The debates related to ‘real European Army’, which was re-launched by French President Emmanuel Macron were further heated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech at the European Parliament on November 13, 2018. Such statements from the leaders of the two leading European Union (EU) countries indicate that this long discussed[1] topic will attract more attention in the coming months and years. In fact, the idea (better to say: the desire) of military cooperation between European countries has existed since the day the union was established. However, there was no discussion about a single European Army, nor a need for that due to the existence of NATO and the US. But Russia’s aggressive policies and increasing military presence in areas close to EU border, increasing need for border security due to failed/failing states around the union’s periphery and above all Donald Trump’s policies after he became the president of the US, seem to have led the European politicians to reconsider the concept of the European Army seriously. Additionally, comments from respective EU leaders reveal that Europe wants to reduce the dependency on the US and also have a bigger piece from the ‘defense expenditure’ pie through creating a unification of the weapon systems and also a common European export and equipment production policy.[2]

Even though issues like, whether such a military structure can be established or what would be the benefits and costs, exists as a reality, we should be talking about a very long-term project anyhow. Furthermore, it is early to discuss the organization and leadership of such an Army’s airpower. However, in this article, I would like to find out answers to the above-mentioned questions in air force domain. In order to do that I will first make a short assessment of the Air Forces of the prominent EU Member States[3] and discuss available resource, organization and command control issues. Then, after evaluating NATO’s role, I will end the paper with political or military challenges and final conclusions.

Assessment of European Airpower[4]

Regarding the capabilities and resources of the Air Forces of EU member states, France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Poland, Netherlands and Spain (considering the exit of the UK from the EU) are the leading countries. France is one of the most influential airpower not only in Europe but also in the world. One of the biggest advantages of France is that its defence industry has significant know-how and production capability that can compete with superpowers like the US, Russia, and China. France has been able to produce its own warplanes, modern ammunition, and air defense systems for many years and has gained considerable experience in operations in countries such as Afghanistan, Libya, and Mali where it has taken part under the auspices of NATO and/or on its own initiative. It would be appropriate to say that France, with its fighter fleet consisting of around 300 Rafale and Mirage 2000s, around 80 transport aircraft, refuelling aircraft, other support/special duty aircraft and various air defense systems, would be the leading power of a possible European Air Force.

When we consider the other leading country of EU, i.e. German Air Force, we see that it has a significant inventory with around 200 Eurofighter and Tornado jets, 70 transport aircraft, and 6 air refueling tankers, albeit not as much as France. According to a parliamentary question,[5] however, it was revealed that the German Air Force and German Armed Forces in general, is suffering from low combat readiness rates for their equipment. Moreover, as the president of the German Fighter Pilots Association Thomas Wassmann stated, the German Pilots were unable to fulfil 180-flight hour NATO requirement and could only fly around 60-80 hours.[6] This situation obviously threatens the training and experience level of the Air Force. Since Germany has a strong and transparent democracy, such flaws are open to the public. So it is not clear whether other EU countries facing similar shortcomings. It is likely though.

The Italian Air Force, one of Europe’s strongest Air Forces, strengthened its position by adding F-35 aircraft to its inventory, which consists of nearly 200 other types of fighter jets. In addition, with its transport fleet of C-130, C27 and P180s, refuelling aircraft, support aircraft, and air defense systems, Italy would be a very important operational actor for the European Air Force.

Greece is another country that draws attention in terms of aircraft numbers and pilot experience. The arms race with Turkey, emanating from the conflicts related to the Aegean Sea and other historical problems, helped Greece to ensure considerable airpower. With around 240 fighter jets, transport aircraft, support aircraft and air defense systems, the Greek Air Force is probably one of the most effective Air Forces of Europe. Although the economic crisis in recent years partially restricted the military operations, the Greek Air Force still produces a significant amount of air sorties.

In terms of airpower, Poland is one of the ‘eye-catcher’ countries in Europe. The Polish Air Force is trying to renew its old Soviet weapons systems weighted inventory with Western systems and has made a new breakthrough with F-16 Block 52+ aircraft. In addition, Poland will attract attention in Military realm in the coming period due to the 5-billion-dollar Patriot agreement signed with the US in 2017[7] and by hosting a significant element of the European Ballistic Missile Defense system, namely AEGIS Ashore.

Europe’s other significant Air Forces are Dutch and Spanish Air Forces. The Netherlands will strengthen its fighter fleet of 68 F-16s with the F-35s. It has also considerable experience in Ground Based Air Defence like Germany, as it uses the Patriot Air Defence system for many years. Even though Spanish Air Force has a robust fighter inventory, it had to restrict flight hours of pilots due to economic difficulties. Accidental firing of an air-to-air missile by a Spanish pilot over Baltics in August 2018[8] resulted in huge speculation how serious the flight time restrictions adversely affected pilot training level.

