Is an integrated European Air Force feasible or even necessary? The RAeS Air Power Group Committee considers the issues and the options.(1)

The origin of an idea

Anglo-French air power co-operation with Exercise Griffin Strike - but is a European Air Force a good idea? (MoD)

In March 2015, in an interview with the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker stated his aspiration for forming a European army:

“A common European army would show the world that there will never again be war between the countries of the EU. Such an army would help us to shape a common foreign and security policy, and take up Europe’s leadership in the world”.

It is debatable whether unifying their armed forces is necessary to prevent conflict among the European Union members. However, given that one aspect of leadership in the world is military capability, Europe’s strength in this respect merits attention. We can reasonably presume that in using the term ‘army’ Herr Juncker meant all three elements of military power: maritime, land and air. This article will consider the political and operational aspects of European military forces from the perspective of the air domain.

Firstly: Define ‘Europe’

Germany contributes a valuable SEAD capability with its Tornado ECRs - but is constrained by its domestic politics. (MoD)  

Even the apparently simple issue of defining ‘Europe’ for this analysis is not straightforward. Geographically, Europe is the part of the Eurasian land mass that lies to the west of the Ural Mountains, Ural River and Caspian Sea. Politically, there are 50 sovereign states that have territory either wholly or partly in the continent of Europe. In terms of political groupings, 28 of these nations are members of the European Union (EU), 22 of the EU nations are also in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which has 24 European members in total.

It is the variations on these themes that complicate matters with regard to the options for unified militaries. Austria, Finland, Ireland and Sweden are in the EU but, as traditionally neutral nations, are not NATO members. Norway was one of the original 12 NATO nations but is one of the few Western European states not in the EU. Turkey has been in NATO since 1952 and aspires to EU membership, whereas Switzerland (another long term neutral nation) is in neither. Both Britain and France have defence commitments to their overseas territories and the political desire to remain as ‘players’ on the world stage. This is founded on them being permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and expressed through maintaining the capability to project military power beyond Europe itself(2). Germany, while being the wealthiest EU nation, remains constrained by its constitution and significant elements of political and public opinion to focusing its considerable armed forces on the direct defence of Western Europe, with relatively limited involvement in deployed operations.

The sinews of war are infinite money

European CSAR capabilities have been boosted this year with the introduction of the HH-101A Caesar into Italian AF service. (Leonardo). 

In total, the nations of the EU comprise considerably greater populations than those of the US and Russia, respectively: 510 million, 320 million and 145 million. The five wealthiest nations in Europe are (in descending order): Germany, UK, France, Italy and Spain. They are all NATO members and together their gross domestic product (GDP) is 65% (almost two thirds) that of the US(4). The EU as a whole has a GDP of around 90% of the US’s. On these figures, Europe should be able to afford substantial and capable military forces, including effective air power. It is therefore sobering to note that the European members account for only 32% of the total defence spending of all 28 NATO nations, with the US accounting for 66%(5). The average percentage of GDP spent on defence across Europe is 1.45%; the military personnel total 1.44 million. The US spends 3.3% of GDP and has 1.31 million personnel in uniform, while the Russian Federation figures are 4% and 776,000 respectively(6). If the European NATO nations all allocated 2% of their GDP to defence then their total spending would increase by almost 40% to around US$393bn per annum. This would still be substantially less than the US total of US$577.5bn, but it would be a significant sum. Given the current financial conditions such an increase is unlikely.

Even allowing for the lower overall defence spending, Europe has significantly less combat power and overall defence capability than America. Funds are unavoidably used less efficiently when spent separately by more than 20 nations, each with their own perspectives and priorities, than by one superpower with a set of coherent aims. This is the case despite the coordinating efforts and influence of NATO over six decades. The Cold War, despite the magnitude of the threat, was actually a simpler time in geo-political terms. The current set of threats is of lesser scale but of greater complexity and achieving lasting, general consensus in defence and security terms across multiple nations is very problematic. A number of initiatives have been devised to enhance European capability and these are summarised below.

