The idea of intra-alliance military specialization in Europe is attractive in theory, but problematic in practice. Instead, officials should pursue a two-tiered pan-European defense force, which would facilitate deployment beyond Europe and improve effeciency using economies of scale.

The recent candid remarks by Stefan Wallin, Finland’s defense minister, that conditions of growing austerity might require his country to join the North Atlantic Alliance point to two realities that must be faced in any discussion about defense spending. The first is that, no matter how much the United States pleads and cajoles, most European states are in no position to make major increases in their defense spending. The second is that small and medium-sized European states are increasingly finding it difficult to fund a military establishment that covers the entire spectrum of capabilities to permit a full range of military operations.


The idea of intra-alliance specialization — having smaller states within the alliance, beyond fielding regular infantry units, taking on a few specializations (anti-mine warfare, helicopter aviation, and so on) is attractive in theory but runs into several problems. The first is determining what are the most critical specialities. In 2000, the flavor of the day was anti-WMD units, forces that could deal with the aftermath of the use of biological and chemical weapons. By 2005 the emphasis was on trained forces capable of carrying out sustained counter-insurgency campaigns. In the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia conflict the importance of traditional conventional forces (including armored units) was re-emphasized, as well as the emerging field of cyberwar. Burden-sharing in the alliance could become quite acrimonious if states chose to focus on capabilities that were less likely to be used. In addition, if one nation received the “close air support” mission (say the Czech Republic), the pool of potential pilots would be limited; a Hungarian or an Icelander with exceptional flying skills would not be able to be transferred into the Czech unit.

Beyond that, the experience in Afghanistan continues to highlight problems of forces that are constrained by national caveats. If, for instance, the Baltic states were to be assigned the anti-mine mission, would they be willing to keep those units on long-term, sustained deployments to keep sea lanes of communication open in the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Aden? What might happen if cyberwar capabilities based in Germany were not deployed to defend Bulgaria from a sustained cyber attack emanating from Russian sources in order not to upset relations between Berlin and Moscow?

The way forward, therefore, may be to apply lessons from the military model of old Yugoslavia as a template for a pan-European defense force. The Yugoslav armed forces had been divided into a federal military (the JNA)-which included many of the advanced and specialized capabilities-and territorial forces (TO) which served in each republic. A two-tiered system for Europe might produce a similar approach: retaining national militaries with basic land, air and sea capabilities designed primarily for homeland defense, funded from each nation’s budget; and a pan-European force, based upon voluntary recruitment from EU countries and funded by levied contributions from each European country, which would handle more specialized missions and provide expeditionary capabilities for deployment beyond Europe. As a volunteer force, this might reduce the reluctance of current governments in Europe to deploy their national militaries to missions such as Afghanistan. A pan-European force could more easily contract for its equipment from European defense consortia and avoid expensive duplication, and by utilizing economies of scale be able to purchase and sustain more equipment that the separate national militaries.

There would, of course, be political issues that would have to be settled: a charter for the new force (perhaps banning its operations within Europe) and decisions on whether unanimous or majority approval would be needed to commit the force to an operation. The larger powers-among them the UK, France and Germany would probably retain much more robust national militaries and retain more capabilities, to allow them to retain a certain freedom of action. But this idea might be the means by which the separate and small contributions of the rest of the EU states could be forged into a much more effective fighting force.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor at the Atlantic Council, is professor of national security decision making at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed here are his own. This article originally appeared on