By Dr Laura Chappell, University of Surrey
This blog post is a longer version based on a podcast published on eu!radio in March.
Within the 2022 Strategic Compass, published a year ago, the EU sets out the ambition to create a force of 5000 troops, including pre-identified strategic enablers, built on “substantially modified Battlegroups”. The Rapid Deployment Capacity (RDC), which was originally called an initial entry force, was proposed by 14 member states and was subsequently discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council on Defence Issues on 6 May 2021. It gained additional traction after the EU member states had to rely on the US to facilitate the evacuation of their citizens from Afghanistan. Finally, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has focused minds in Brussels on EU member state military capabilities.
However, the question is whether the Rapid Deployment Capacity provides the EU with enhanced rapid reaction capabilities. The EU Battlegroups on which the RDC is based have never been deployed despite being fully operational since 2007. The fundamental issues with the Battlegroups come down to three key elements: funding, composition and political will. Regarding funding, costs lie where they fall, meaning participating member states have to pick up the tab for most of the operation costs. Second, the battlegroups are small in size, around 1500 personnel. This limits what the Battlegroups can do on the ground. Their structure was premised on Operation Artemis, however this type of operation has not materialised again, highlighting the issue with a bottom up as opposed to a top down approach to strategy. Whilst the Battlegroups were discussed in what became EUFOR Congo and EUFOR Chad/RCA, they were too small for the operation which was eventually sent.
Finally, there has been a lack of political will to deploy the Battlegroups. Member states have diverse views on when force should be deployed, including being able to sustain different levels of risk, where force should be deployed, particularly as the primary location for Battlegroup deployments is largely focused on the African continent, which is not in every state’s interests, and with whom force is used which highlights Atlanticist and Europeanist visions for European security. Whilst the latter has not played a core role, it has greater significance today. The lack of political willingness is particularly evident in the Battlegroup rotation. Two Battlegroups are on standby and rotated every six months, however there are no Battlegroups scheduled for the second half of 2023 for example.
However, there are advantages to the Battlegroups as they can facilitate military cooperation and training, the reorganisation of national armed forces, and interoperability. This joins the idea of enhancing the EU’s rapid reaction capability as the underpinning rationale and provides a reason regarding why the Battlegroups continue to exist despite not being used.
Turning to the RDC, an extension of common costs, which are funded based on member states GDP, was explicitly stated within the strategic compass, however no agreement has been reached beyond agreeing to include the first live exercise for the RDC this year. Structurally the RDC is larger, however it is still based on two Battlegroups plus strategic enablers, which really questions whether it represents an increase in capability. Importantly however it is modular so the RDC can be tailored to the crisis. Finally, the duration has increased to a year. To ensure that the RDC is relevant, two operational scenarios based on rescue and evacuation with an African focus, and the initial stabilisation phase have been created with further scenarios in the pipeline. This will ensure that the RDC is tailored to the types of tasks that the EU envisages conducting. Finally, for the first time, the EU will host live exercises the first of which will take place in Spain this year and will be run by the Military Planning and Conduct Capability which will when fully operational, be able to act as an OHQ for the RDC. This provides an additional value added for member states.
Nonetheless, will this resolve the key sticking point, that of political will? Fundamentally, countries still have different visions for European security. Ukraine is particularly important as some countries’ focus is on deterring Russia rather than contributing to the RDC. NATO has also announced a new force model of 300,000 troops and EU member states only have a single set of forces. This really begs the question as to who is willing to contribute to the RDC, whether in terms of strategic enablers, or in filling up the Battlegroup rota. Fundamentally even if common costs are expanded and a suitable scenario comes up, it will still depend on whose Battlegroups are on standby. Whilst the core idea is to make the RDC more attractive to member states as a rapid reaction tool such that they are less likely to say no to deploying it, fundamental issues remain to be resolved.