Members' Research Service By / September 30, 2021

Who does what in security and defence?

The fundamental difference between the EU and US in their institutional organisation and conduct is that the US is an independent nation with its own defence agencies, whereas in defence policy the EU functions predominantly as an intergovernmental body with emerging elements of supranationalism, seeking to promote joint policies among its Member States.

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Written by Tania Latici with Tristan Krause, EPLO Washington DC.

Geopolitical competition between rival nations and a complex security environment are threatening some of the core values of the transatlantic alliance. The institutions responsible for implementing EU and US security and defence policies aim to protect civilians and to promote rules-based conduct in external action. Against this backdrop, both the EU and US are undertaking significant strategic realignments, as the US shifts from counter-insurgency operations to competing with near-peer powers and the EU moves towards the objective of a defence union and strategic autonomy. Despite the historical transatlantic security and defence relationship, the institutional landscapes of the EU and the US are distinct and complex. This document seeks to give an overview of who does what in security and defence institutions on both sides of the Atlantic.

Background: Strategy and policy

The fundamental difference between the EU and US in their institutional organisation and conduct is that the US is an independent nation with its own defence agencies, whereas in defence policy the EU functions predominantly as an intergovernmental body with emerging elements of supranationalism, seeking to promote joint policies among its Member States. Since 1993, the EU’s collective foreign policy action has been governed by its common foreign and security policy (CFSP). A significant component of the CFSP is common security and defence policy (CSDP), the EU’s policy framework for external security action and defence cooperation and coordination between Member States. Member States are the driving force behind the CFSP and CSDP, with unanimous decisions required for actions in these policy areas. The 2016 EU Global Strategy offers strategic guidelines for foreign, security and defence policy priorities, and has inspired a flurry of successive EU-level defence integration initiatives. Seeking to become a more effective security and defence provider, the EU is working on a ‘strategic compass‘to advance a shared strategic understanding among its members. The EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have built a solid relationship, formalised in two joint declarations outlining common threats and an agenda for cooperation. NATO has welcomed the EU’s commitment to become a stronger defence actor. The US follows the national security strategy (NSS) produced by the executive branch. In March 2021, the Biden Administration released its interim NSS to guide future US foreign policy. The NSS is then refined into the national defence strategy (NDS). Updated every four years (most recently in 2018), the NDS is a comprehensive military planning guide and outlines how the US military will achieve the objectives laid out in the NSS. The US intelligence community traditionally presents an annual threat assessmentto Members of Congress, outlining global threats to US security. The US armed forces are currently conducting a global posture review to match strategy with resources and personnel. EU and US leaders evoked a wish to launch a dedicated dialogue on security and defence following the EU-US summit in June 2021.

Who does security and defence in the EU?

The European External Action Service (EEAS) is the EU’s diplomatic service, responsible for implementing CFSP and CSDP. Led by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR), the EEAS operates the EU’s delegations abroad, coordinates intelligence among Member States, plans military and civilian CSDP missions and operations abroad (currently 17, soon to be 18), and incorporates the EU Military Staff, which provides military expertise. The Council of the EU (where Member States’ representatives negotiate policy) houses the EU Military Committee − composed of Member States’ chiefs of defence − and the Political and Security Committee, which are strategic actors in the formulation of the EU’s CSDP. EU defence ministers also meet in an informal context several times a year, as there is no formal Council configuration on this policy. The Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) is the operational headquarters for the EU’s non-executive missions and can command one executive mission the size of an EU battlegroup, made up of units from Member States. The counterpart for the EU’s civilian CSDP missions is the Civilian Planning and Conduct Capability. The EU’s military CSDP missions are now financed through a new off-budget mechanism, the European Peace Facility, operational since July 2021. This instrument can also fund military assistance to partner countries. The European Defence Agency, headed by the HR, supports Member States in developing collaborative defence research and development by identifying gaps and stimulating the European defence industry. The EEAS and the EDA oversee intergovernmental permanent structured cooperation (PESCO), a framework launched in 2017 by 25 EU Member States to enhance military integration and defence cooperation between EU armed forces and industry. PESCO currently numbers 46 multinational projects covering the defence spectrum. One notable example is the project on military mobility, which aims to improve the movement of troops across and beyond Europe and with which the US has recently been associated. Prompted by the need for a more effective European defence industry, the EU has set up the European Defence Fund (EDF), funding defence research and capability development projects. The coordinated annual review on defence maps the EU’s defence landscape and identifies gaps to be targeted by future collaborative projects. The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space oversees the implementation of the EDF and promotes competitiveness and innovation in the European defence and space industries.

European Parliament: Role and responsibilities

While the European Parliament does not formulate security or defence policies or directly administer defence institutions, it does play active oversight and co-legislative roles, e.g. in the case of the EDF and CFSP budget. Parliament has long called for the EU to take a more active and ambitious defence role, and advocated greater integration of Member States’ armed forces and defence policies. The Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) monitors implementation of the CFSP, scrutinises international agreements signed by the EU and offers a parliamentary perspective on EU external action. The Subcommittee on Security and Defence (SEDE), as part of AFET, scrutinises all areas of the CSDP, from operations to capabilities, and provides a forum for debating these aspects transparently. The Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) oversees aspects relating to the EU defence and space industry, including the EDF and cybersecurity. Military mobility is also an issue of interest.

Who does security and defence in the US?

The United States State Department oversees foreign policy and diplomatic engagement. The Department of Defense (DoD) is the largest US government agency, responsible for coordinating the branches of the armed forces and military intelligence agencies. Three departments within the DoD − the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force − direct the majority of the US service branches: the Army, the Marines, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Space Force, with the Coast Guard falling under the Department of Homeland Security. Most service branches also maintain a reserve component, and each of the 50 states equips an Army and Air National Guard that can be federalised in times of war or national emergency. Eleven different combatant commands manage military operations, including the US European Command headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany. The chiefs of staff for the service branches collectively make up the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most senior planning and advisory body in the US military. Its chair also sits on the National Security Council, a forum of senior staff and agency secretaries that advises the President on matters of national security, military operations, and foreign policy. The DoD houses the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), whose purpose is to produce breakthrough technologies and innovation for the US military, and the National Security Agency (NSA), which collects and monitors signals intelligence for domestic security.

US Congress: Role and responsibilities

Congress has extensive control over the appointment of leaders, funding, deployment, and objectives of US security and defence institutions. The Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees have jurisdiction over national security developments affecting foreign policy, strategic planning, the deployment of the armed forces, sanctions, and arms control. The Senate and House Armed Services Committees oversee the DoD and draft the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a crucial step in the annual federal budget process. The chair of the Joint Chiefs also submits a classified national military strategy (distilled from the NSS and NDS) to these two committees. The Senate and House Committees on Intelligence supervise the 18 organisations that make up the nation’s intelligence community, overlapping in jurisdiction with the Armed Services Committees. Both the US Constitution and the War Powers Act (1973) grant Congress sole authority to declare war, but the executive branch has repeatedly sent American forces into combat without a formal declaration from Congress. The debate over the need to recover this authority, post 9/11, has won bipartisan support during the 117th Congress.

Read this ‘at a glance’ on ‘Who does what in security and defence?‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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