Organizational Capabilities and Command & Control (C2)

As you may appreciate, a military force does not only consist of troops, equipment or airplanes. Other crucial aspects are the organizational structure and C2. Since almost all countries that are expected to constitute the European Air Force are also members of NATO and as this organization is a perfect example and success story for the multinational security organizations, it is predictable that the European Air Forces will be organized in a similar way or will have similar command control mechanisms. The countries such as France, Germany, and Italy have active participation and hold important positions in NATO cadres[9] [10] [11]besides their strong and solid airpower. Therefore, the experience gained there will help in organizing the future European Air Force.

In fact, the EU has already adopted a policy for security and crisis management, namely Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP)[12], which is the main component of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) of EU. In order to enable the EU fully to assume its responsibilities for crisis management, in 2000 the European Council decided to establish permanent political and military structures inter alia the Political and Security Committee (PSC), the European Union Military Committee (EUMC), the Crisis Management and Planning Directorate (CMPD), the European Union Military Staff (EUMS), European Defence Agency (EDA) and EU Operations Centre. [13] These bodies are the core enablers of CSDP and considering the similarities with NATO; it is logical to say that CSDP can provide the necessary instruments for a possible European Air Force organization.

Two of the most necessary institutions for C2 are headquarters and operations centres. The Allied Air Command (AIRCOM) located in Ramstein, Germany is the Air Force headquarters of NATO. Some of the NATO’s peacetime duties like Air Policing are carried out by two Combined Air Operations Centers (CAOC) in Torrejon / Spain and Uedem / Germany.[14] An important feature of AIRCOM is that it transforms into an operational centre in crisis and war situations with the support of CAOCs and some other NATO units to command and control air operations.[15] This structure is called Joint Force Air Component (JFAC) and allows staff officers at the same time to carry out certain planning and execution activities during the crisis response operations. Currently, the US, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Turkey have national JFAC capability.[16] That’s why EU has sufficient knowledge and qualified staff in this respect as well. However, it is obvious that some installations and facilities would be required. In order to maximize coordination with NATO, a European Air Command Headquarters with a similar JFAC structure may be established in Belgium or Germany.

The amount that Alliance member states allocate to their defense budget from their gross domestic products (GDP) has long been a problematic issue among NATO countries. Therefore, it would not be reasonable to construct a parallel force in addition to the resources allocated to NATO. But if Europeans really pursue a separate military structure, they do need a separate C2 structure and dedicated staff. Therefore it could be wise to establish a progressive solution: e.g. initially ‘double hat’ or ‘double HQ’ concept could be adopted, and then eventually a separate Command Center/HQ and Staff should be realized. Nevertheless, the resource pool will most probably be the same, i.e. will be composed of NATO-assigned forces. If the NATO decision-making mechanism fails to take the necessary steps – for any reason – in the event of a possible crisis affecting Europe, the EU’s civil and military decision-making mechanism would be able to take over and use the resources allocated by countries.

NATO Factor

I have already mentioned that almost all EU member states are also members of NATO. For this reason, any EU-wide military formation will directly concern NATO. Leaders of some countries, as well as the NATO Secretary General, are skeptic about the European Army, as it would interfere with resources available and demonstrate a double-headed structure. Although Macron and Merkel state that the European Army is not an alternative to NATO but merely serving as a complement, it is expected that such concern will rise among NATO’s high-level officials.

It is well known that the US has long urged European allies to increase their defense budgets and to contribute more to operational missions such as Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan and Operation Inherent Resolve against the ISIL. Therefore, a treaty-based framework, the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), aiming to deepen defence cooperation amongst the EU Member States and to jointly develop defense capabilities and make them available for EU military operations are welcomed by NATO officials, as well as the United States. However, any possible military structure using the same pool of resources could be an unsatisfactory solution for both sides.

The ‘double–hat’ concept, which we frequently encounter with respect to higher US commanders assigned to NATO, could also be utilized for the generals of the European Army and of course, the European Air Force. For example, the commander of the European Allied Forces, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), is also the Commander of the US European Command (COM EUCOM). As defined in the EU Concept for Military Command and Control, military strategic level EU Operation Commander (OpCdr) is nominated by the EU Council or the PSC.[17] It is also mentioned in the same document that, for the EU-led Military Operations with recourse to NATO common assets and capabilities, deputy commander of the Allied Forces in Europe (DSACEUR) ”would be the primary candidate as OpCdr, and the EU Operational HQ would then be established at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE)”.[18]

Ironically, however, the person who would be the most logical choice for a commander for the European Army in the double-hatted structure, i.e. DSACEUR, is a British General, and United Kingdom decided to leave the EU. It is also not a coincidence that France has brought the concept of the European Army to the agenda again after UK’s decision to exit EU.

