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Are European Navies Ready for High-Intensity Warfare?

Last November, the western Mediterranean was the scene of a unique military drill called “Polaris 21.” Involving half of the French navy and vessels from the United States, United Kingdom, Greece, Italy, and Spain, this exercise simulated a force-on-force conflict that played out on the seas, in the air, and in space. “Polaris is a giant laboratory for the war of tomorrow,” stressed Adm. Pierre Vandier, chief of the French navy, before adding that preparation for high-intensity operations was now a “necessity.”

Polaris is the latest illustration of Europeans’ renewed ambition to play a role in the growing strategic competition at sea. This shift towards high-intensity warfare is noticeable in most E.U. and NATO navies, whether large (France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany) or small (the Netherlands or Norway, for instance). Preparing for high-end naval missions has recently become a chief concern for these countries as they fear that the return of great-power competition — be it in the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea, or the Indo-Pacific — could endanger their prosperity as well as their national security interests. These concerns are even more pressing today as Russia is launching ominous naval maneuvers amid tensions over Ukraine. NATO members are dispatching vessels in the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea to reinforce the alliance’s deterrence and defense.

Nonetheless, this moment of reckoning comes after years, if not decades, of drastic reductions in the size of European navies. Even though European states have managed to sustain various maritime operations, with forces deployed in the Mediterranean Sea, the Strait of Hormuz, or the Gulf of Guinea, they are still facing major limitations when contemplating high-intensity warfare. The lack of naval assets, aging platforms, and shortcomings in training and readiness are major stumbling blocks facing Europe. Addressing these challenges will require a significant expansion of the collaborative approach that European militaries already employ.

European Naval Decline

European naval forces suffered a dramatic downsizing in the past three decades. This decline is notably due to years of cuts in defense spending following the end of the Cold War. Amid these times of budgetary austerity, European countries decided to rebalance their armed forces at the expense of their navies as they engaged in major counterinsurgency operations after the 9/11 attacks. As counter-terrorism became the highest priority, the prospect of a conventional conflict at sea against a peer competitor progressively lost its relevance, leading to an era of “sea blindness.” Instead, European navies have been reshaped to focus on low-end missions, from crisis management to the fight against illegal trafficking, search and rescue, counter-piracy, or disaster relief.

Against this backdrop, European navies lost 32 percent of their main surface combatants (frigates and destroyers) between 1999 and 2018. Collectively, Europeans had 197 large surface combatants and 129 submarines in 1990 but only 116 and 66 respectively in 2021 (see table 1). Europe’s combat power at sea is considered to be half of what it was during the height of the Cold War. Even though it has retained a significant naval power, the U.S. Navy followed a similar pattern. While the United States had plans to build a 600-ship navy in the 1980s, the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act set a goal of 355 ships, although it is not yet clear whether the Biden administration embraces this goal.

  Aircraft Carriers Large Surface Combatants Submarines
France 1 21 8
United Kingdom 2 19 11
Italy 2 18 8
Spain 0 11 2
Germany 0 10 6
Greece 0 13 11
Portugal 0 5 2
Netherlands 0 6 4
Belgium 0 2 0
Denmark 0 5 0
Sweden 0 0 5
Norway 0 4 6
Poland 0 2 3
Total 5 116 66

Table 1: Number of assets of the major European navies in 2021 (Source: The Military Balance, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2021).

Two major maritime powers, France and the United Kingdom, have particularly suffered from these trends. The United Kingdom has been forced to cede more than half of its large surface combatants and attack submarines. The Royal Navy also had to operate without an aircraft carrier between 2014 and 2021, limiting its ability to project power. The French navy had to reduce or postpone the procurement of new frigates, to renounce the conventional component of its submarine fleet and to cede one of its two aircraft carriers. Similarly, austerity measures forced Spain to decommission its only aircraft carrier and to significantly reduce its submarine force, now limited to two platforms. Budget cuts limited Germany’s naval ambitions, as witnessed by its small surface and subsurface fleet as well as the absence of any amphibious capability. Denmark also had to relinquish key capabilities, as Copenhagen decided in 2004 to disband its entire submarine force.

