A Renewed Effort to Shape a European Rapid Reaction Force


By Pierre Tran

Paris – Europeans have dusted off the concept of a European rapid reaction force in response to a lack of U.S. cooperation with allies in the chaotic withdrawal from Kabul.

The European Union’s pursuit of the concept of strategic autonomy may have won greater political support, but much will depend on what the EU can deliver if there were a call for boots on the ground.

That call for a European combat capability rose as Washington was seen as failing to act as a partner nation, when Taliban forces seized the Afghan capital on August 15.

A revival of a European operational capability, dubbed initial entry force, forms part of the work by the EU to extend its reach to the military world.

Besides the 27-strong European Union, there is also the ex-EU member, the UK, which has military capability and martial culture which make the forces ready to take up arms, if a  political call were made.

Tucked away at the bottom of an August 31 joint statement from France, Germany and Spain on a political agreement on the future combat air system, there was a line on something dubbed “strategic compass.”

“Germany, Spain and France share the common will to achieve an ambitious and operational Strategic Compass, in order to strengthen European defense,” the joint statement said.

That strategic compass refers to EU work to agree the means to guide its actions, strengthen a common European security and defense culture, and define policy objectives.

The EU has conducted for the first time a comprehensive analysis on threats to Europe, including global and regional threats, conflicts near Europe, challenges from state actors, and threats from non-state actors, the EU says on its website, Towards a Strategic Compass.

The strategic compass seeks to address four inter-related areas, namely crisis management missions, capabilities, resilience and instruments.

A “strategic dialog” among member states began in the first half of this year, development in the second half, and adoption of the strategic compass due in March 2022.

Meanwhile, on evacuation from Kabul it was clear the US treated the UK as just another country which happened to speak a common language, albeit with some quaint spelling.

There appeared to be little sign in Afghanistan of the special relationship that London lauds over, which briefly popped up when president Joe Biden met prime minister Boris Johnson ahead of the G7 meeting in June.

Robust and rapid action

In the strategic compass project, some EU member states promote the idea of a first entry force of some 5,000 troops, capable of “robust and rapid action,”  Josep Borrell Fontelles, EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said in a Sept. 1 op ed for the New York Times.

Such an EU force could have been deployed to operations such as securing the Kabul airport, he said.

“A more strategically autonomous and militarily capable E.U. would be better able to address the challenges to come in Europe’s neighborhood and beyond,” he said.

The question is which EU member states would take part in such a high-risk combat operation.

France is at the forefront of such an EU first entry force.

Coincidentally, France takes up the six-month rotating presidency of the EU in January, and Macron is a fierce proponent of European strategic autonomy.

Macron, who will be seeking re-election when the country goes to the polls in April-May next year, sounded a warning of a wave of immigration from Afghanistan in his August 16 address to the nation. That was seen as a play to the far right in his search for votes.

Germany is a political and economic heavyweight in the EU, with a pacifist, anti-war sentiment which the government of the day must deal with.

German voters will decide Sept. 26 whether the conservative Christian Democrats will extend their political leadership beyond the 16 years of Angela Merkel as chancellor of the nation.

The opinion polls show strong support for the center-left Social Democrats and the ecology party, the Greens, while approval ratings for the Christian Democrats’ leader, Armin Laschet, have plummeted.

The voting cards may yield a fresh German coalition government, and it remains to be seen whether that will back a more assertive military presence.

France has long campaigned to build a European capability as an alternative to Nato, which is led by the US.

The shortcomings of Nato as a collective force were apparent in the unseemly retreat from Kabul, adding to the fuel to the fire fed by president Emmanuel Macron, who observed the brain death of the Atlantic alliance.

France is pushing the idea of ad hoc coalition of the “willing and able,” with nations such as the UK and Norway, to avoid delays tied to the search for consensus required by the EU, Jana Puglierin, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said.

“In the course of the current reflection process for the Strategic Compass, member states should discuss which types of missions and operations the EU really wants to engage in,” she said in an April 1 research note, Direction of Force: The EU’s Strategic Compass.

There is risk that “rhetoric” will outdo what the EU will deliver in “reality,” she said.

There has also been Brexit, which adds a “driver of ad-hockery in European security,” she said. The UK’s 2021 Integrated Review pointed up that “Global Britain” sought to work as bilateral or multilateral partner rather than through the EU.

Political will

Britain and France are bilateral partners in the combined joint expeditionary force, a 10,000-strong battle group, capable of being deployed for combat.

An operational capability may be there, but political will be needed.

The importance of political support can be seen in the UK parliament voting against intervention in Syria in 2013, with a majority of 13 expressing opposition to prime minister David Cameron.

For France, there is swiftness of a presidential decision to commit in the event of a crisis. For the UK, the prime minister could send armed forces, if need be. Those two nations could deploy a joint combined force with 48 hours.

In Germany, there will be need for parliamentary debate and approval, with much depending on events on the ground.

There have been further steps in Franco-German operational cooperation.

French defense minister Florence Parly and her German counterpart, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, signed Aug. 30 an intergovernmental agreement on cooperation on tactical air transport, the two nations said in a joint statement.

The agreement set up a two-nation squadron and training center at Evreux airbase, to fly a squadron of C-130J transport aircraft, the statement said. The squadron would be stood up on Sept. 1, and French and German personnel will work in mixed teams without distinctions over nationality.

“While retaining the possibility of carrying out missions within a purely national framework, this is the first time an air force squadron is able to carry out operational missions with mixed crews, on French and German aircrafts (sic),” the statement said.

Some building blocks for European cooperation have been laid.

Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands set up in 2010 the European transport air command at Eindhoven airbase, the Netherlands, to serve as a pool of transport aircraft. The seven member nations can draw on more than 170 aircraft.

It looks like a long road ahead for combat cooperation with European forces.