Another issue that needs to be considered is the problematic situation between Turkey and Cyprus. If and when, the use of NATO resources or facilities would be requested, during the founding of the European Army or in any operational necessity, it is crystal clear that Turkey is not going to allow that. Although the Annan Plan, which was a great hope for many people to solve the problems of Cyprus Island, was accepted by Turkish Cypriots but turned down by the Greek Cypriots in a referendum, EU made a strategic decision in 2004 and agreed to accept Greek Cypriots as the sole representative of the island, hence as a EU member, with its unsolved political affair. Consequently, EU faced vetoes from Turkey in various areas in the past 15 years and it seems it does not have many options to counter that.

However, the only country with the potential to pose problems in this regard is not Turkey. I consider the US and the UK could also implicitly (or maybe explicitly) oppose a foundation that possibly takes advantage of NATO since it would undermine NATO and eventually result in a twin-headed eagle. As a matter of fact, some American diplomats, when evaluated the CSDP, stated that the US did not want a CSDP “that comes into being first within NATO but then grows out of NATO and finally grows away from NATO[19]. I think this statement from10 years ago is still valid even though US frequently wants Europe to be more active in the military realm and to contribute more to the military operations. Trump’s response[20] to Macron’s suggestion of Europe having its own army, should be a proof to this.

The most important advantage of the European Army compared to NATO could be the pace and efficiency of the decision-making process because it wouldn’t have to deal with issues such as; England – Spain and Turkey – Greece confrontation. While the confrontation between England and Spain over Gibraltar, partially affects NATO’s decision-making and documentation process, the confrontation between Turkey and Greece with respect to Cyprus Island and the Aegean Sea often hampers the harmony and causes significant delays on several processes. Though we must not forget the fact that, EU decisions relating to CSDP require unanimity of the EU Council.[21]


Since the establishment of the Union, military cooperation between the European countries was considered as a taboo when the subject came to a sole and unified army. However, together with the PESCO agreement, EU has shown determination in shared defense. The resurgence of this debate emerges as a natural result of Trump’s policies that concern European politicians and the farewell of a member state (UK), which is always skeptical to a European Army.

In fact, European countries have sufficient know-how and ability to achieve this goal. However, the main problem is that there is no consensus on this issue at the political level. Moreover, some European countries have a lack of confidence about whether the European Army can be implemented or let alone be successful. In a similar fashion, when Belgium opted for the F-35 as it’s new generation aircraft, it not only annoyed France but also led to questioning the level of solidarity or intentions of Europeans in the military domain.

When talking about building a force, training and organization are the other two legs beside the equipment and in order to build a healthy and sustainable one, they have to be dealt with altogether. Shortcomings of equipment, personnel and training in the European armies, the reluctance of European politicians and societies to increase their defense spending, the reality that some European governments, including Germany, require parliamentary approval each time their national armies are deployed abroad, let alone fight, raises many questions such as how can this Army be created, managed and financed. Therefore, it is fair to say that it will not be that easy to create a united Military Capability.

In this article, however, we made assessments of a possible European Air Force, regardless of the realism or accessibility of the objective. In fact, there is already an example of a similar organization that has been materialized for about 10 years and has been successful so far. The European Air Transport Command (EATC), which was established in 2010 by four countries through a technical treaty and later increased to seven[22], could be regarded as a small prototype of the European Air Force in terms of effective use of limited resources. Even though this prototype cannot be compared with an Allied Air Force in real terms and the existence of such prototype does not positively affects the probability of the establishment, it still keeps hopes fresh and alive.

The military power is an element of the national power, which comes mostly in play when all other efforts are not effective to solve a problem. Increased talks about the European Army make us feel that Europe wants to start backing up its political power by itself. We will wait and see what the coming days will bring and whether this long-time ambition will result in a ‘European Army’ or rather an ‘Army of Europeans’, as German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen once stated.[23]


*Bahri Kosar is a non-resident research fellow at Beyond the Horizon ISSG.




  3. Denmark and Malta have already stated it will not take part in such a military organization.
  4. The numbers stated in this section are taken from World Air Forces -2019 – Flight International document prepared by Flight Global and used solely to provide a rough idea.
  12. Formerly European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP)
  17. EU Concept for Military Command and Control, EEAS 02021/7/14 REV 7, dated 5 January 2015, p.8
  18. ibid. P.15
  19. quoted in P. Hughes, “NATO and the EU: Managing the Frozen Conflict: Test Case Afghanistan”, ZEI Discussion Paper, C178, Bonn, Center for European Integration Studies, 2007, p. 7.
  21. Treaty on European Union, Article 42 (4)
  22. The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxemburg, Spain, Italy