Quantity Is Missing

Even though downscaled, the largest European navies have managed to preserve multipurpose fleets allowing them to pursue multiple, primarily low-end tasks. Over the past decades, European countries have engaged their navies in counter-piracy operations (off the coast of Somalia or in the Gulf of Guinea), arms embargo policing missions (such as operation IRINI in the Mediterranean Sea), or in direct support to military interventions (like the Libyan operation in 2011). European navies have nonetheless been stretched increasingly thin. NATO’s reliance on the United States during the Libyan campaign in 2011 was a demonstration of Europe’s underinvestment in its navies. European members of the coalition suffered from the limited availability of their aircraft carriers and quickly faced a shortage in naval cruise missiles. More recently, the tensions in the Strait of Hormuz in 2019 provided another example of these shortfalls as European countries struggled to mobilize ships for their maritime security coalition.

As the prospect for high-intensity warfare is growing amid the mounting strategic competition with China and Russia, European navies are underequipped and underprepared. Prevailing in such scenarios would require a large number of platforms with high-end capabilities, and European navies today lack such critical mass compared to their strategic competitors (see table 2). Even though Europeans still have more large surface combatants than China, their fleet is aging and overstretched while Beijing is building a modern navy at great speed: China already has one of the largest submarine fleets in the world and is building the equivalent of the French navy every four years. The Russian navy is also increasingly capable with a large submarine fleet and powerful offensive missile systems allowing Moscow to employ an anti-access/area denial strategy.

  Aircraft Carriers Large Surface Combatants Submarines
Europe 5 116 66
United States 11 113 68
China 2 78 59
Russia 1 30 49
Japan 4 47 22
India 1 27 16

Table 2: Number of naval assets in the world in 2021 (Source: The Military Balance, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2021)

Returning to High-Intensity Warfare

European countries are increasingly aware of these limitations and the need to refocus their navies on high-intensity scenarios. In its latest 2021 strategic update, France recognized that the possibility of conflict between major powers can “no longer be ignored,” insisting notably on the threats that Russia poses in the Euro-Atlantic area and China in the Indo-Pacific. As laid out in this strategic document, the French armed forces therefore aim at being prepared for “scenarios of engagement in a major conflict,” notably by strengthening “their capability for joint collaborative combat” and by building up “sufficient critical mass.” On a similar note, the United Kingdom has acknowledged the need to “deter and defend against state-based opponents” as recently outlined by its chief of the defense staff. In its recent strategic review process, London gives the Royal Navy a central role in this endeavor. The strategies (the integrated review and the defense command paper) envision more consistent forward presence for the navy around the world and aspire to be able “to operate its two carriers simultaneously and maintain [its] continuous deterrence posture at sea.”

Similar shifts can be noticed in other European countries although in a more limited fashion. The German Navy seeks to rebalance towards more demanding missions like sea control, securing lines of communication, and territorial defense, as Berlin refocuses on home defense and NATO collective defense. This may include trying to move beyond Germany’s historical focus on the Baltic Sea, as recent comments from former German naval chief have indicated, be it in the North Sea or even in the Indo-Pacific where Germany sent one frigate for the first time since 2016. The Italian armed forces are also shifting from an expeditionary, crisis management-oriented structure back to a conventional, territorial defense posture, albeit one that is more narrowly focused on the Mediterranean Sea area. The Italian navy’s latest planning document calls for an “aeronaval” force with credible deterrence and intervention capabilities that can act along the entire spectrum of conflict, including medium-high intensity scenarios — albeit with the caveat that Italian participation in such a conflict would be limited in time.

Many of these renewed naval ambitions are playing out in the defense spending plans of European powers. European navies are investing in principal surface combatants, amphibious vessels, and submarines but also quietly boosting their capacity for logistics, surveillance, and long-range strike. Some countries, like the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, are also investing in improved air and missile defense capabilities to protect their principal surface combatant in the early kinetic onslaught of a high-intensity conflict. Others, like Norway, Sweden, or Germany, are regenerating their submarine fleets in response to Russia’s growing use of undersea warfare in the Baltic Sea and the North Atlantic. European navies have also increased the tempo and intensity of their exercise schedule in order to be ready to make use of these new capabilities — as illustrated by the French-led Polaris exercise or the series of exercises involving both of Britain’s new aircraft carriers.

Still a Long Road Ahead

Despite these ambitions, most European allies still face many conundrums that put their navies under pressure. First, this sort of shift does not happen overnight. Even when governments allocate the required money, the process of designing and building warships and submarines can take decades and experience important delays.

Second, European countries still face serious budgetary limitations, which are even higher in countries, like France, trying to maintain a balance between the different branches of their military. In the opposite case, the United Kingdom has privileged the financing of the Royal Navy over that of the army, a decision that entails its own risks. The expensive renewal of the French and British nuclear forces will be another constraint on their future naval acquisitions and modernization plans.

