PARIS, ROME and COLOGNE, Germany — War is officially on Germany’s agenda. The prevention of it, that is, and the country’s defense during one, if it ever came to be.
But in a nation haunted by the militaristic ghosts of its past, the recent demand by Defence Minister Boris Pistorius that Germans should ready themselves for the possibility of actual war still came as a shock.
Semantically, the adjective “kriegstüchtig,” first floated by the minister in an October interview with German TV station ZDF, lives somewhere between becoming “war-capable” and “war-proficient,” nuances guaranteed to make Germans uncomfortable. Formally, it is now part of the ministry’s nomenclature that makes up the latest written guidance for the future of Germany’s armed forces.
Critics quickly seized on the term, construing it as warmongering or lamenting the lack of a more pronounced defensive focus. But what has become clear is that the fighting in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip, combined with an upcoming U.S. presidential election, could define Europe’s trajectory no matter the semantic bickering about what is, or isn’t, war.
Defense News asked European analysts about what the year 2024 will hold for the continent. Pervasive in the interviews was a sense of urgency in the face of Russia’s assault on Ukraine and the fallout for the continent. Russia’s delayed but now-massive buildup of its arms industry has experts worried President Vladimir Putin’s war machine will be trigger-happy toward its neighbors long after the fighting there stops.
“Today we are in a situation where we need to make real decisions, not discuss the need for making decisions,” Hanno Pevkur, Estonia’s defense minister, told his colleagues at a November meeting in Brussels.
While the European Union has long had a defense agenda, it has struggled to meet a key prerequisite: a sense of unity among its members on questions of war and peace, held together by a shared threat perception.
Mechanisms like the European Defence Fund or Permanent Structured Cooperation security initiative aim to grease the wheels of defense cooperation between member countries, hoping years spent on cooperative development projects spur a sense of shared ownership.
Mechanisms like the European Defence Fund aim to grease the wheels of defense cooperation between member countries. (Jacques Demarthon/AFP via Getty Images)
But overall, the idea that there is a unified military mindset in the EU is “highly questionable,” with many countries considering European defense first and foremost a matter for NATO and therefore the United States, said Yannick Quéau, the director of the Brussels-based think tank GRIP.
In that sense, pressing a defense-minded spirit onto an organization molded for maximizing peacetime potential may ultimately be a bridge too far, other analysts said.
“The heterogeneity will only increase,” said Christian Mölling, deputy director of the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations’ Research Institute. He pointed to a future round of EU expansion, including applicant Ukraine, that would further stretch common defense objectives.
The bloc’s genes are that of an institutional administrator — effective at regulating markets or resolving health and energy crises, but not at organizing a common defense, according to Mölling. “We may have to say goodbye to the idea of the EU as an actor in defense.”
Lucio Caracciolo, the editor of Italian geopolitics publication Limes, argued there’s no point holding out for Europe to emerge as a united player on the world stage.
“It’s impossible — Europe is not a geopolitical player; there are too many different interests at play,” he said. “While the Baltics, Scandinavia and Poland are hostile to Russia, Germany will want to rebuild the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Russia the moment there is a cease-fire” in Ukraine, he added.
Explosions damaged the gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany in September 2022.
France and Germany will have to show significant progress in 2024 with their marquee defense projects to uphold the promise that close European allies can translate their goodwill into weapons — although it would take almost two decades, analysts said.
On the table are a sixth-generation suite of air weaponry called the Future Combat Air System, or FCAS, and a new tank called the Main Ground Combat System. Both have shaky histories because leaders in Berlin and Paris saw their political ambitions of next-gen weaponry, made in Europe by two lead nations, held up by industrial infighting.
A mock-up of a new-generation fighter for the Future Combat Air System program was on display during the 2023 Paris Air Show. (Julien de Rosa/AFP via Getty Images)
“It would be good if we can end this back-and-forth lobbying about whether or not we’re going ahead with the project,” said Quéau, referring to periodic news stories about one or the other partner considering to call it quits. “There has to be a more clearly stated political commitment at [a] very high level.”
But without such a decision in 2024, “we’ll fall further behind,” he added.
The Franco-Germany tandem has failed to light any sparks, and Russia’s war in Ukraine, paradoxically, has sucked a lot of oxygen out of efforts to advance defense cooperation.
“The Franco-German [cooperation] has been stalled for some years now,” said Hélène Masson, a senior research fellow at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research. “At the same time, the war in Ukraine has led to more bilateral and multilateral cooperation between countries sharing security challenges and supporting Ukraine,” with Poland “particularly active” in building a web of defense and armaments partners.
In addition, EU members seeking closer ties with European defense heavyweight Britain, which is no longer in the union, and with the United States already are used to constructing a patchwork of bilateral and multilateral initiatives outside bloc channels.
