Lessons from the war in Ukraine for the future of EU defence

By Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy / Vice-President of the European Commission

We have often described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a wake-up call for the EU. While our priority remains to provide Ukraine with the military support it needs to defend its sovereignty, we must also start to draw longer-term lessons for EU defence. Faced with the return of large-scale state-to-state conflict to Europe, what must our future military capabilities look like?

With Russia`s invasion of Ukraine, conventional high intensity land war has come back to our borders. We have not seen war between nations of such intensity in decades in Europe. And this war is lasting much more than anyone could have expected, including Putin. The European Union is supporting Ukraine to face Russia’s aggression, but also Europeans have to understand the fundamentally changed security landscape and new threats we face – not just on our eastern flank – and draw the right conclusions regarding the military assets we need. This should and will trigger a political debate in our democratic societies on what to learn from the consequences of this war and on how we should face challenges of this nature.

The debate has already started and as head of the European Defence Agency (EDA), I shared last week the first EDA analysis of the implications of the war for the future of defence capabilities with EU Ministers of Defence. It is clear that it is not enough to increase our defence spending, but that we must above all increase resources in a more coordinated way. Among member states and in coherence with NATO.


Operational and strategic implications

One of the biggest lessons we can draw from the war, is based on Ukraine’s army’s remarkable ability to adapt successfully while resisting one of the world’s largest armies. It shows once again how much success on the battlefield depends on motivation, proper training and preparation. Only a highly trained cadre of soldiers can carry out combined operations relying on all capabilities, including infantry, artillery and air support. We have seen how Russian commanders have failed to effectively coordinate their in term of numbers superior capabilities. A professional, educated and trained cadre of officers is what is called in military parlance a true ‘force multiplier.’

Ukrainians have also been very innovative and successful in command and control. We should further invest in existing or new capabilities to ensure command and control systems that allow rapidly assessing the situation and reacting to it. Technology proved important, but the ways it is used are changing. Every day it becomes clearer how well Ukraine has used electronic warfare to degrade enemy radio signals and radars and to disable drones and missiles. Electronic warfare capabilities, including but not limited to cyber, are increasingly relevant. Air and missile defence or precision ground-based fire have also proved to be of crucial importance. Modern air defence systems, in particular, remain essential to protect civilians and critical infrastructure and to ensure freedom of manoeuvre at operational level.

What we have learnt from the ongoing war is also that high-intensity large-scale protracted operations entail an extremely high rate of equipment loss and must be therefore backed up by large stockpiles. In the recent past, we have often focused in Europe on a limited amount of equipment with the highest possible quality, leaving aside considerations on quantities. While we must obviously keep our technological edge, we should carefully consider how to balance quantity and quality in some areas. As the saying goes, in war, quantity has a quality of its own. Ukraine has also used limited capabilities and older weapons successfully by tailoring them precisely to the threats they face, using also commercial technologies and assets. We can learn from that, too.

Lastly, the war has once again demonstrated the importance of sustainable, flexible and effective logistics – from supplying frontline troops or providing medical support to rapidly repairing or modifying systems and equipment. Military mobility remains critical to react to any threat and achieve operational superiority. As General Bradley famously remarked: “Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics”. And this will become even more evident in the coming months.


Industrial and technological implications

Beyond the operational lessons, this war has also made it clear that we need a broader, more resilient and more reactive industrial and technological base. This is indeed a fundamental building block of European defence. Such a base must help increase the readiness of European militaries, and produce weapons that member states can use together, to be interoperable in the NATO framework. We need more innovation for our defence industry and our military capabilities. In that regard, the Council called for me as Head of the Agency to strengthen the role of EDA in fostering defence innovation. As part of the implementation of the Strategic Compass, the Agency established a Hub for European Defence Innovation and this week the Agency will hold the second edition of the European Defence Innovation Days, bringing together innovators from across Europe to discuss and show-case cutting-edge defence technologies developed at national and European level to make our armed forces better prepared for the future battlefield.

Frankly, today our defence industry lacks critical mass and reactivity, with long lead times that limit our ability to ramp up production. Our recent proposal for an ‘Act in Support of Ammunition Production’, offers concrete measures to ensure security of supply for ammunition, which is needed to help bring a just peace in Ukraine. We need also to tackle the excessive dependency on external suppliers to enhance this security of supply.

There is a lot to learn from what we are witnessing in Ukraine and we should keep this in mind as we work on future defence capabilities. While at this stage these lessons can only be considered preliminary, it is clear that the return of high-intensity conflict to Europe requires a change of mind-set. I remain convinced that a joint and coordinated EU approach is the best way to go to achieve more effective, efficient and interoperable military capabilities coherent with NATO. Our discussion in the EDA Steering Board last week took us further. It will feed into the revision of the EU Capability Development Priorities later this year and I hope that in the current circumstances this important analysis will attract the attention it deserves.


This article was originally published on the EEAS website.



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