Social Dimension of European Defence: Interview with the Director of the Europe in the World Programme at the Egmont Institute Prof. Dr. Sven Biscop

In the past years, a huge emphasis has been put on the security and defence in Europe. New asymmetric threats such as terrorism, cyber-attacks, organised crime, human trafficking, and disinformation campaigns made security one of the biggest preoccupations of EU citizens. Nevertheless, when thinking of the EU defence sector, its social dimension is probably the last element one might consider important. For that reason, EUROMIL would like to focus on that matter in a series of interviews with experts who are aware of the issue and might explain what the biggest obstacles are, present the undertaken actions and suggest solutions to improve the current situation. 

How would you define the social dimension of the European defence? What would be part of this notion?

I was thinking there was another side to this issue which is probably not the side that you, as EUROMIL, are looking at. In the political debate very often people oppose defence and social security and it’s very easy to make an argument about how the government can spend so much money on — for example, in case of Belgium — a fighter aircraft while there are so many social needs. In my opinion, it is a fake opposition since both the defence and the welfare state are the core tasks of the state, in our society, at least. And if you do not have enough budget to perform these two core vital tasks, the solution cannot be to just cut one of them. The answer should be to revise the budgetary picture and to make sure to have enough means and not to pit them against one another. In that sense, without defence, the greatest welfare state will not survive very long. It’s silly to say: “Let’s not invest in defence, let’s invest everything in welfare”. But vice versa, for us as a society, the welfare state is who we are in Europe. And it also questions defence itself. We are not defending “anything” anymore. We are not just defending the sovereignty of our country but also defending a specific way of living in our countries which is guaranteed by the social security and welfare state. Again, we’re not just defending territorial integrity but the way of life we have built on that territory. And that way of life, in my view, is linked to equality, social security, etc. These two notions are very much aligned and linked together, and we should not oppose them in the debate.

In your opinion, what is the biggest issue the military faces nowadays in the social context?

Usually, armed forces are not seen as the most prestigious career path. If you ask people what they think, a lot of them would say that what our [Belgian] armed forces do — they do it well. But even if we took part in military operations and our contribution is appreciated, and our troops are effective and well-trained, etc. it is still not seen as a very prestigious career. I think that the cliché about the armed forces is that they are linked to the times of cold war, forced conscription, and we moved far beyond that. Furthermore, also in the Belgian case, in electoral terms, it is not very important, and you would not see any politician using the fact that he was in the armed forces to bolster his profile. It can be observed in some other countries but here it would be seen strangely.
For sure, in many European countries, recruitment is the issue. Military is not a popular career choice and there is a problem to find a sufficient number of qualified people. Opening national armed forces to other EU citizens won’t mean that suddenly masses of people will join. At the moment, unemployment is low and also in terms of pay and other benefits, police often offer better opportunities in many ways. Armed forces have candidates, but they are not suitable since you need more and more highly skilled people, even in lower ranks. Moreover, the problem might be the salary which seems to be too low in comparison to responsibilities and risk.
There is also another problematic aspect, not so evident, namely the impact on marriages or relationships. Often one side has to sacrifice himself or herself for the other side (e.g. deployments, careers in the international military structures, etc.), especially in terms of professional career. It relates not only to the military but also diplomatic services and becomes increasingly difficult. In consequence, many people divorce.

Deepening of the cooperation and capacity-building are high on the European defence agenda but there is no project that would touch on the social issue and potential removal of differences that can be noticed among armed forces that collaborate with each other. It is especially visible in the CSDP missions: there are different standards for each nation in terms of training, social security and help provided in case of any unfortunate event, not mentioning the financial differences. Do you think that these issues should be regulated at the European level? Should working conditions for soldiers in the CSDP missions be synchronized?

We will have to face that issue eventually. However, for the present time, the nations are the central gravity. Plus, the EU is one of the least used frameworks for deployment. The bulk of our deployments is in other frameworks and certainly the riskiest deployments are not done in the EU one. Nevertheless, we will not escape this issue because CSDP will eventually evolve. If PESCO works, we will have increasingly integrated forces that are more and more interlinked. Plus, we will not escape that issue because people talk, and they realise there are differences in benefits, salaries, structures and all kind of care. The harmonisation will be possible only over time. Looking at this from a political perspective, if you would tried to do this now, you would risk overburdening and blocking certain improvements instead of introducing them.

We could imagine that soldiers deployed to CSDP operations could receive some sort of a premium during their deployment from the EU budget and some sort of EU level veteran’s status according to which people suffering from injuries or disabilities would receive treatment at the EU level embedded in the context of the EU operations. That would be in a way easier to do. But for sure it is too early for an actual harmonisation.