Nations and numbers

Europe's air tanker fleet still lags behind the US's giant AAR capability. (EDA)

Fleet size is a rather crude measure of air power, as it takes no account of the performance of the various types; nevertheless, quantity offers an indication of capability at least with regard to strength in depth and hence staying power in a protracted conflict. In terms of combat aircraft the US is in the lead with 2,797 followed by Europe with 2,145 and then Russia with 1,439(7). These figures hide the fact that America and Russia both field long-range bombers, whereas Europe’s attack capability is limited to multi-role fighters that have considerably less reach and payload. Air-to-air refuelling (AAR) tankers are an essential means of increasing range and endurance and here the US-Europe difference is most marked.

Of NATO’s 28 member nations, 17 (i.e. 61%) have a declared requirement for air-to-air refuelling (AAR) support. However, only nine of those nations (i.e. 32%) actually possess any AAR capable aircraft. Moreover, the US owns by far the majority of these tankers. In the 2020 to 2025 timeframe, the European members plan to field 79 AAR-capable platforms compared to the 608 of the American armed forces(8). In terms of air transport, the US operates over 900 aircraft, while NATO-Europe has around 500, of which 210 are of C-130 size or larger. It is acknowledged that the US has multiple worldwide commitments, whereas the majority of the European members are focused mainly on their own defence. Even so, Europe has projected military power previously (e.g. over Libya in 2011), is doing so now over Iraq and Syria, and must have the means to do so in future if it is to maintain a credible and capable military option. Coordination and cooperation between nations offers increased capacity in AT and AAR but ultimately there is no full substitute for a big fleet.

Changing times, changing attitudes

Increased provocations from Moscow is leading Sweden to draw closer to NATO. (Saab)

In February 2012, the Swedish foreign minister Carl Bilde made the following declaration in the Statement of Government Policy to Parliament:

“Sweden will not remain passive if another EU member state or a Nordic country suffers a disaster or an attack. We expect these countries to act in the same way if Sweden is similarly affected. We must be in a position to both give and receive support, civil and military”.

Even assuming that Sweden remains neutral and does not join NATO, this statement essentially commits it to a form of collective security and defence; if not quite a NATO member, then Sweden is definitely a close friend. It illustrates the common values and interests across Europe and the advantages to be gained through cooperation. Sweden and Finland both joined the NATO Partnership for Peace scheme in the 1990s and were invited to join its Enhanced Opportunity Partners programme in 2014(9). The aim is to enhance the already close cooperation between NATO and the two countries in areas such as training and system interoperability. The degree of support in Sweden for NATO membership is increasing though it does not yet amount to a distinct majority. The proportion favouring membership was only 17% in 2012 but it rose to 41% in late 2015 and 49% in early 2016(10). The level of support in Finland is considerably less with a clear majority remaining opposed to membership.

Sub-groups of existing alliances might share particular circumstances making close cooperation in certain areas a natural option. The Nordic nations of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and the three Baltic States(11) form an obvious example(12). All have a maritime requirement including air patrol and six of the seven have a border on the Baltic Sea. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania do not currently field any high performance combat aircraft and so rely on NATO allies to provide air defence in the form of the Baltic air policing mission which has been running since March 2004(13). Similarly, Belgium provides air defence for Luxembourg, and Italy and Greece do so for Slovenia and Albania.

Aspirations and realities

Operation Allied Force saw Europe depend on the US for precision all-weather attack, stealth, ISR, SEAD and tanker missions. (USAF) 

In the latter half of the 1990s, Europe faced political crises in former Yugoslavia that required military action. In Operations Deliberate Force (Bosnia, 1995) and Allied Force (Kosovo-Serbia, 1999) the US provided the majority of the air power applied by NATO. Embarrassingly for Western Europe, it proved unable to project power into southern Central Europe in sufficient strength to be effective. Several contributors had little or none of the attack capability required to put pressure on the Bosnian Croat and Serbian governments. They could only supply interceptors and some cynical commentators observed that the Balkans had the best defended air space in the world for the duration of those campaigns despite there being no real air-to-air threat. However, European capabilities have developed positively since then, though there is still considerable room for further improvement.

Capability and dependency - The Libyan campaign experience

Libya saw the small RDAF punch well above its weight with its F-16 fleet. (Danish MoD)

Operation Unified Protector was the NATO-led air campaign over Libya in 2011(15). Ten European NATO nations were involved as well as the US, Canada and Turkey. Non-NATO member contributors comprised Sweden, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Compared to the Balkans campaigns, European countries provided the bulk of the attack capability though America still provided considerable support essential for success. The campaign was also important for NATO, as it was the first operation for the Alliance where it did not have US leadership.

