Edward Lucas
AUTHOR:Edward Lucas
21 November 2016

Getting real on European defense planning

The most important discussions in European security are happening far from the public gaze. One is in Britain: how far is this country really willing to go in defending Estonia? The UK is the “framework nation” for the northernmost Baltic state. For a government eager to show that Brexit has not demolished Britain’s role in Europe, military involvement in Estonia’s defense, involving, so far, 800 troops plus tanks and drones, is a handy hook. But a report in the Sunday Times suggests that Britain has now had second thoughts about deploying a powerful rocket system in Estonia, fearing that Russia would see it as too provocative.

That’s disastrous thinking, if true. If you are afraid of installing a burglar alarm because it may annoy your neighbors, you are, in effect, already resigned to being burgled. My guess is that the rockets will, after some huffing and puffing, be deployed. But don’t expect a full discussion of this in public. Alarmism abounds: Russia has already done a good job in scaring public opinion in Britain about the risks and costs of defending our Baltic allies.

Another behind-the-scenes discussion is underway in Sweden, where the country’s military commander has ordered the hurried reconstruction of a Cold War, truck-based coastal-defense missile system, with some components being hurriedly pulled out of museums to go back into active service. A Swedish-speaking Finnish defense analyst, who uses the pseudonym “Corporal Frisk,” analyzed the move. He writes:

“The fact that this significantly heightens the Swedish Defense Forces’ ability to defend their home waters is great news for Finland as well, as this is one place where our supply lines would be vulnerable to intercept without the Finnish Navy or Air Force being able to do something. However, this also causes a very uncomfortable question to pop up again:

What does the Swedish commander-in-chief know that our politicians pretend they don’t?

The answer is that Swedish decision-makers know very well how dangerous the situation in their region has become. The era of comfortable non-aligned security politics is over. Someone is going to have to tell the public about the costs involved, and quite soon. Volunteers, please.

Not that Finland is much better about explaining its defense thinking. This non-NATO country has quietly bought a unique military system called the JASSM: the closest thing to a nuclear deterrent without actual nuclear weapons. The Americans have sold this formidable weapon and stealthy, long-distance with a punchy payload—to only three allies: Australia, Finland and (next year) Poland.

The question for defense planners in Helsinki is how to make sure Russia understands the circumstances in which the country would use this formidable weapon. For example, if Russia uses a small nuclear depth charge in the Barents Sea (claiming that it was provoked by the U.S. Navy), what would the Finnish response be? These nightmarish questions would have seemed the stuff of paranoid fantasy only a year ago. Now they are burning a hole on decision-makers’ desks.

Nor has there been much public discussion in Norway about Trident Juncture 2018, the biggest and most important NATO exercise in decades.

Secrecy is important in defense planning. But public consent about the broad outline of the issues matters, too. We are in the most dangerous era in European security since the early 1980s, and the coming months are going to be worse, not better. If we are going to build a security culture in which we discuss honestly the threats we face and how to deal with them, the time to start is now.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis.