Social Dimension of European Defence: Interview with the Vice President of Strategikon and CEO of Smartlink, Radu Magdin

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 want to start with one that is maybe the most forgotten, yet which has resurfaced in some European countries since the events that happened in our Eastern borderlands – the army, defence forces, have always represented one of those verticals that create and recreate a nation and a society. National defence cultures are very reflected in how much this idea is not considered true and central in different countries: if in France, ever since Napoleon, the army has been central to the French society – and we see this in the contractual models – lifetime commitment, the training of personnel, etc., in Germany, for example, we still see the shame and reluctance resulted from World War Two. This is not about shaming anyone, but it is a very important aspect, because it describes the military-civilian socialisation factor. If we take countries like Israel, the US, Russia, and China, not as the paragons, but as the most visible examples, there is no rift between society and the military; there is no shame; there is even a proudness, and people leaving the military service can find jobs in the private sector because there is this understanding that military staff is not there because of some unfounded ambition of a political elite, but that they are there defend every citizen and that they are as much as everybody else part of those societies. The same togetherness and inclusiveness cannot be observed across societies across continental Europe.

Second, Europe’s lack of borders does not automatically mean more communication and exchanges. There is a generation of millennials and GenZ that have extensively travelled and socialised across Europe, but they are only a small part of Europe’s 550 million people. So if we wonder why today we don’t see a more united Europe it is also because the free circulation of goods has also meant that some people undertook specialised logistics roles, whilst others have stayed home more. If we look at the tourism trends across Europe, the travelling patterns tend to be similar over a period of 10 years. On this background, European military personnel, though they number only about 2 million people, can constitute a significant connector and cross-fertilisation factor for societies across the continent. Two million personnel, if we look beyond their own mobility through a military Erasmus or joint brigades, they also come with families, friends – their social ecosystem, which they can attract into this military conveyor belt of a rotational European military force – if ever we decided to create a single European military space, for troops to rotate and exercise on any national territory.

Third, it is about stability and social security. For many, a military contract means a lifetime stability in which they know they can provide for their families, and they can dedicate themselves to their profession without worrying about tomorrow’s pay. Yet, as it is evident from EUROMILs work, conditions are not the same in every member state, so we need to keep working on addressing this.

But I want to enlarge our perspective, because European defence is not only the active personnel, or even the reserves. It is the whole economic ecosystem around it. So whether talking Airbus Helicopters Romania, or the colossus Rheinmetall Germany, or even some of the universities in Europe, the defence sector is a driver of innovation, R&D, and labour across our continent. In my view, we should even be doing more in terms of universities and research labs cooperation, both through ERA-NET (European research area) and PESCO.

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

I don’t want to classify these 3, so I will outline each, because I consider all three very important:

  1. Civilian thinking about defence – in many countries it is perceived as something wrong.
  2. Demographics – with an aging population and slowing birth rate, as well as new technologies, European armies will need to adapt doctrine, C2 and means. Semi-autonomous capabilities are coming, and we need to ride the wave, not fight it.
  3. Career paths – people need to grow, to have the satisfaction of their jobs, and to self-actualise. It is important for their own self-worth, but also for being better able to contribute and be part of an advancing society. Skills, understandings, mobility, training opportunities and culture need to be available at any time and everywhere to all military staff, so that societies and defence personnel advance in sync and support each other. Again, conditions are not similar across the EU, and this needs to be adjusted. There is absolutely no reason why the network of EU military academies, technical and command schools would not provide, in English + national languages, a whole suite of blended learning options.

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?

There is no reason why the EU defence domain should not benefit of a similar structure to the EU civil service. If we could put together a whole structure of civil servants, support staff, technicians, etc., for the needs of the major institutions (EC, EP, Councils) and decentralised bodies, it should be possible to develop an equally EU architecture for our military servicemen and women. And before anyone says anything about putting 2 million people on the EU’s payroll, I want to emphasise that we first need to have a framework within which something to be operationalised. Currently, we don’t really have it – but it is time we start thinking about one. Then, we can talk about specific cases, which are interesting in themselves: how much active personnel should be seconded by member states, financial arrangements – how much can each country pay and if the EU would be in the capacity to top-up where required, etc, etc. But the main idea is that if we want to talk about a European defence and culture, then we need to start creating the vehicles to put things together.

