Europe’s Defense Leaders Compete Over Air Defense Strategies

The Paris Air Show, held last month, showcased various ground-based systems for missile defense, attracting attention to Europe’s competing visions for air and missile defense. The event, the first air show since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, witnessed a surge in displays of radars and launchers for missile defense systems. In light of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, many European countries have stepped up their efforts to provide air and missile defense systems to Kyiv and assess their own defense capabilities.

During the air show, European officials met to discuss different proposals for developing new air and missile defense systems in the region. Germany leads a 17-nation initiative aimed at procuring off-the-shelf capabilities, while France advocates for a smaller approach focused on building up European industry. French President Emmanuel Macron used the forum to voice his opposition to the German-led Sky Shield initiative, which aims to combine air and missile defense systems from European and non-European companies. German officials have identified Raytheon’s Patriot system and Israel Aerospace Industries’ Arrow 3 system as crucial components of the proposed Sky Shield system.

Macron cautioned against relying on non-European systems and argued that an “Iron Dome” style missile defense initiative, like the one in Israel, would not be effective for the entire continent of Europe. He emphasized the need for a strategic approach and highlighted the importance of utilizing European systems that can be produced and managed independently.

A recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) highlighted Europe’s insufficient systems to counter long-range guided and unguided missiles. While short- and medium-range defense systems exist, many are outdated and originally sourced from the Soviet era. The report emphasized that Europe’s fragmented approach to air and missile defense at the national level is no longer viable.

Germany’s vision for the European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI) aims to combine existing air and missile defense systems from Europe, the United States, and Israel. So far, 17 European nations have committed to supporting this initiative, while France and Italy remain unaffiliated. However, German officials have stated that the door is open for new members to join.

President Macron’s address at the air show made it clear that France is not inclined to join the Sky Shield initiative. He announced that the Franco-Italian-built SAMP/T missile defense system is now operational in Ukraine, further emphasizing the importance of a European-centric approach to defense.

Additionally, Macron announced a joint procurement agreement between five European nations (France, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, and Hungary) for Mistral 3 air defense missiles produced by MBDA. Some of these nations have also shown support for the Sky Shield initiative.

The French-led initiative will be overseen by the ministry’s procurement arm, Direction Générale de l’Armement (DGA), on behalf of the partner nations. The exact number of missiles to be ordered is yet to be confirmed, but French defense officials stated that it could be close to 1,000. MBDA has not provided details on how the missiles will be divided among the participating nations or the expected delivery dates. However, the production rate for the Mistral missiles is set to increase by 40% in 2024.

While France pursues its own air defense strategy, other missile manufacturers at the show expressed support for Germany’s efforts. German lawmakers recently approved an advance payment for Arrow 3 components, signaling progress in a deal that could amount to $4.3 billion. Israel Aerospace Industries’ CEO, Boaz Levy, welcomed the move as a step in the right direction and expressed confidence in delivering the systems on time. Levy also highlighted the complementary nature of the Arrow 3 system with Germany’s existing defensive architecture.

Integrating a non-NATO system like Arrow 3 with European equipment has been a subject of debate among experts since Germany’s initial consideration of the system. The challenges and complexities of such integration remain to be resolved.

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