In your opinion, could the activities undertaken – for example – by the European Air Transport Command be an illustration of a truly successful cooperation and a model to follow in other areas of defence in regard of capabilities harmonisation and increasing interoperability?

We could think, for example, about the EATC with elements of Belgian/Dutch naval cooperation. Most probably it will happen in the future in case of nationally owned platforms operated by the citizens of countries who own these platforms that all the units and tasks that support those troops and those platforms will be increasingly merged or there will be the division of labour.
The EATC focuses mostly on the management of flight movements but we could go a lot further! As soon as everybody operates A400M, we could say that now we can merge the maintenance of the aircraft, we can merge the training for the crews or the logistics. In the end, we could say that nation X owns N aircrafts piloted by members of its armed forces but everything around this aircraft, such as base, common control, traffic controls, maintenance, logistics, training, etc., can be permanently multinational. This is what we are currently doing with our navies and it can be seen as a model in many areas. But we should also think about the people working in the multinational structures, their status and how you harmonise them since there are people coming from different countries and different pay levels, some working very close to home and some very far. And how to even that?

Nowadays, we often read that European nations cannot avoid facing newly emerged challenges and threats of today’s world. Ongoing events, continuously changing and affecting not only societies but the natural environment, have also a severe influence on the security sector. Therefore, armed forces might need to develop new capabilities, possibly entirely different from “classical” ones and currently limited or unavailable for regular troops, to confront occurring threats. Could you enlist some exemplary capabilities in this regard and explain how could they be harmonised?

I would be careful here because I think that we would not like to see armed forces involved as the primary actor rather than the secondary one. Armed forces are only called upon emergencies and they have to take care of themselves, as for example when it comes to cybersecurity. I don’t think they should be necessarily in charge of the cybersecurity of the state, and I would see that more as a civilian issue with the army acting as a complementary structure. In my opinion, it also refers to the migration crisis and border security. I would not militarise it. I would rather see police or some paramilitary, more flexible border security forces responsible for that issue, and without military playing the primary role. In case of Belgium, we had this kind of paramilitary structures in the past. In some countries this kind of units are embraced in the armed forces, in some — not. There is always a question who would control them politically – would it be a ministry of interior or ministry of defence. Nevertheless, that type of forces might be adequate to face the issue. Armed forces could always play supporting role if there would not be other option, and they could focus on the real expeditionary operations or territorial defence. It can be observed even in Brussels: armed forces patrol the streets, but this is not their actual role. In the past, we had gendarmerie responsible for such tasks but since they were dissolved and there is no big police reserve, you can only call on armed forces. But I think it is in a way waste of capacity – they are in a way overqualified for that.

PESCO is considered the most important instrument to foster common security and defence in an area where more coherence, continuity, coordination and collaboration is needed. Nevertheless, the list of ambitious and more binding common commitments does not contain any reference to social and human rights of military personnel. Do you think such a commitment should be introduced and if yes, how can this be done? Is PESCO an adequate platform or should another initiative be proposed to cover these issues?

Some of the projects are linked to operations and there might be such a dimension, e.g. in case of the Crisis Response Operation Core (if it materializes) or the European Intervention Initiative. If you deploy together, you might want to think of how you treat your troops while they are deployed and after their deployment, when they suffer from injuries or disabilities because of the deployment. I wouldn’t see it as a separate project but a useful dimension of those PESCO projects that are geared to force generation for expeditionary operations.

Over two years ago you participated in a project envisioning five futures of European defence. Taking into consideration all the developments that happened since then, which scenario, in your opinion, will most likely become true?

It would rather be a combination of these scenarios, a very complicated patchwork of some national forces, national forces anchored in multinational structures, and multinational structures only, depending on the capability domain. I think that eventually we will get a combination of more and more interlinked national forces increasingly anchored in multinational structures or other bigger multinational units or maybe some multinationally-owned enablers supporting the national forces. I think that the tip of the spear will remain national for a long time but increasingly the shaft of the spear will become multinational. If taking into consideration the relations with NATO, it doesn’t have a mechanism for that, while EU has strong mechanisms with a great potential: PESCO and EDF. Complementarity is automatic because whatever additional capability you create thanks to that EU mechanisms, it automatically enters the inventory of NATO because the same states are the members and partners of NATO.

It can be observed that European armed forces face problems related to the lack of experts (especially in the field of cyber, AI, etc.). Do you see a solution to attract potential candidates to choose the public sector over the private one, besides financial benefits?