This being said, I do want to push back somewhat on the premises of the question: the EU is (still) very diverse (in certain aspects), and that is good. Unfortunately, we are not there yet in terms of economic convergence, but there are entire EU policies dealing with that. However, I hold the strong belief that we need to study and learn from the differences. If we had wanted everything to be the same, all NATO members would have adopted the STANAGs from top to bottom across all military services. What is important here is to not stumble into things that can be aligned through EU-set principles and minimal guidance, and to not try to level the differences in thinking and culture. It is those differences that provide a lot of food for thought and command level and bellow, as they describe the different things each nation dealt with in its history.

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?

As Europeans and Europe as a whole needs to admit to itself that as long as the Earth spins, things change. Consequently, the realisation that we need to upgrade and update our ways shows we are late to the party. So it is not only an emergence of new threats. It is that technology, strategic thought, the world advances, and we need to be in touch with the world or remain in the history books.

Getting to the more applied aspect of your question, here are just a few “items” that I believe should be of great interest in the short and medium term to European militaries:

  1. VR & AR immersive training arenas for infantry and CT units – particularly for closed quarters fighting and urban theatres of operations simulations. à this can be developed as a joint capability and shared between national armed forces.
  2. Persistent swarm & micro-drones capabilities for EW (electronic warfare) and tethering in contested theatres of operations. à this needs to come as a joint decision from the heads of armies and corresponding Council configuration, as it requires decisions for development of strategy, doctrine, and equipment.
  3. Cyber – Political decision-making training exercises. This can be modelled on ENISA’s Cyber Europe exercises and enhanced with a political layer, similar to some NATO COEs exercises. à there is no such as standardising. The whole point of these exercises is to train decision-making in high uncertainty environments, usually with limited information, and with a high risk for the situation to escalate into kinetic operations or civilian disasters (critical infrastructure attacks)
  4. Autonomous-capable vehicles – surface and submerged, for the navies, tactical and strategic for the army and air forces. The point here is not about “killer robots” – still blocked in a loop conversation, but about the possibility of, should need be, using such means when human means are scarce. Let’s not think only of “normal conditions”, but of emergency situations – we sometimes need to extract teams out of contested environments, or natural emergencies, and we will want to risk the least lives possible. à since we are not talking about drones, we can conceive, under a PESCO project, of a standardisation scheme and design for control technologies that can be grafted onto current and future regular vehicles.
  5. A design for what civilians means need to be resilient and have redundancies beyond regular conditions, in the event of information warfare or shutdown of the internet. We are not talking EMP effects, but the possibility of a massive “DDOS” attack on the infrastructure transmitting the internet, public radio, and/or TV. We need to make sure that no region of Europe gets cut-off from the rest of the world, that in case of an incident we still have sensors within and means of communication with the areas and people affected.

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?

So far it looks like PESCO functions only as a per-project initiative, so then no, if we are talking about rights, then any provisions need to be mainstreamed in the regular practices of the national and European military forces.

It seems fair that troops deployed on missions, within the EU and outside its borders, benefit of at least the same level of insurance. Beyond this, it is more a matter of having this conversation between military staffs, politicians, analysts, and strategists. It is not impossible to adopt a minimal, EU-mandated level of rights and practices, applicable across member states’ armies. However, the two barriers are: defining what those minimal standards should be, and getting people to agree that such changes can be good for everyone.

It can be observed that European armed forces face problems related to 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?

I feel that more and more we will start seeing flexible formats such as the one recently launched for consultations by Germany, in which countries will start hiring citizens of other member states. This will help up to a point to fill in some of the open positions. A second possibility could be shorter term contracts for countries that currently do not run their armies on contracts of just a few years.

However, this is a supply-side problem, throughout the whole of Europe. And the problem resides in the way we look at the problem. We currently consider “we are not turning out enough IT people”; the fundamental problem is that our education systems turn out digital illiterate graduates. If we address this first problem, then we can see how the broad spectrum of IT jobs in the defence forces of countries start being more nuanced, and we realise that not everyone needs to be an AI engineer.

Finally, this is also about a lack of awareness. I believe in many countries IT jobs, in people’s imagination, looks like something out of European detectives, or FBI movies, with files, and approvals, and an old wooden desk. Not many young people know what the operational environment in cyber looks and feels like nowadays, and for this the means are classical: movies, documentaries, open days, etc.

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?

New technologies will definitely change the structure and composition of the military. However, humans will not become an adjunct of technology, but technology will be the one to complement and compound human action. We are used to seeing technology as hulking pieces of machinery that need handling. What we will see more and more is machines functioning as extensions of our own bodies. Think tanks with only 1 crew, or AR command posts that look more like MMO games tournaments. Machines can replace humans, but for the next couple of decades, it will not be the case – human creativity and understanding is still greater than that of machines. And for those worried about machines’ computing power and awareness due to sensors – apply Sun Tzu: fight where / in ways the enemy is not prepared to take you on.

