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Author: Dr. Sven Biscop

During the Cold War, the building-bloc of the combined force structure of the NATO allies was the army corps. Even smaller nations such as my country, Belgium, contributed a self-sufficient national corps, which took its place in the line and was supported by the multinational NATO command structure and specific multinational assets (such as the AWACS aircraft).

Today, for most European states a mere battalion already counts as a major deployment. Often, governments even think in terms of just companies or half-companies. This is how the EU Battlegroup, a battalion-size force, has come to dominate the picture of European defence.

I am not proposing to reintroduce conscription, of course, or to recreate the 1st Belgian Corps in Germany. What I am firmly stating is that we have started thinking too small. Except for the smallest Member States, the smallest national building-block of multinational defence cooperation, in an EU rather than a NATO context, must be the brigade. This should be the focus of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in defence that the EU launched in 2017.

So far, PESCO mostly focuses on projects to develop new platforms and systems. The actual purpose of these projects, to equip a “coherent full spectrum force package”, has been lost from view.[i] Yet it is essential to achieving the EU’s level of ambition. If the Member States use PESCO only to collectively procure equipment for their national forces, they will certainly save money, but their mostly small individual forces will not become much more employable, for lack of scale and lack of enablers. The latter can only be generated in numbers that make a difference if a large group of states pool their efforts.

The key to enhancing the readiness of our armed forces is to constitute a multinational corps-sized force package, with the brigade as a building-block.

First, a smaller nation can field a brigade by itself, but lacks the scale to provide all of the required combat support and combat service support units. In the framework of a multinational corps, a combination of integration and specialisation can be organised. In some support areas, nations can merge their capabilities into permanently integrated multinational support units. In others, a division of labour can be established with the national support units provided by one nation supporting the brigades of the others as well.[ii] As a result, all brigades will be more usable, in more scenarios, then when they have to rely on national support only.

Second, in this framework the participating states can harmonize equipment and doctrine, in order to achieve maximum synergies and effects of scale and launch other PESCO projects to that end. There is, for example, space for only one future main battle tank in Europe, which should at the very least equip all armoured brigades in the multinational corps.

Third, the corps can serve as the benchmark to quantify the need for strategic enablers: the corps is the minimum scale at which the EU should achieve autonomy in expeditionary operations. If necessary, EU Member States should be able to deploy the corps without having to rely on any non-European assets in any capability area.

Small states (and at the global level all EU Member States are small states) can achieve big things if they think big, especially in defence.

[i] This aim was provisionally stated in the 13 November 2017 Notification Document, in which Member States announced their intention to activate PESCO, but it was already dropped from the 8 December 2017 Council Decision that launched PESCO.

[ii] Belgian-Dutch naval cooperation is an existing example of such organisation in the maritime domain: ships sail under the national flag with a national crew, but support functions are either binational or provided by one nation for both.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and not the IIEA.