PARIS – Of Europe’s 23 naval forces, only France’s possesses a fully operational aircraft carrier, the 40,000-ton flagship Charles de Gaulle. Although the United Kingdom is currently building two carriers of its own, the Royal Navy is years away from the capability to deliver instant airpower from the sea. Nevertheless, Europe is reasonably equipped to defend itself against external threats. It is less able, however, to withstand looming budget cuts.
Europe’s maritime-security strategy has long been founded on two key tenets. First, sea-borne trade routes, which account for nearly 85% of the European Union’s total exports and imports, must be kept free and safe. And, second, European countries must maintain the capacity to deal with any major security crisis.
International events highlight these priorities’ relevance. For example, rising tensions with Iran could compel Europe to deploy its navies to form a blockade around the Persian Gulf, in order to ensure the transit of oil. Similarly, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and the Indian Ocean, particularly along the coast of Somalia, threatens Europe’s maritime activities, including its extensive sea-borne commerce.
Indeed, growing concerns over piracy led to the launch in 2008 of the EU’s first naval response within the framework of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) – Operation Atalanta. The operation, held annually and comprising 5-10 combat vessels, 1-2 auxiliary ships, and 2-4 maritime-patrol aircraft, includes forces from 26 European navies, and has undoubtedly helped to discourage, if not end, pirate attacks.
Atalanta’s success, combined with European naval forces’ leading role in last year’s operations in Libya, shows that Europe possesses much of the naval infrastructure that it needs to ensure its maritime security.
But the Libyan crisis also revealed that Europe’s naval security is limited and easily overstretched. More than half of French naval forces were deployed during the Libyan crisis, during which their normal activity rate increased by 10-40% – at a cost of €40 million ($50 million), not to mention disruptions of standard training and maintenance.
Naval assets are not only expensive to build; they are extremely costly to operate, as each unit requires specialized equipment and highly trained personnel. As a result, navies are often among the first to be targeted by cuts in defense budgets.
And yet, while naval deployments do not always end conflicts, they are a vital component of the military response to any crisis, and are critical to guaranteeing Europe’s security. Given this, it is imperative that European governments adopt cost-cutting measures that do not jeopardize their naval assets.
First, the EU should take a leading role in maximizing the efficiency of each member state’s navy, by creating mechanisms that would facilitate the exchange of information between governments, maritime agencies, and navies. Indeed, sound political decisions can achieve just as much as buying new ships – and at a far lower cost.
Adopting a comprehensive legal framework would be a useful first step. Indeed, improved coordination between countries would contribute to more cost-efficient use of resources and equipment. Surveillance strategies, for example, are often more expensive than necessary, owing to poor communication. Information-sharing among Europe’s navies would also help to identify and fill existing gaps, thus paving the way for a more efficient European maritime-security infrastructure.
At the same time, in order to maintain a security framework fit to confront any conceivable security threat, Europe’s governments should preserve the entire spectrum of their naval assets. Mothballing ships for the sake of saving money could have dire consequences for Europe’s security.
Rather than focusing on shrinking the size of existing fleets, European leaders should focus on getting more out of them. To this end, Europe’s navies and maritime agencies should merge their capabilities, especially those related to defense and security missions. This would bring massive savings, which could be reinvested in technological advances, thereby further equipping Europe’s navies to meet future threats.
Accurately assessing maritime operations’ success requires time and care, because naval capabilities cannot be built up quickly. While reducing such capabilities might seem like an expedient way to cut costs, European governments must not lose sight of their long-term security priorities.
Above all, European leaders must promote increased naval cooperation. After all, naval capacities are essential to the projection of European power – and crucial to maintaining geopolitical stability around the world.