The priorities of the Romanian Council Presidency foresee further work on the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights, including 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?

To a certain extent, yes. The question, though, is whether national decision makers are prepared to start looking at who can make a 9-to-5 working day, and who needs to be on call 24/7, and start introducing even more differentiated treatment for the forces. This would be quite tricky.

The second conversation parliaments need to have with the people is about enrolment, national service and costs. There is a point where the conversation happens between the size of the armed forces and the length of their tours are. So we could argue that more troops means a better life for our troops, but would mean higher costs. (NATO’s 2%, if you will.) And then there is the idea that by introducing a mandatory national service for a year we could see an improved civilian engagement with the armed forces while making available more enlisted personnel for a variety of jobs and contributions in the army.

Finally, we should not forget that the more automation we introduce in the army, the more valuable human time and energy we can allocate to tasks that truly require a human touch. So, again, “rolling with the times” here might get a whole new meaning.

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?

The conversation about this in the military needs to happen in unison with the same conversation in the corporations around the world. We have seen in global forums for several years already how corporations come and testify as to their attempts at figuring it out, and we have started seeing some results. The answers are not simple, but they exist.

We can call it a ‘tailored army’, in which each position and each recruit are matched. We are talking about the equivalent of ‘talent officers’ identifying where each person can go and what they should be doing, according to their skills, natural inclinations, and psychological fit. For an organisation like an army it may sound odd, but for those to which this does not sound odd, that’s probably because they are already doing it like this. There is a number of small states around the world where each army member counts tremendously, and they are an individual, and there is a plan for each and every person.

Millennials grew up with an entirely different behaviour in terms of speed of reaction, multi-tasking, digital interactions, information gathering, etc. So you can count on them to work on a much accelerated timescale than most others, to be completely ok to work on the go, to be some of the more flexible personnel switching between different types of work. To me, this sounds like an advantage. Sure, you will be spending more time training people for different roles, but that also means you are developing specialists that within a few years’ time will be superbly suited to take on complex roles that cut across disciplines, roles, and types of activities.

To millennials (and GenZ’ers) you can explain the army very simply: it’s like a corporation. They will understand that they can get training and experience, they can influence decisions, play with cool tech, and that they need to make, let’s say, a 10-year commitment before they spin-off their own thing. The army just needs to move from bureaucracy to organisations in step with the times. Easy 😊

In the area of social and labour legislation, the Directive on transparent and predictable working conditions in the European Union is an important file for many workers, including those in uniform. EUROMIL has noted that the EPSCO Council in his general approach, as well as the EMPL Committee, want to amend the proposal in such a way that it would become possible for states to exclude civil servants and armed forces personnel from some of the regulations of the directive. Is it possible to inform us about Romania’s point of view on this matter? Should we expect any future actions from the Romanian Presidency in this regard?

The 4 priorities of the Romanian presidency are about consolidating Europe and getting member states on the same page on core things. In this we recognise that Europe is going through challenging times and that we need to close ranks.

Departing from this perspective, I would say that Romania will try to obtain a maximally positive outcome on the topics that have already be opened, without, particularly before the European elections in May, stirring up new and potentially contentious new topics.

I believe, however, that what we can do is propose items for the agenda after the elections, so that they start being discussed at Council level, and we may already start seeing some drafts by Autumn, when the new Parliament and Commission convene. This will allow enough time for things to be discussed informally before conversations about the Single Market and Social Pillar fire up again.

One heads-up though, for countries with particularly large forces and those with a penchant for nationalism, this topic may become part of the elections campaign.

In the view of the upcoming European Elections, what would be the three things you wish for (or you would recommend politicians) in the area of security and defence?

  1. Be bold – whether in national governments or in the European Parliament, you are responsible for guiding not only your country, but Europe towards a more secure and safe future. So instead of relying on old school ideology, look in the future and see how we can develop a security industry and a safe society, and respecting our values. It doesn’t matter if you have a more internationalist or a more nationalist political inclination – the fact is that being part of a union means a mutualisation of both threats and benefits; it also means each one of us can influence things for the better.
  2. Lift the barriers from the path of innovation – academia, research, industry and defence need to work better together.
  3. Strategic autonomy: real friends are hard to come by, and autonomy is not only about hardware. We need to step back a bit, relax and look at things calmly – unless we are sure the world will spin our way, it is better to not cut relationships.
  4. Bonus round: start talking about a single European command and a single defence space to cover the Union. This may not happen before the next European elections, but it is the kind of conversation that needs several years
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