The precursor to the NATO-led Operation Unified Protector was the American-dominated Operation Odyssey Dawn. A major element was SEAD, the suppression of enemy air defences, a capability that only the US possesses in any quantity in the Alliance. Long-range radar-guided surface to air missile (SAM) systems presented a major threat, especially to high-value ISR platforms, which were crucial for gaining situational awareness. Operational capacity and flexibility were set by AAR availability, with the US providing a significant share of this essential enabler of air power.

Several small air forces demonstrated notable capability. The Royal Danish Air Force (RDAF) deployed six F-16 multi-role aircraft to Italy and flew 1,283 sorties totalling almost 4,800 flying hours. With an average of eight sorties each day, the RDAF delivered 923 precision guided munitions (PGM), a significant contribution from a small nation.

Options identified

Could common platforms like the A400M and A330MRTT open up new co-operation opportunities for Smart Defence? (Airbus DS).

OUP proved the value of partnership in demanding operations. A successful outcome was achieved despite various shortfalls, in particular those of enablers such as ISR, across the European nations. Ideally Europe should be self reliant or, at least, less dependent. Role specialisation by nations who combine their assets to field the complete capability range and strength in depth is an option, but one with fundamental drawbacks(16). It would require an unprecedented degree of confidence to rely on partner members for certain critical roles.

A more realistic scheme is that of NATO’s Smart Defence programme which is “a cooperative way of generating modern defence capabilities that the Alliance needs, in a more cost-efficient, effective and coherent manner”(17). Member nations are “encouraged to work together to develop, acquire, operate and maintain military capability” and “to specialise in what they do best, and look for multinational solutions to shared problems”. The role sharing variation of Smart Defence has potential though it is still too early on in its development to be certain of the outcome.

Collaborative approaches

NATO's SAC Strategic Airlift Capability operates three C-17s under a pooled arrangement. (NATO)

Apart from NATO membership, Europe has a variety of defence and air specific groupings. The European Defence Agency (EDA)(18) has 27 members, i.e. all the EU nations other than Denmark. It was established in 2004 with the aim of improving European defence capabilities through collaborative programmes. One example is the ‘Pooling and Sharing’ initiative which was proposed in November 2011 and which seeks to fill (at least partially) several of the major capability gaps including AAR and maritime surveillance. The aim of the EDA is to achieve a more transparent, systematic and longer term approach to military cooperation than has been the case previously.

The European Air Group (EAG)(19) comprises Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK. It describes itself as the “only independent air minded organisation in Europe” and its aim as “identifying realistic ways to improve the interoperability between member nations”. The main means is to develop ideas and initiatives into projects to produce “useable end products that promote interoperability between the EAG or partner air forces”. Its vision is that the seven member air forces will be able “to operate together as one across the spectrum of conflict”. Its work includes such areas as: the integration of 4th and 5th Generation aircraft, remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) operations and the interoperability of Eurofighter Typhoon across the user nations. If the seven nations could operate together seamlessly, then the resulting whole would definitely be greater than the sum of the parts producing a powerful total force. Achieving political agreement between the seven nations for the use of this force will remain a challenge but cases such as OUP offer some hope for the future.

Mobility is getting particular attention. In the Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC),(20) ten NATO nations(21) plus two Partnership for Peace nations (Finland and Sweden) pooled resources to buy and operate Boeing C-17 Globemaster III AT aircraft (the fleet is currently three). The Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS) was initiated in 2006 and is a NATO working group focused on moving over-sized air cargo. The European Air Transport Command (EATC)(22) has considerable though not complete membership overlap with the EAG, specifically Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy. It has the aim of coordinating the combined capacities of the participants and “improving the effectiveness and efficiency” of air transport, AAR and aero-medical evacuation missions. It is notable that the EATC has Operational Control (OPCON) over the assets assigned to it, i.e. the owner nations have transferred the authority for the EATC to direct the use of those aircraft in specific missions. The Movement Coordination Centre Europe (MCCE)(23) was founded in 2007 to tackle the shortage of air (and surface) strategic lift and AAR. Its method is to arrange the use of transport assets owned or leased by the member nations’ militaries. It is located at Eindhoven (as is the EATC) and the European members comprise: Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the UK(24).

