Written by Sebastian Clapp.
One of the flagship proposals of the Strategic Compass adopted in March 2022 is the creation of a new rapid reaction force for responses to crises outside the EU. This rapid deployment capacity (RDC) will be a modular force of 5 000 personnel that should be fully operational by 2025. To establish the RDC, important issues, particularly on cost-sharing, decision-making, size, readiness and enablers need to be resolved.
Rapid deployment capacity
In May 2021, 14 EU Ministers of Defence called on the HR/VP to develop a proposal for a new EU rapid reaction force to respond to international crises outside the EU. This call to action took shape in the March 2022 Strategic Compass, with its commitment to establish an RDC by 2025. The RDC will be a modular force of up to 5 000 personnel, consisting of modified EU battlegroups and additional forces combining Member States’ forces and capabilities. Rather than a single force, the RDC will combine different components (air, land, maritime) and should include strategic enablers – such as air transport capabilities – depending on the operational scenario. The RDC’s purpose will be to respond rapidly to imminent crises, and to be able to be used in different operational scenarios, including ‘initial entry, reinforcement, or as a reserve force to secure an exit’. The first live exercises will be held in autumn 2023 in the south of Spain (Gulf of Cadiz). The RDC should reach full operational force by 2025.In a first sign of progress, EU ministers of defence endorsed two possible scenarios for the RDC on 15 November 2022: (1) initial phase of stabilisation and (2) rescue and evacuation. According to the first annual progress report on the implementation of the Compass, the RDC’s conceptual development has progressed and ‘work continues on the substantially modified EU Battlegroups … pre-identifying Member States’ military forces and capabilities… [and] on the remaining operational scenarios’.
Decision-making and cost sharing
The battlegroups have never been deployed, mostly owing to the lack of political will and the necessity for a unanimous Council decision for their activation. As a potential way to overcome these hindrances, EU leaders have committed to developing modalities for more flexible decision-making, in particular by exploring the potential of Article 44 TEU, which allows ‘coalitions of the willing’ to conduct missions and operations on behalf of the EU. Although Article 44 still requires a unanimous Council decision and political oversight by the Council, according to an October 2022 study requested by the European Parliament Sub-committee on Security and Defence (SEDE), it does ‘potentially create an avenue for more flexibility and speed in decision making’. The authors of the study suggest increasing the incentives by allowing greater funding from the common budget and giving more freedom to coalitions of the willing, e.g. by letting them establish the plan for the operation (OPLAN), especially where speed is of the essence. They also call for the simulation of different scenarios to clarify the modalities for the invocation of Article 44.
The principle that ‘costs lie where they fall’ means troop-contributing nations have to date found reasons to veto battlegroup deployment to avoid being stuck with the costs. The European External Action Service (EEAS) and European Council recognised this as the ‘most significant obstacle’. The Strategic Compass specifically states that the RDC will profit from common funding and enhanced solidarity. However, owing to lack of agreement, the precise modalities have not yet been defined, with experts suggesting using the European Peace Facility should compensate troop contributors based on a common cost calculation, taking the gross national product key into account and covering extra costs associated with deployment. The authors of the SEDE study note that, at the very least, incremental costs (additional costs for deployment, transport, use of ammunition and fuel, etc.) should be covered by the European Peace Facility.
EU battlegroups vs rapid deployment capacity
EU battlegroups are multinational, military units of up to 1 500 personnel each, meant to respond rapidly to emerging crises around the world. While they have been operational since 2007, they have never been deployed, mostly because of a lack of political will and financial solidarity. The former is especially problematic because deployment requires a unanimous Council decision. A number of questions have been raised regarding the differences between EU battlegroups and the RDC. The precise parameters for the EU rapid deployment capacity have yet to be defined; however, according to Clingendael, several differences between the RDC and battlegroups can already be highlighted:
- Size: while the RDC is meant to consist of 5 000 personnel, battlegroups comprise up to 1 500 troops (3 000 if two are always supposed to be on stand-by at the same time).
- Composition: the RDC is modular and comprises different components (land, air, maritime) according to operational needs, while battlegroups include land-based capabilities alone, based on fixed national contributions.
- Strategic enablers: the RDC incorporates strategic enablers, while this is not the case for battlegroups.
- Scenarios: two concrete operational scenarios have already been adopted for the RDC, while this has never been the case for the battlegroups.
- Standby-period: while battlegroups are on stand-by for 6 months, the RDC will be on standby for 12 months.
Clingendael consider these differences will make it challenging to incorporate ‘substantially modified’ EU battlegroups in the EU RDC (as suggested by the Compass). It also remains unclear what ‘substantially modified’ means. One expert notes that a bottom-up approach should be used: the EU should start by expanding the membership of each battlegroup and prolong their standby duration. The same report argues that an incentive-based ‘spillover’ could help an actual deployment of rapid reaction forces: gradually integrating capability projects into the European defence union through permanent structured cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund (EDF) could encourage EU Member States to then deploy such capabilities within the framework of the RDC in crises, when the time comes.
Size and enablers
The Strategic Compass suggests a modular force of 5 000 troops. However, for the five scenarios already mentioned in the Strategic Compass, it is thought this number will not be enough. The authors of the SEDE study suggest that, to cover all currently envisaged scenarios, the RDC would need different force packages for different scenarios and regions, and a very varied number of required land, air, special forces and maritime enablers. They therefore suggest 7 000-10 000 troops as a rough indication of the required forces, including enablers. For the RDC to materialise, one analyst suggests the EU will need a pool of at least five or six brigades (5 000 troops). In terms of readiness, the SEDE study suggests a system similar to the French Guépard system, which would mean that the majority of RDC modules would stay at a relatively low readiness, except those for ‘high urgency tasks’ (e.g. rescue and evacuation operations). Clingendael suggests a model of ‘dual hatted readiness forces’, where forces at various levels of readiness would be available for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the RDC. An objective that will be particularly difficult to fulfil by 2025 will be the necessary enablers, such as intelligence and strategic reconnaissance (ISR), strategic transport and air-to-air refuelling. Experts doubt that these shortfalls will be made up by 2025, especially for ISR and precision weapons. Experts note that, while PESCO and the European Defence Fund are already dealing with some shortfalls, those remaining should be remedied as a matter of priority. This will require sustained high defence investments and political will, which experts agree is the most crucial component of the RDC.
European Parliament position
In its CSDP implementation report of 18 January 2023, Parliament calls for the RDC to be ‘implemented as soon as possible and by 2025 at the latest’ and underlines the need to close the gaps on strategic enablers by 2025. A Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) draft report on the EU rapid deployment capacity, adopted on 9 March 2023, underlines that the RDC’s tasks should include rescue and evacuation, initial entry and initial phase of stabilisation operations. Temporary reinforcement of other missions should be used as a reserve force to secure an exit. The committee notes that the RDC target number should be at least 5 000 troops, plus the strategic enablers required to conduct its operation.
Read this ‘at a glance’ note on ‘Network cost contribution debate‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.