Without the US a rapid rethink may be needed

Amid the furore that has broken out over the UK’s involvement in the EU’s proposed rapid reaction force, something fundamental has slipped through largely unnoticed. the force is going to stimulate some pretty sizeable orders for defence equipment.

At first sight it is difficult to see what this amorphous entity could possibly require in the way of new kit, since its whole being is based on the agreement of EU member states to commit to the plan not just troops, but also ships and aircraft. The UK, for example, has pledged 12,500 troops to the total of 60,000, and will support them with 18 warships and 72 combat aircraft.

In all, the force is expected to draw on a pool of around 400 fighter planes and 100 warships, and these will come from existing force levels — so no chance of any additional procurement spending there. But as one insider who is familiar with the planning process said: ‘Think about the hole that will be created by the withdrawal of the Americans and you begin to see what is required.’

The rapid reaction force, as everyone knows, is not intended as an alternative to NATO, but for contingency operations — most of them in Europe’s backyard — in which the US would not necessarily wish to be involved. Pull the US out and some glaring equipment needs begin to take shape. Picture the US presence in Kosovo and they come sharply into focus.

In the war against Serbia, the US provided the bulk of the strategic transport, a considerable chunk of the combat search and rescue assets, most of the aircraft employed in the suppression of enemy air defence’s role and a fair amount of the effort’s air and ground surveillance. And, when push came to shove, many of the precision-guided bombs dropped on Serbia and Kosovo were drawn from US stocks.

No-one is suggesting that these capabilities will be matched one-for-one by a raft of new big-ticket orders, but they do point up where the investment is needed. Fortunately, eight European nations are already committed to purchasing 225 Airbus A400M airlifters, numbers which EU planners say should suffice in the medium to long term.

But this plane is not due to enter service for at least another six years and the goal for the EU reaction force is for operations to begin in 2003.

Clearly in the interim, therefore, EU member states are going to have to consider following the UK’s lead in leasing a heavy airlifter like the Boeing C-17 or Russia’s Antonov An-124. The first of the UK’s four leased C-17s arrive here later this year.

As for the rest, ‘we know what we’re missing, but we need to quantify it in terms that the Treasury and other European finance ministries will believe’, an EU planning official confided. That process is due for completion by the latter part of the year.

Nick Cook is aviation editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly and industry editor of Interavia Business and Technology