Europe Needs an Integrated Ground-Based Air Defense Network

May 13, 2021 Topic: Air Defense Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: MilitaryNATORussiaA2/ad

Europe Needs an Integrated Ground-Based Air Defense Network

If Europe is serious about achieving strategic autonomy, the requirement of detaching its ground-based air defense from the United States and moving towards an integrated air defense network seems inevitable.


The composition of the contemporary European ground-based air defense landscape is problematic. European states deploy a large number of different air-defense capabilities and heavily rely on foreign and especially American systems for their air and missile defense. As a result, Europe’s ground-based air defense today looks more like an improvised patchwork rug, rather than a well-thought-out, integrated, and layered air defense network. This composition results in technical drawbacks and decreases the overall effectiveness of European air defense. In addition, the pursuit of European strategic autonomy suffers under the over-reliance on foreign systems. Because of this, European states should urgently move towards acquiring a truly European and integrated ground-based air defense network.

Today, European ground-based air defense is composed of numerous short and medium-range air defense systems, including indigenous European capabilities, imported American systems, and legacy Soviet capabilities. For example, Poland, Greece, and Bulgaria still deploy a number of Soviet S-200A and S-300P launch platforms. At the same time, several states in Europe deploy the American MIM-104 Patriot system, among them Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, and Spain. On top of this, an increasing number of European states, including the UK, France, Germany, and Poland, have acquired (or are in the process of doing so) indigenous European air defense capabilities, such as the German IRIS-T SLM, the British Common Anti-Air Modular Missile (CAAM), and the French/Italian SAMP/T.


For European strategic autonomy to be advanced, a European integrated ground-based air defense capability is imperative. In 2016, the European Union defined European strategic autonomy as the “capacity to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners wherever possible.” Continued reliance on foreign systems, threatens the ability of European states to pursue this objective, however. A large number of European states continue to rely on the American Patriot system as well as American interceptor missiles for their ground-based air defense. While defense cooperation in this field has long constituted a core pillar of post-Cold War transatlantic defense policy, it is no longer sustainable if Europe is indeed serious about pursuing strategic autonomy. By relying on foreign technology, European states do not have access to detailed insights into the functions and technical capabilities of their air defense systems, especially with regard to performance limits. While this is certainly understandable from an American point of view, seeing that U.S. defense contractors want to protect their industrial secrets from competitors in Europe, this restricts the scope of European strategic freedom. Only with detailed insights into performance limits can decisionmakers consider expected risks accurately and plan accordingly, especially during deployments abroad. While more detailed data can, in theory, be acquired from U.S. contractors, this is a complicated and potentially political process, which could be blocked at any moment.

Continued reliance on U.S. air defense systems also constitutes a problem with regard to the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), a proposed sixth-generation European fighter jet system, currently under development. Air defense networks can only act in a truly integrated manner if their ground and air-based components communicate extensively and continuously exchange data. Specifically, airborne systems fight more effectively if their own data is complemented by information from ground-based sensors, which can help with early warning and threat assessment. In the future European context, this means that FCAS and ground-based European air defense platforms will have to continuously exchange data and provide each other with sensitive information to be most effective. Given the competitive nature of the defense industry, such detailed data transfers between American and European platforms seem hardly feasible. As a result, extensive integration of FCAS with non-European ground-based air defense systems would—beyond the bare minimum required by NATO standards—likely not be possible. This non-integration stands in stark contrast to today’s technical possibilities as well as the tactical requirements of cross-domain warfare. Of course, it is important not to romanticize the European defense political landscape. Intra-European data transfers may not always be particularly smooth either, and economic interests of European defense contractors may also constitute significant roadblocks with regard to the exchangeability of data. Nevertheless, the European defense economy has become increasingly integrated in the recent past, especially with regard to missile technology, rendering such cross-platform data transfers more feasible.

The development and acquisition of an integrated European air defense system would also improve Europe’s deterrence posture vis-à-vis its geopolitical competitors, in particular Russia. In recent years, Russia has heavily upgraded its conventional and nuclear missile arsenal. Following the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) the country now deploys a number of new intermediate-range missile capabilities, such as the SSC-8 (9M729) and the SS-26 Iskander (9K720), which are capable of threatening military and industrial targets across the European continent. In doing so, Russia aims to achieve escalation control in Europe, a crucial component of Russia’s conventional and nuclear military strategy. In order to counter this strategy, an effective ground-based air defense system, capable of intercepting Russian fighter jets, missiles, and potentially also warheads, is necessary. Importantly, the objective of such a capability is not to deny Russia all military benefits from its missile systems. Rather, it is about keeping risks unpredictable for the Kremlin and decreasing the confidence of Russian decision-makers in their military strategy. Whether the current European air defense network is capable of doing so, however, is questionable. Especially in light of the Patriot’s recent failures in shooting down unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and cruise missile systems in Saudi Arabia, the ability of the American air and missile defense system to protect European airspace from sophisticated threats remains doubtful. Because of this, renewed European efforts into procuring a next-generation integrated ground-based air defense system are especially important.

Finally, an effective and integrated ground-based European defense network would also serve as an important hedge against an uncertain and dangerous future, which is riddled with a myriad of advanced airborne threats, such as next-generation cruise missiles, advanced UAVs, and drone swarms, among others. Thus, the relative importance of ground-based missile defense is only going to increase.

These vulnerabilities and requirements show why European states should seriously consider the deployment of a truly European and integrated ground-based air defense network. Unfortunately, the window of opportunity for a timely acquisition of such a system is closing, especially in light of Germany’s recent defense procurement decision, which decided against the acquisition of TLVS (Tactical Air Defense System). This next-generation air defense system could have constituted the cornerstone of an integrated European air defense network. Thanks to its “plug-and-fight” function, enabling states to link up their ground-based air defense capabilities, TLVS could have been used to integrate Europe’s scattered air defense landscape. Currently, there are no real alternatives on the European market offering this function. Germany, together with its European allies, should therefore reconsider this procurement decision, or move towards the development and acquisition of a new indigenous European air defense capability.

Ultimately, however, whether or not Europe acquires a truly European ground-based air defense capability is not only a question of technical availability, but also of political willingness. Indeed, decreased reliance on American Patriot air defense systems could sever ties between Europe and the United States, straining the NATO alliance further. In light of Russia’s recent actions near Ukraine, states like Poland will therefore certainly think twice about whether pursuing this course of action is sensible. Nevertheless, if Europe is serious about achieving strategic autonomy, the requirement of detaching its ground-based air defense from the United States and moving towards an integrated air defense network seems inevitable.

Fabian Hoffmann is a graduate student at King’s College London, where he is currently completing his Master’s degree in War Studies. Fabian’s research focuses on cross-domain warfare, strategic stability, and emerging technologies. His research has been published by the European Leadership Network, The Strategy Bridge, and the Journal European Security. Fabian can be found on Twitter under the name @FRHoffmann1

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