The European Personnel Recovery Centre (EPRC)(25) is based at Poggio Renatico in Italy. There are seven member nations(26) and five partner nations(27). Europe has very limited personnel recovery capability being generally reliant on US forces for this role. The EPRC has the aspiration to become a “centre of excellence for the recovery of military and civilian personnel in crisis areas”.

It would seem that these various European air organisations are full of good intentions to improve interoperability and achieve high capability through greater efficiency and shared use of assets. Whether the necessary resources will be supplied to achieve these goals remains to be seen.


EDA's Italian Blade helicopter exercise already provides for joint and collobrative training. (EDA) 

Returning to the European Commission president, Herr Juncker amplified his aspiration with a somewhat surprising reference to a specific nation.

“A European army would not exist for the purpose of being deployed immediately. But a common army of Europeans would convey a clear impression to Russia that we are serious about defending European values”.

The first sentence could be read as implying an eventual readiness for the EU to project its military power around the world. Or, a sceptical observer might infer that the aim is essentially one of collective self-defence alongside a reluctance to use force outside Western Europe. Amalgamating the armed forces of the EU fully would require the political union of the member nations and there appears to be no current prospect for this. With 24 European (and 22 EU) states already members of NATO, there are no strong, let alone compelling, arguments for forming unified European armed forces. Though not without its faults, NATO has proven itself to be an effective means of coordinating a wide range of states in collective planning and action during times of peace, tension and crisis. The European members are also working on a range of schemes to enhance their future cooperation and effectiveness. Short of full political union in all respects (a ‘United States of Europe’) there is no need for or value in creating a military element of the European Union. Existing agreements along with ad hoc arrangements as required have served well and will continue to serve Europe well. There is most definitely scope for greater cooperation and coordination; the initiatives summarised above will, it is hoped, help achieve this. Increased funding of defence, even to raise the European average from 1.45% to 1.75% of GDP (i.e. still short of the NATO 2% goal), would be of far greater value than the exploration of a hypothetical, implausible and unnecessary option.


1) The RAeS APG committee is not implying a recommendation on the UK’s EU membership nor should a position be inferred.
2) The study did not include the fact that Britain and France both maintain independent nuclear deterrents nor was a common European deterrent considered.
3) Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman author, orator and politician, 106 to 43 BCE. Clearly nothing has changed when it comes to paying for armed forces.
4) International Monetary Fund (IMF) World Economic Outlook 2015. GDP in US$(billion): USA: 17,968; Germany: 3,371; UK: 2,865; France: 2,423; Italy: 1,819; Spain: 1,221.
5) Stockholm International Peace Research Institute figures for 2014. NATO: US$880,685 million; NATO-Europe US$284,728.
6) It should be noted that data such as GDP and military spending differ from source to source. The absolute values are less important than the proportionate for the purpose of this assessment.
7) All figures derived from Flight Global: World Air Force Outlook and Active Fleet per Region.
8) NATO publication: Joint Air Power Cooperation Centre Journal March 2014.
9) This occurred at the September 2014 NATO Summit held at Newport, Wales, UK.
10) Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) quoted in Jane’s Defence Weekly 23 March 2016.
11) Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
12) The common language would probably be English. Swedish, Danish and Norwegian are more or less mutually comprehensible. Finnish and Estonian are markedly different from any of their neighbours as neither belongs to the Indo-European family of languages.
13) Sixteen nations have provided aircraft.
14) This section is adapted from the APG committee report on the RAeS-IISS seminar on the Libyan campaign. The contributions from the nations involved are listed in the annex below. See The Aerospace Professional July 2012 for a summary and for the full report.
15) The UK contribution was called Operation Ellamy.
16) See The Aerospace Professional Sep 2011 and Aerospace Dec 2014 for APG papers on role specialisation.
20) Not to be confused with Strategic Air Command which controlled the nuclear bombers and land based missiles of the USAF between 1946 and 1992.
21) Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and the US.
24) Canada and Turkey are also members.
26) Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, UK.
27) Canada, Hungary Poland, Sweden, US.

10 May 2016