Europe needs to get smarter about defence production

AS THE war in Ukraine drags on, the challenge of meeting the country’s battlefield needs has become more pressing. Stocks of key Western weapons systems are running low — particularly in Europe, where efforts to replenish them are hampered by a creaking defence-industrial base. Failing to address those vulnerabilities will not only jeopardise Ukraine’s prospects, but undermine the security of Europe as a whole. 

With the US initially providing the bulk of military assistance to Ukraine, the European Union (EU) has had to scramble to keep up. It allocated €1 billion (RM4.96 billion) from the European Peace Facility to reimburse member states that donated to Ukraine from their stockpiles and spent another €1 billion to support joint weapons procurement. It also came up with €500 million in financing to ramp up manufacturing capacity. 

Such aid is critical for Ukraine, whose counteroffensive continues to rely on the traditional tools of war — including guns and mortars but especially large, bullet-shaped 155mm artillery rounds. Russia reportedly plans to produce two million rounds of ammunition a year, and President Vladimir Putin has looked to North Korea and other rogue nations to contribute even more. 

On Ukraine’s side, the US has doubled its monthly production of shells to 28,000 rounds and is on track to reach 100,000 a month by 2025. Meanwhile, Europe has promised to deliver one million shells to Ukraine by March 2024. 

The EU’s commitment to arming Kyiv is welcome. Europe has taken other small steps to encourage joint procurement. But more needs to be done to address its anaemic defence base, which extends beyond artillery to air defence, transport and other areas. 

European defende production is plagued by duplication of effort and poor interoperability between militaries. Chronic under-investment since the end of the Cold War is partly to blame, as are high levels of fragmentation among EU states. (A 2020 European Parliament report found the EU fielded 178 separate weapons systems, compared to 30 in the US, despite a collective defence budget that’s half the size of America’s.) 

The EU estimates that this inefficiency costs European governments up to €100 billion a year. Some common-sense measures would help to improve the system. 

The EU should increase coordination with NATO, with the aim of standardising ammunition and other weapons so that they’re interchangeable across the alliance. Better mapping of supply chains and detailed reporting of how resources are spent would help officials respond more quickly to production problems and worker shortages. 

European leaders should build on existing collaborative efforts — such as the 10-nation Joint Expeditionary Force or the Nordic countries’ initiative to build a fifth-generation fighter jet — which demonstrate the benefits of having small groups of countries work together. Governments should pool resources to source spare parts and conduct regular maintenance work. 

The EU should also reduce legal and regulatory barriers in cross-border procurement and expand access to the defence market for small- and medium-sized enterprises. 

If these were “nice to have” luxuries before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they’re necessities now. Putin is determined to wait out Western support for Ukraine, which faces an uncertain future in the US. 

Building a stronger and more resilient European defence base will be costly and time-consuming, but it’s essential to saving Ukraine, deterring aggression and preventing future wars. — Bloomberg

  • This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition