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The problem of strategic prioritisation

Bob Dylan had it right: ‘the times, they are a-changin’. For European defence planners, change has not been for the better. In fact, 2014 was a particularly troublesome year. Chaos in Libya gave way to outright civil war. In turn, the conflict in Syria created a vacuum in which the so-called ‘Islamic State’ could emerge and thrive. Last but perhaps most ominously, events in Ukraine have fundamentally altered the assumptions on which the European security order has been based since the end of the Cold War. Russian behaviour has effectively forced Europeans to start contemplating the unthinkable: a return of armed inter-state conflict on the European continent. Even as disorder is closing in from the South as well as from the East, security resources in many countries are still declining. Indeed, the dire state of public finances in many European states is not only calling into question the ability of states to meet their sovereign imperative – the defence of the nation –, but societal cohesion too. Austerity is breeding political radicalisation and fragmentation, but budgetary complacency now risks breeding even bigger problems in the future.

Faced with this geopolitical context, the critical question for governments and defence planners is how to reconcile these various geographical, financial and temporal dimensions into a credible strategy. Can one actually prioritise amongst the challenges posed by Russia in the East and the chaos in the South? Can one realistically avoid the stark choice between guns and butter? And finally, can one consciously sequence responses in the present and the future? In other words, the problem of strategic prioritisation has returned to Europe with a capital P.

National opinions on prioritisation differ starkly, but at the same time the geopolitical imperative from a European perspective is clear: the continent cannot turn its back on its own neighbourhood, be it in the East or the South. Whether it is Russian aircraft buzzing European airspace or desperate migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean, the troubles in the neighbourhood will not disappear as suddenly as they came about. In addition, neglecting the wider world carries significant risks over the longer term. All of this does not mean that the operational hubris of the crisis management era needs to be repeated. The lacklustre results of many stabilisation campaigns serve as a cautionary tale against overstretching military commitments. It does mean that without urgent consideration the defence of European interests cannot be taken for granted. Yet the ease with which many nations have disregarded the defence investment pledge undertaken at the NATO summit in Wales – especially as far as the direction of the trend is concerned – suggests that even territorial defence struggles to feature at the top of the political agenda, at least for now.

Trading space for time and time for political effect are classics in the strategic studies vocabulary. The European game of ‘extend and pretend’ with regard to sovereign debt servicing today constitutes the conceptual equivalent of defensive battles on the European plain. When struggling to achieve objectives, one effectively drags the opposing force into a geographic or temporal position from which they can be handled better. The point is to learn to think about geography and time as interlocking dimensions in strategic affairs. Such an analytical prism must be called for, because the combined set of challenges Europeans face over the coming years is truly kaleidoscopic. Armed forces need to be brought into a higher state of readiness; ready for expeditionary engagements of the ‘train-and-assist’ model, but also ready for actually defending Europe through means of deterrence – a task that had disappeared from the radar screen of an entire generation. The military challenge is but part of a larger scheme, as the threat of hybrid warfare links back to the notion of societal resilience. Like any other threat, insurgency and radicalisation will prey on perceived vulnerabilities. Reinforcing the armed forces thus needs to go hand-in-hand with a regeneration of societal structures. And critical taxpayers need to recognise their own interest – and that of their community as a whole – in the policy priorities that governments set.

Democratic polities always struggle with strategic prioritisation. This is the reason is why central bankers as well as generals are typically endowed with a professional space in which they can exercise a relatively free hand. Democratic debate requires compromise and splitting the cake in such a way that it does not provoke a fight. The extensive bargaining this requires starkly contrasts with the behaviour of authoritarian polities that grab whatever they like. This very characteristic tends to give them the initial strategic advantage, only to be offset by eventual miscalculation in wartime or economic planning. What is clear is that in Europe central bankers are now assuming the role of first line responders when it comes to dealing with the internal challenges facing the continent. Meanwhile, European-level macro-economic coordination – with all the political bargaining this entails – is being stood up as the logical follow-on force. Keeping the Eurozone together in such a way that most Europeans can live with it has always been a geopolitical project and part and parcel of European integration. In many ways, the ongoing struggle over monetary and fiscal policy constitutes the key battleground in which the future of European cohesion and, more indirectly, the ability to resource modern armed forces will be decided.

Can we make some reasonably safe assumptions to guide defence planning efforts and shape investment priorities? Including both geographical and temporal parameters constitutes the analytical key here. The challenge posed by Russia in the East is immediate and fully developed in terms of capabilities and doctrine. It simply cannot be ignored unless one accepts the risk of a potentially significant loss of territory. At the same time, demographic parameters indicate that Russia is unlikely to remain a major threat over a generational time horizon.

The opposite is the case for the southern neighbourhood. The threat of state collapse is of course already with us, but this has not (yet) led to materially powerful adversaries. Groups such as Daesh prey eagerly on state weakness, but have yet to prove they constitute a viable alternative for governing expanding territories. At the same time, young and rapidly growing populations indicate that the tumult in the southern neighbourhood will continue over time, and may well increase and consolidate into a mature threat.

Last but not least, instability in the wider world is unlikely to go away. More distant flashpoints – for instance in East Asia – may exercise considerable influence on European prosperity and wellbeing. In the latter category, only one element is clear: conflict is always possible, but we have no reliable way of knowing when this may occur.

The planning implications of the scenarios mentioned above are reasonably clear. The European demand for defensive capabilities is set to increase considerably. The ideal force mix – in the past solely geared towards expeditionary crisis management – suddenly includes a need for heavy capabilities on land and a continued relevance of airpower (which may again have to be applied in contested environments). Over time, lighter forces for stabilisation contingencies will again be called for, while ‘train and assist’ and maritime patrol capabilities remain most useful as mitigation measures in the meantime. Faraway dramas may in turn call for force projection from the sea and the defence of maritime communication lines. As such, a broad spectrum of European force options will be called for. At the same time, political willingness to face the resourcing implications this entails is arguably contingent on even greater levels of urgency. As European capitals engage in strategic reviews on a national level and together negotiate new political guidance for defence planners, they would do well to keep all of these dimensions in mind. If time is running out, the prospect of ceding geographical space may not be far off.

Vol. 7, No. 35 (2015)


The CSDP: National Perspectives series, Article 31 (Conclusion No. 4).

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