“The draw of Atlanticism is prevalent,” Masson said. “This environment makes the Franco-German [partnership] increasingly difficult to sustain.”
“The two countries are partners, sure, but they’re also competitors in numerous areas, which makes the situation more complex,” she added. “Each is seeking to consolidate their position through cooperation: France in the fighter aircraft segment, Germany in the field of land armaments.”
After leaning on the U.S. for security guarantees for decades, Europe may find fewer friends in Washington if former President Donald Trump is reelected next year and implements his brand of isolationism.
Though the election isn’t until Nov. 5, 2024, and Trump has ample legal trouble that could create an uphill battle in the presidential race, polls show him as the presumptive Republican nominee to go against incumbent President Joe Biden.
Given Trump’s disdain for NATO, and Europe in particular, a Trump victory could upend the continent’s security calculus. He famously threatened at the alliance’s 2018 summit in Brussels to withdraw from NATO over laggard European defense spending and has since made plans to follow through if given the chance, Rolling Stone reported in October.
Then-U.S. President Donald Trump, center, stands during a NATO summit on Dec. 4, 2019, in Watford, England. (Steve Parsons/Getty Images)
Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers floated legislation over the summer that would make it harder for a president to pull the country out of the alliance, requiring a two-thirds majority in the Senate. The measure is now part of conference negotiations between both chambers of Congress.
Notably, in 2018, experts pointed out American withdrawal mechanics may not matter: If adversaries have reason to believe a U.S. commander-in-chief would wobble on NATO’s mutual-assistance pledge, their appetite for military adventurism would increase exponentially.
Indeed, some in Europe say Trump’s return to office could be the one thing capable of catalyzing Europe’s defense ambitions.
Yohann Michel, a research analyst in Berlin with the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, said big-ticket defense projects could see a boost.
“The French-German FCAS fighter program and the European main battle tank program were both spurred by Trump’s first term, and could consolidate and strengthen if he returns,” he said. “Trump would make the EU face up to hard choices, but the question is: Will it have the means to make those choices if we still don’t have enough ammunition to supply Ukraine or ourselves?”
Gaspard Schnitzler, a senior research fellow at the Paris-based French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agreed.
“From a cynical point of view,” a Trump reelection would be a good thing for European defense, with countries no longer able to count on U.S. aid therefore forced to strengthen EU defense, he said.
Dick Zandee, a defense analyst at the Clingendael Institute, based in The Hague, said there wouldn’t be much of a silver lining.
“I’m not sure that even if the pressure is that high, we’ll be able to solve our problems. And there is a guy watching in Moscow, and he will make use of every situation to test us,” he said, referring to Russian President Putin.
Orchestrating a ramp-up in ammunition production — for both Ukraine and EU members — may be the bloc’s best hope in finding its defense groove over time, analysts said.
Though the production rate for materiel like 155mm artillery shells and mortar rounds is lagging, companies plan to expand their output as well as build or restart production plants. The process is expected to take years, but at least the to-do list is clearly defined, according to experts.
“Ammunition is really a key constraint for a lot of European militaries,” said Ed Arnold, a research fellow for European security at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “We just don’t have enough ammunition. So forget about the end use of what mission this might be on, and what we want to do with it. It’s got to exist on the shelves first. That is quite expensive initially, to reopen production lines.”
Ukrainian troops fire a D-30 howitzer toward Russian forces in Bakhmut on April 19, 2023. (Tom Mutch/Staff)
“But there’s no real alternative,” he added.
Estimates in Europe vary on the number of years it would take Russia to reconstitute its forces after the war in Ukraine ends. While Estonian intelligence estimates four years, Arnold expects it to be at least a decade.
“So the Europeans have a bit of time, but considering how long all of these things take, it’s actually not a lot,” he said.
An estimate by the German Council on Foreign Relations pegs the time horizon as somewhere between six and 10 years.
According to Mölling, one of the think tank’s analysts, European governments should prioritize production of tried-and-true equipment at the expense of some development-heavy programs. Mass stockpiling, he said, is the new yardstick for deterrence.
But bottlenecks remain. For example, the entire industry faces a shortage of raw materials and components, with Europe’s aeronautics sector having to replace Russia as the supplier of 40% of its titanium, according to French analyst Schnitzler.
An EU strategy for the defense industry, initially scheduled for November, was pushed to the first quarter 2024, “but delayed for a good reason,” Schnitzler said. The European Commission will use the time for consultation with member states, industry and think tanks to reach a consensus proposal, he explained.
Amid the strategic urgency, the process is still rife with political drama. “The commission is walking on eggshells because some member states consider that it exceeds its powers,” Schnitzler said.