Financial aspects are important, but part of the solution is also based on cutting through the hierarchy somehow. For example, we have some highly skilled people recruited as experts and then they can become lieutenants or captains fairly quickly because otherwise they would not come. They don’t do 4 or 5 years in the military, they have a sort of fast track but then they can’t become majors or colonels as quick as the others. If you want to have people like that for technical expertise you might have to think how to place them. If you recruit someone for his great knowledge in cybersecurity, he probably doesn’t need to know how to plan an expeditionary operation, right? It is not necessary that he has learned that but you don’t want to recruit him as a corporal because in that case the offered salary would be not sufficient. We need to think of that because we have elements with a mix of civilian and military personnel, and there has been always a friction because the military is often seen as elite and the civilian personnel as the second class, and the leading positions are taken by the military, thus it is difficult to find balance.

In the context of technological progress, do you think that new technologies will eventually replace the human element, thereby changing totally the structure and composition of the military?

I think that the human element is irreplaceable. There is always a need of having someone to control the machine. We will have more machines that are controlled from a distance, but we will always need a human, someone who will occupy the ground. If you are in operations, in the end, someone needs to hold the ground and build so we will always need infantry, humans with rifles and boots. I think it is also a little bit related to the fact that sometimes we exaggerate the novelty of all of this. I don’t think that the introduction of cyber dimension would change the nature of strategy since with a new dimension you always have new vulnerabilities and new opportunities. For instance, when we introduced aircrafts, suddenly we had a new dimension of warfare and subsequently new opportunities together with new vulnerabilities. With the invention of steam machines, the coal supply turned out to be a vulnerability and oil supply has become more important. And it’s the same with cyber: because you rely on that, it might be a vulnerability, but you can also use it as a weapon against someone else but in the end, it doesn’t really change the game of strategy. There’s always someone, an actor, that has to make decisions and interest that influences these decisions. Cyberattack will be still based on the calculations related to the interest, threats and challenges, and realistic chances. Somehow, we overestimate the impact of new technologies while the basic nature of strategy remains the same. Cyber can be a private individual difficult to trace but we should think about pirates or privateers who were commissioned by the governments while being actually private citizens with private ships who could attack you. Think about naval blockades – are they an act of war or not? If you use cyber dimension to paralyse an economy, you can ask if it is an act of war or not, the same way as it was with old-fashioned naval blockades which could paralyse the economy as well. The same questions always come back in always different dimensions. Not everything is as new as we might think.

As stated in the Programme of the Austrian Presidency, the Council will also continue to work on the existing initiatives on equal treatment and non-discrimination, and the initiative for work-life balance. Do you consider the latter to be fully introducible in the military context?

I think it is inevitable because otherwise no one will join armed forces voluntarily. We need to somehow make it bearable for people. We can also think about its influence on the operability. I talked once to a retired general giving guest lectures at the university and he said: “When I was a young lieutenant, and we were deployed, we were entitled to one 5-minute phone call per week and somehow that was sufficient for us. And now the first thing everybody wants is wi-fi and everybody would be discontent if there would be no wi-fi”. And what he complained about was that people — while they are deployed — are insufficiently disconnected from home and therefore they focus less on the operation. Maybe it’s more for Americans than Europeans, but we create so many mass provisions for the deployed troops, that we somehow distort local circumstances. I had a conversation with people from our special forces who operate in a very light way manner without creating too many effects on local conditions, so they try to live and survive the way local people do. But if you say you need to deploy new battlegroup to Mali, it needs so many containers of stuff, and so much water and electricity, that somehow you need to set up the whole infrastructure which is actually much better than the one local people around you have. It can cause distortion or negative side-effects you don’t want to have. It’s something we should be aware of.

In reference to the previous question, it can be observed that the so-called “Millennials” who are entering the labour market value work-life balance much more than previous generations, while at the same time being less interested in traditional hierarchies and bureaucracies. How can it influence the future of the military profession?

I think that in a way the discussion about the “Millennials” is not a new issue. In my opinion, it comes with the creation of liberal democracies where each individual has an equal value. There is no individual that is simply expandable. In a more feudal system, totalitarian system, the norms are different, and it is perfectly acceptable that you sacrifice lives of people who serve the state, who serve the collective. In liberal democracies, it is no longer true because the role of the state is precisely to protect every individual. I remember reading one of the books of Max Hastings, the British military historian, who wrote one book about the last year of the IIWW in the East, in Asia, and one about the last year of the IIWW in Europe. He stated that even then, in 44-45, the high-level commanders of the Western allies forces, the UK and the US, were complaining that their troops were unwilling to fight and take risks in comparison to the German soldiers or Soviets at that time. But that’s logical: democratic society is based on equality, and there is, therefore, no reason why one citizen has to die, and the other does not. To conclude, I would rather analyse this issue based on more fundamental, philosophical level, not necessarily focusing on the Millennials themselves.

Picture Credit: @ HeinrichBöllStiftung

Previous post

Security Has A Social Dimension - Recommendations in the View of the Upcoming European Elections 2019

Next post

Problems of Armed Forces Personnel and Solutions