European Union defense ministers want to expand Operation Atalanta – the military mission against Somalian pirates. But budget cuts mean that the scope is limited. One EU agency thinks greater cooperation is the answer.
The European Union's anti-piracy operation off the Somali coast is generally considered a success. Nine warships, belonging to several EU countries including Germany, accompany aid convoys to Somalia and patrol the Indian Ocean trade routes. The number of pirate attacks has subsequently gone down.
That's one reason why German Under-Secretary for Defense, Christian Schmidt, is in favor of extending the mission to the end of 2014. "The most important thing is that Atalanta is continued, because it is a successful mission," he told Deutsche Welle.
One condition: no ground forces
But defense experts agree that the mission could achieve even more if the pirates were fought on land. Their boats, munitions stores, and supply routes could, for instance, be destroyed by air. As long as no ground troops are committed, most EU countries seem to agree that such an expansion of Atalanta's mandate is worth considering.
Germany was the last country to give up its objections to the plan. Speaking in Brussels, Schmidt suggested as much. "I don't expect any controversial discussions," he said.
The formal 'greenlight' should be given by EU foreign ministers on Friday. Germany would then need its parliament to approvethe plan, since the old mandate was limited to operations at sea. "That will happen in Berlin very soon," said Schmidt confidently.
Help from the neighbors
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed the additional contribution from the EU. "We value all efforts against piracy," he said. "But I also think it's very important that we help countries in the region to build up their capacities, so that they are able to fight pirates themselves."
NATO and the EU currently share the task of policing the Horn of Africa, and have been working closely together. Taking the initiative, NATO has already extended its "Operation Ocean Shield" in the area, and is now waiting for the EU to complete its own formalities.
Joint military missions save money
But NATO and the EU also have a common problem – their member states are currently in the midst of imposing austerity measures, which naturally extend to their defense budgets.
NATO says securing the cooperation of countries in the region is vital
But that does not mean that countries need to reduce their defensive capabilities, insists Claude-France Arnould, director of the European Defence Agency (EDA), which was formed to enhance the military cooperation among EU member states. Denmark is the only EU country that has refused to join the EDA.
Arnould believes that Europe still has far too many parallel military capabilities. She would like to help everyone save money by devising a program of pooling and sharing resources – for example with mobile field hospitals. This is an area where she can already report a breakthrough.
"Thirteen ministers have signed a declaration of intent to build multinational modular field hospitals," she said. "These would of course be available for use during natural disasters as well as for the military." She foresees that these mobile hospitals would be fully equipped to perform operations, take X-rays, and perform CPR.
The EDA head sees huge potential for budget savings in any number of cooperative schemes: joint multinational training for pilots, joint use of military test sites, solar panels on the roofs of barracks. She also says that last year's NATO air raids in Libya showed that cooperation is not only desirable, but urgently needed in certain areas.
During that mission, she pointed out, EU planes were dependent on the Americans to provide mid-air refueling.
Ministers have also signed a declaration of intent for that. But too often, noble intentions for more military cooperation have remained just that – intentions. The military remains one of the EU's most prestigious and simultaneously vulnerable departments. As NATO knows all too well: In few other areas are countries so reluctant to give up their sovereignty.
Author: Christoph Hasselbach / bk
Editor: Gregg Benzow