This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

The ability of the European Union to act in defence, today and in the future, is an important reference point in the debate about EU strategic autonomy in the context of Brexit.

The EU has set itself a military level of ambition. Under the heading of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), EU member states want to be able to conduct a range of military operations.

Together with the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), the IISS study Protecting Europe: meeting the EU’s military level of ambition in the context of Brexit (pdf), assesses to what extent the EU is able to fulfil this level of ambition, today and with an outlook towards 2030.

The IISS and DGAP have developed policy-compliant scenarios to assess where possible capability shortfalls lie. Our findings benchmark existing and future EU member state capabilities against the force requirements the EU level of ambition generates.

Key takeaways

The EU Global Strategy (EUGS) has led to some adjustments but not to a wholesale review of military-planning assumptions. The relevant scenario families are therefore peace enforcement (up to 4,000 kilometres from Brussels); conflict prevention (up to 6,000 km from Brussels); stabilization and support to capacity-building (up to 8,000 km from Brussels); rescue and evacuation (up to 10,000 km from Brussels); and support to humanitarian assistance (up to 15,000 km from Brussels).

EU member states want to be able to conduct more than one operation at a time in the CSDP frame- work. It is this concurrency of operations that will create real stress on capabilities, much more so than any one of the scenarios mentioned above taken by itself. Moreover, sustainability is a problem. While short-term operations might be possible when using all available assets, those requiring one or more rotations will overstretch European armed forces.

Of the IISS-DGAP scenarios, only the rescue and evacuation operation (located in South Africa) and the support to humanitarian-assistance operation (located in Bangladesh) did not generate any capability shortfalls if the current 28 EU member states (EU 28) contribute to the force pool. If the United Kingdom is omitted (EU 27), the humanitarian-assistance operation faces a shortfall in the naval domain.


The scenarios concerning peace enforcement (located in the Caucasus), conflict prevention (located in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean), and stabilization and support to capacity-building (located in Somalia/Horn of Africa) would all create significant capability shortfalls, even when the EU 28 is considered.

The EU 27 would face much greater shortfalls, in particular because the UK would be able to provide important enabling and high-end capability in each case. Under those circumstances, a successful implementation of the operation is doubtful.

The larger peace-enforcement and stabilization and support to capacity-building scenarios also highlight the scarcity of non-NATO HQs for higher echelons (corps level, large air and maritime commands).

If the peace-enforcement scenario is combined with the rescue and evacuation scenario, notable capability shortfalls emerge across all domains for the EU 28. Without the UK contribution, addi- tional shortfalls would arise in the land and naval domain and with regards to enablers.

If up to seven of the smaller operations are combined – which corresponds to the EU level of ambition – the EU 28 is out of its depth.

There are extensive capability gaps across all domains and often less than one-third of the force requirement would be met. Removing the UK from the picture renders a bad situation much worse. Existing shortfalls would be even more pronounced.

Improvements in some areas are likely by 2030. For example, in the maritime domain there are plans for the procurement of destroyers and frigates across EU 28. Submarines will also receive an uplift in capability thanks to planned procurements. The situation will also likely be less critical with a total of five aircraft carriers projected in the EU 28. The ongoing procurement of heavy transport helicopters in the EU 28 is likely to have an impact as well.

Nevertheless, current procurement plans of the EU 28 up to 2030, to the extent that they are visible at this point, will not close the identified capability shortfalls, and ageing equipment will increasingly become a problem.

As of 2018, EU strategic autonomy is limited to the lower end of the operational spectrum. The prospects for significant change are slim over the coming decade, based on current government plans. Brexit will make it even more necessary to find a constructive combination of European partnerships and transatlantic engagement.

Protecting Europe: meeting the EU’s military level of ambition in the context of Brexit (pdf), Douglas Barrie, Ben Barry, Henry Boyd, Marie-Louise Chagnaud, Nick Childs, Bastian Giegerich, Christian Mölling, Torben Schütz, The International Institute for Strategic Studies.