In this context, European navies are forced to make agonizing trade-offs, often prioritizing quality (e.g., speed, reach, reliability, survivability) at the expense of quantity (e.g., number of platforms, personnel, and armaments). France and the United Kingdom are not planning to significantly increase the size of their navies, privileging instead investments in modern and sophisticated platforms such as submarines, destroyers, or aircraft carriers. Both countries are nonetheless aware of the risks of this orientation and are trying to mitigate some of these capacity shortfalls by investing in unmanned surface and subsurface vessels. These programs are still at an early stage, however, and will not deliver tangible capabilities in the near future.

These tensions are amplified by the global outlook of European navies that are increasingly overstretched as they try to strike a difficult balance between the European theater and distant regions like the Indo-Pacific. The shift toward high-end platforms is also challenged by the need to address persisting low-end challenges, such as piracy and illegal trafficking. These low-intensity, forward-presence missions tend to hinder the warfighting readiness of European navies. To mitigate this difficulty, European navies are slowly acknowledging that quantity can be a quality of its own and are therefore investing in smaller patrol vessels.

Admittedly, even the U.S. Navy is facing similar dilemmas. Yet, these tensions are even more pressing for Europeans. The most straightforward solution to the challenge is more defense spending — especially in countries like Germany, Italy, and Spain — and more importantly more collective action, be it in a NATO, E.U., or ad-hoc context. Even in 10 years’ time, no European country could operate in a high-intensity conflict alone, save perhaps France and the United Kingdom in certain limited scenarios. But if Europeans decide to better invest, train, and act together, the picture could be different.

First, Europeans should seek for greater joint procurement. As of now, European navies suffer major redundancies with 29 different types of destroyers or frigates, as compared to four for the United States. Building on NATO’s defense planning and taking advantage of the European Union’s funding mechanisms, European countries should foster industrial cooperation. Some collaborations are already encouraging, such as the one between France and Italy which led to the development of the European multi-mission frigate (known as FREMM).

Second, Europeans could better coordinate their naval deployments especially when operating far from the European theater. As mentioned earlier, Europeans have already launched joint missions in the Mediterranean Sea, the Strait of Hormuz, and off the coast of Somalia. Yet, Europeans navies could do more by flexibly coordinating their naval assets in other strategic areas such as the Indo-Pacific. This is the goal of the “coordinated maritime presence” mechanism established by the European Union, which was first tested in the Gulf of Guinea and should be extended to the North West Indian Ocean. This coordination could be reinforced by a better access of European partners to their respective naval bases located both in Europe and overseas. This mutual access would facilitate and sustain the projection of power in distant regions like the Indo-Pacific.

Third, European navies should collectively work on their readiness to respond to high-intensity situations through shared operational planning and a robust exercise schedule. The former will give the United States and NATO planners a clearer understanding of what to expect from different allies and partners, in which theaters, and on what schedule. And exercises and training, especially at the NATO level or though multinational groupings such as the Joint Expeditionary Force led by the United Kingdom and focused on northern Europe, play a critical role — not only in honing the skills and familiarity that will increase the odds of success in combat, but also as geopolitical signals of capability, intent, and solidarity. The stress-testing of rigorous exercising may also provide value by unearthing any shortcomings that newly procured naval capabilities may have.

The evolution of European navies will not happen overnight. Many of the most significant forthcoming assets will not arrive until after 2030. Yet, the trends are positive, starting at the strategic level and moving down to well-targeted procurements as well as increasing attention to demanding exercising. Equally important, however, is the question of political will. It is not a given that the political tides, especially in countries like Germany and Italy, will necessarily support the idea of buying expensive naval assets and engaging them in fraught situations, especially in more remote theaters like the Indo-Pacific. Germany’s deployment of the frigate Bayern to that region last year, for example, turned what could have been a demonstration of geopolitical resolve in the naval sphere into a tightrope act calibrated to avoid overly antagonizing China. Operational preparation for high-intensity scenarios is therefore only the beginning of the story. Europeans also need to have a collective discussion on the political implications of this new military imperative.

Pierre Morcos is a French diplomat in residence and visiting fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. You can find him on Twitter at @morcos_pierre.

Colin Wall is a research associate with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. You can find him on Twitter at @ColinCWall.

Image: Defense Department

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