Visegrád Battlegroup: A flagship that should not substitute for real defence cooperation

In May 2012, after several years of negotiations, the V4 ministers of defence committed their respective countries to creating a common Visegrád battlegroup. This military unit will have about 3,000 soldiers from all V4 countries – and beyond. It is expected to participate in an exercise scheduled for the second half of 2015 and to be fully deployable in 2016.

Foto: Creative Commons/ Billythefish

The shrinking defence budgets in Europe require more intensive cooperation among EU and NATO member states. The Visegrád battlegroup can clearly be understood as an attempt to create new capabilities with fewer resources, which fits well into current European financial anxieties. But is a common battlegroup the correct answer to Central Europe’s problems with defence capabilities and budgets?

What is a battlegroup?

EU battlegroups are small, national or multinational rapid-reaction units with autonomous command and logistics capability. They are meant to react quickly to a crisis beyond the EU’s borders and to help prevent broader bloodshed or escalation. Since 2007, the EU has had two battlegroups ready within 5-10 days after a decision to deploy troops is made by the Council of the EU. The battlegroups are supposed to solve a limited crisis on the spot. In general, however, they are conceived as a first-entry, rapid-reaction force that would later be substituted by a longer-term multinational stabilisation force under EU or UN command.

The EU formulated the battlegroup concept on the basis of the success of Operation Artemis in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2003, where a French-led contingent reinforced a UN mission for a limited period of time. First and foremost, the battlegroups were intended to provide the EU with a rapid-reaction capability, a factor that is indispensable for early intervention in an acute crisis. Second, the units  were intended to be the EU’s answer to  the NATO Response Force and to prove that the EU was sincere in its pledge to take security seriously. Third, the multinational battlegroups are intended to establish structural cooperation among member states, leading to further cooperation. About 20 battlegroups have been publicly announced by EU members and are in various stages of formation.

Why a Visegrád battlegroup?

There is a widespread understanding that international cooperation is the only option available to maintain or even increase defence capabilities in Europe (and to save its defence industries), in particular after the global economic crisis hit the already tight defence budgets of member states. The grand top-down initiatives in the EU and NATO, popular in late 1990s and early 2000s, proved inadequate. The new theme is that of limited, bottom-up cooperation among smaller groups of states. There are a number of such initiatives in Europe. Some are  r long established, such as Benelux and Nordic cooperation, and the reborn Weimar triangle. Others are new, such as the British-French defence treaties of 2010.

The Visegrád countries are no exception. Their defence budgets have been declining and their capabilities diminishing respectively. As a result, all four states have been involved in various international projects, including several battlegroups. At the same time, a debate on deeper Central European cooperation has been an ongoing Visegrád staple. The structural dialogue among the V4, the shared past, and largely similar foreign policy priorities and threat perceptions have provided a logical background for such consultations.

The decision to create a common V4 battlegroup can thus be understood as one of the first results of a long process of negotiations among individual countries’ representatives at various levels. It is a valuable result and a strong symbol of the V4 commitment to European defence cooperation within both EU and NATO. The battlegroup constitutes a concrete pledge of new military capability, which is badly needed in Europe, as the EU is often unable to find available forces to staff operations abroad.

Room for doubts

The battlegroups, however, have not been tested in a real-life situation. The EU has had opportunities where a battlegroup seemed to be the right option, but has never deployed one. There are several problems with the deployment of multinational battlegroups. First, all contributing countries have to be ready to commit their forces in the particular situation. The V4 countries have shared the basic understanding of their strategic situation, but the concrete decision always depends on many factors, such as current financial situation, other commitments, and the political situation. If one participating nation decides not to take part, the whole battlegroup is incapacitated.

Moreover, an agreement to have a battlegroup among participating nations is not enough. For example, in 2008, a Nordic battlegroup was ready to go to Chad and the Central African Republic to join an EU operation stabilising an area affected by fighting in neighbouring Darfur in 2008. But because other EU states refused to back up the Nordic battlegroup with their own soldiers, the EU Council did not deploy the unit. It later took the EU many months to muster an intervening force through the traditional procedure – the collection of ad hoc voluntary contributions by individual member states.

Nevertheless, the biggest problem of the V4 plan to create a common battlegroup remains the fact that the unit is not and cannot be the answer to the region’s difficulty in sustaining a reasonable level of military power. If the countries are serious about better spending on defence and about creating new capabilities, they need to re-think their entire defence systems. Real savings will not come with a single common unit. Rather, common defence procurement projects are needed, which will require harmonisation of procurement cycles. Development of further common capabilities should follow, starting with training, schooling, and maintenance. Later, perhaps, common territorial defence, including that of the region’s airspace, will be possible.A common V4 battlegroup is a nice flagship of an idea that attracts medi and public attention. It is, however, not the answer to V4 countries’ problems with financing their military forces. A deeper regional cooperation is needed. If the battlegroup attracts enough attention and builds enough trust to allow for the real cooperation in armaments and territorial defence, it would be a good investment. Otherwise, it will become just a piece of news obfuscating the real needs of the sector.

Tomáš Weiss

Tomáš Weiss

is Head of the Department of West European Studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague.