Smart Defense Not a Trojan Horse

Is “smart defense”—NATO’s effort to promote greater cooperation among the allies in military capabilities and training— a “Trojan Horse” at the service of the “war machine of the American defense industry”?  That would appear to be the conviction of one French senator, according to his remarks before a few hundred parliamentarians, high-ranking officials, general officers, and leaders of defense companies from France and its European partners gathered at their annual “Summer defense college.”


The accusation cannot be taken lightly at a time when a commission of forty-six eminent officials, parliamentarians (including the aforementioned senator), and non-government experts appointed by President François Hollande prepares the new White Book on Defense and National Security. Meanwhile, former foreign minister Hubert Védrine is conducting a related assessment, also under a presidential mandate, to “evaluate the French return to NATO’s military structure and the development of the transatlantic relationship for the decade to come.”

Yet, on substance, the accusation is not credible.

Since NATO’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, launched the idea of “smart defense” at the Munich Security Conference in February 2011, no one has seriously challenged its basic assumptions.

Faced with escalating costs of military technologies and operations on the one hand and inexorable pressures to reduce defense budgets on the other, European states are finding it more and more difficult to acquire and maintain, on a national basis, the military tools needed for deterrence, collective defense, and the prevention and management of crises.  Hence, closer cooperation among Europeans, as Rasmussen put it, “is no longer a choice.  It is a necessity.”

At the same time, smart defense does not advocate a one size fits all approach to defense cooperation.   Bilateral and multilateral arrangements outside NATO—for example, the 2010 Lancaster House treaties between France and Great Britain and the EU’s “pooling and sharing” initiative—bring their distinctive advantages, which are recognized by the Alliance.

And while Europe’s over-dependence on American capabilities (most recently demonstrated during their combined 2011 military intervention in Libya) carries evident risks—particularly when the priorities of the two sides of the Atlantic might not always align perfectly—American participation in smart defense is a plus.  Above all, it facilitates the interoperability of European, American, and Canadian forces whether or not a specific mission is conducted under the auspices of NATO or a coalition of the willing.

In practice, smart defense is hardly a “made in the USA” product.  Working closely with NATO headquarters (in particular, its assistant secretary general for defense investment, the Frenchman Patrick Auroy), Allied Command Transformation (ACT), headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia, serves as a catalyst for specific multinational projects identified by various groups of nations.   ACT’s supreme commander since September 2009, French General Stéphane Abrial, also served as one of NATO’s two special envoys for smart defense vis-à-vis the political and military authorities of member states of the Alliance. Today, Abrial turns over his command to his compatriot, General Jean-Paul Paloméros.

Some twenty-four “Tier I” smart defense projects now underway include, for example, development of modular medical facilities for military personnel in operations, work on state-of-the art robots to clear roads of improvised explosive devices, improved training for helicopter pilots and intelligence experts, and pooling of maritime patrol aircraft. Fifteen of the projects are led by European “framework nations”; the United States and Canada lead five.   As for France, it leads two of the projects and participates in a dozen others. Only four of the projects are led by one of the principal NATO commands—either ACT or Allied Command Operations—or one of the NATO agencies.

Since smart defense does not require participation by all twenty-eight allies in every project, most will be financed by the participating countries, not by the Alliance as a whole.  And for those that might involve future acquisitions, there is no “American preference.”  Indeed,  under  Abrial, ACT  has opened greater opportunities to European industries through its “Framework for Collaborative Interaction,”  where twenty-nine of seventy participating companies—including Thales, France Telecom, and Astrium—come from the Old Continent.   And thanks to the pragmatic relationship between ACT and the European Defence Agency (EDA), which is led by Claude-France Arnould, a respected French career diplomat, the two organizations have succeeded in avoiding a duplication of effort.

The Tier I projects are not the only manifestation of growing multinational cooperation in NATO.   In three strategic programs—defense against ballistic missiles, improved joint  intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capabilities, and air policing on a regional basis (as in the Baltic States)—allies can contribute under various operational and financial formats.   The final decision on whether or how to participate rests with the member states.  However, the Alliance as a whole unquestionably benefits from the common effort.

Nevertheless, from a political perspective, the senator’s accusation risks doing damage on several levels.  It implicitly discredits the efforts and independence of Auroy, Abrial, Paloméros, and around a hundred French military working at ACT, where the majority of the staff is European.  It also tends to denigrate France’s other European allies, undercutting efforts by Paris to win over their cooperation and confidence within the EDA and other bilateral and multilateral fora.  Is one seriously to believe that so many smart defense advocates and participants are veritable pawns of the American defense industry?

As for Washington, it is hoped that the Védrine report, expected in October, will not revive the old ideological debates over the decision taken in 2009 by Nicolas Sarkozy.   But if the accusation made in Brest begins to echo more widely in French official circles, it certainly will not help the bilateral defense relationship between France and the United States, which has improved in many areas—involving technologies, training, and operations—in recent years.

Of course, some French and American defense companies are in competition, particularly in the aerospace industry, for sales within each other’s market and to third parties.  And as procurement budgets of the Pentagon and Rue Saint Dominique grow tighter, this competition might grow fiercer. 

Hence, Paris bristles at what it sees as Washington’s encouragement for sales of American tankers or missile defense systems to European militaries. But as Washington and certain European capitals see it, the suggestion that France serves as the preeminent defender of “European interests” against the “war machine of the American defense industry” rings a bit hollow.  After all, in certain markets, the French Rafale multi-role combat aircraft competes against other European products, the Eurofighter and Gripen.   And if the British, Norwegians, Danes and others still opt for the American Joint Strike Fighter despite its costs, it is presumably because they consider its overall capabilities and provisions for industrial cooperation preferable to other solutions.

Even France, which is always attentive to the preservation of its autonomy and defense industry, cannot escape hard choices imposed by operational requirements.   Example:  according to press reports, some French military would like to reopen the decision taken by the defense ministry in 2011 to acquire a future French-Israeli drone, the “Heron-TP,” in favor of purchasing the existing American “Predator B,” which can carry precision guided munitions.

Transatlantic disputes over the extent of government subsidies provided to defense industries, as well as arms export and technology transfer policies, also pose obstacles to cooperation. 

It will not be easy to reconcile the strategic and military logic of a more effective transatlantic and intra-European relationship on defense capabilities with the realities (and benefits) of competition between our respective defense industries.  A true initiative in this direction would be a project worthy of the White Book Commission.   But shooting at efforts taken by NATO to facilitate multilateral cooperation under the banner of smart defense does not contribute to this goal.

Leo Michel, a member of the Atlantic Council Strategic Advisors Group, is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Defense Department or any other agency of the US Government.

Related Experts:

Image: nato%202%208%2011%20Anders%20Fogh%20Rasmussen.jpg