. This would also provide for cooperation with Ukrainian recovery, reconstruction and modernisation. Its bottom-line aim would be to provide defence products on a steady and regular volume.

 So overall, the EU is now taking a multi-pronged approach to strengthen its defence capabilities which involves, first and foremost, increasing defence spending. The second is establishing the EDF to handle future contingencies. Third is approaching joint procurement through initiatives like the EDIP to reduce duplication. In addition, the EU is seeking to enhance military cooperation among members and address the obvious gaps such as that in ammunition supplies and intelligence gathering.

 Yet, the past weighs heavily on Europe. As of now they are €56 billion short in meeting their  defence spending target, though the good news is that the shortfall has halved in the past decade. According to NATO officials, two-thirds of its members will meet the target of spending 2 percent of their GDP on defence this year, this is up from just three countries in 2014.

Even now, many of the bigger countries have not been able to hit the target of 2 percent of—Italy, Spain, Belgium—because of their fiscal situation. Even giants like Germany, have spent just 1.39 percent, some  €14 billion less than needed to meet the benchmark. Last year, two thirds of the €1.2 trillion NATO defence spending was by the US, more than double of the €361 billion spent by the EU, United Kingdom and Norway combined.

It’s not that they are not trying. There have been countries like Poland, which has historical fears of Russia, and which has aimed tol spend 4 percent of its GDP in 2024 on defence. A recent report has noted that Ukraine is set to receive large shipments of ammunition because of the efforts of the Czech Republic which had managed to source nearly a million shells from various sources.

Recently, leaders of France, Germany, and Poland, known as the Weimar triangle met to display a sense of strength and unity in the face of the current gloomy situation in Ukraine. Among the more important decisions they took was to abandon the French suggestion that procurement of ammunition be limited to Europe alone, but be expanded to cover the world. France and Germany have to play a leadership role in Europe and they are spearheading joint military projects such as the Future Combat Air System and the Main Ground Combat System.

As of now, there is no doubt that a sudden withdrawal of American power would be devastating for Europe. There would be a range of issues from the geopolitical ones to the tactica ones thatl they need to handle.

But demonstrating to the world, to Russia as much as the United States, that they are capable of looking after their own defence would be a major deterrent against further Russian aggression.  

Implications for India

What would be the implications for India? Nothing dramatic. A consolidation of EU defence industry would enable possible future collaboration on defence programmes.

India is seeking to promote its defence industrial base and could find cooperation with Europe a useful means of offsetting the power of American industries.

Another aspect would be the situation that could arise in the event of a US withdrawal from NATO and a resultant Ukrainian collapse. Without doubt this would have global consequences with regard to the US as a reliable ally and partner with implications for not just its allies, but partner like India as well.

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

Read More +

Related Search Terms