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Case studies in European defence innovation

Galbreath’s three groupings offer an indication of the direction of change within and across European militaries. Fellowship is change that results from a close following of other militaries, which is an accepted and understood role between follower and the leader, very often the USA. Second, frontline refers to those militaries that have experienced change as a result of combat operations. Finally, there are those militaries and capabilities that are falling behind due to shrinking budgets and reduced strategic value. Combining transform, transfer and translate with fellowship, frontline and falling offers a multi-level set of explanations to assess European defence innovation comprehensively.

European militaries have been changing in a variety of different ways since the end of the Cold War. For the most part, the number and role of the combat soldier has lessened even though both Afghanistan and Iraq have had a major land warfare component. The reduction in combat and support soldiers across land, sea and air services is also reflected in military capabilities, as governments were determined to fund fewer platforms, such as tank battalions, frigates, and heavy lift aircraft. While the wars of the ‘War on Terror’ have boosted certain elements of European militaries, the general direction of military spending on personnel and platforms has continued to decline with few exceptions (cf. Poland). Combining this decline with modem warfare as a largely asymmetric, multidimensional affair, militaries have also been seeking to work jointly across services. In his major contribution, The Transformation of Europe’s Armed Forces, Anthony King argues that there is a ‘fundamental dynamic’ at play with European militaries whereby they are undergoing a ‘simultaneous process of concentration and transnationalisation’ (King, 2011, p. 11). According to King (2011, p. 17), European armed forces are:

undergoing a compatible but differentiated process of ‘localisation’. They are concentrating at decisive locales from which they are extending out increasingly deep institutional relations to produce a new military order of multiple, interdependent nodes and interconnected transnational networks.

Jointness has also become a major part of contemporary military command and operations. In the UK, the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) determined that joint budget arrangements for operations and kit would need to be interservice procured and managed. A joint command structure makes this easier to accomplish in theory. The experience of working in Afghan Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) has also led European militaries to think about doing more in theatre with less. As a result, Sapolsky’s (1972, 2000) notion of a bureaucratic politics explanation of innovation becomes challenged as jointness appears to obscure the politics behind the change.

Finally, as a result of an evolving and complex threat environment, one whereby the conceptual clarity between defence and security has been blurred, defence budgets continue to shrink but security budgets continue to rise. Militaries have a role to play in traditional and new forms of security while, at the same time, militaries have the incentive to compete for budgets in new and well-funded policy areas. While this has the potential to militarise those new policy areas, this situation also provides an opportunity to transform European militaries. The result is a combined approach to security challenges. Contemporary military operations are likely to be the results of joint commands with increasingly combined roles for civilian departments and agencies. This change, along with reduced budgets, pose different challenges for our three groups of states within the fellowship, frontline and falling categories.


The most advanced, and predominantly largest militaries fall into this category; in particular, the UK, France, Germany and Poland. None of these militaries is seeking to exponentially increase their defence capabilities and are only meeting (although not in the case of Germany) the NATO guideline to spend a minimum of 2% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defence (North Atlantic Council, 2014). At the same time, they are in the forefront of military transformation in Europe. Yet, how they are changing is different, partly because the USA is the ‘model army’, but also because they have little experience of actually working with each other on the ground, even if they did contribute to the same NATO ISAF mission in Afghanistan, for example. Few common lessons are being learnt and internalised due to different national priorities and different national constraints. At the same time, there are serious financial constraints challenging innovation for these militaries as well.

Though finances are a theme throughout European defence, these states are more serious about maintaining modern militaries with the prospect of using them in the future. France and the UK have the most advanced and operationally capable militaries in Europe. They have both responded to the advances in military concepts and technologies in similar ways.

Both states have sought to incorporate networked-enabled concepts and technology into their existing operational plans and future procurement. The British military has innovated in response to a changing external threat environment post theCold War but this has seen them return to their traditional posture as an expeditionary-orientated force. The USA has been the leading transmission-belt for this innovation through its export of the RMA and by setting the operational agenda over the past 25 years. But this transferring of US innovation has also been translated and shaped by two ‘domestic factors’: constraints on military resources and a distinct British military culture (Farrell and Bird, 2010, p. 56).

The French military has also innovated and transformed in response to ‘strategic and technological changes’ with the USA as the primary external source of innovation (Farrell et al., 2013, p. 277). They, too, have sought to translate this innovation to suit their own interests, threat perceptions and operational needs. German innovation has not been driven by geostrategic factors in the main, and the biggest challenge has been the political and domestic security culture surrounding the use and the purpose of military force. Although transformation has clearly been evident, the German military has innovated its capabilities, doctrine and even its operational thresholds. Poland’s transformation since the end of the Cold War has been in the realm of capabilities, concepts and doctrine, but it also had to introduce ‘civilian and democratic controls’ (Osica, 2010, p. 167).

For all four states, there has been concern about the state and future of their land forces. The number of those serving has declined and is planned to further decline, while the remaining soldiers in both armies are to be more operationally effective across a wide spectrum of possible deployments. By and large, these countries are the strongest European followers of the USA’s broader way of war, though with much less capability and capacity than their US counterparts. The armed forces in these states, to varying degrees, are active followers and play a significant and perhaps defining role in European defence.


Some militaries find that their ability to innovate is limited to when they are on the frontline. In this group are European states such as Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark. These states have arguably experienced the greatest decline following the end of Cold War in terms of the number of personnel and platforms. They were militaries designed largely and predominantly for NATO’s territorial defence against a possible Soviet invasion and not for the expeditionary conflicts of the sort we have seen in the past 20 years. Their evolution from conscription-based militaries to all volunteer forces (AVFs) has also played a major role in this reduction in capacity. Further, these countries took advantage of participating in the Afghan and Iraq wars to invest in modernising their forces. The result has been the eliminating (or suspending) of national service and a reduction in the number of land forces and capabilities. Tank divisions were especially hit hard as outdated technology was not replaced. Thus, the key drivers of change in these states have been their simultaneous transformation to AVF with limited expeditionary capability via interventionist wars in the Middle East and North Africa.

Italy, being the largest, has the most to gain from what is happening in the ‘following’ states, though Italy (like Spain and also Greece) has had its transformation project curtailed by the global financial crisis. Spain, having begun its transformation during the centre-right government of José Maria Aznar, sought to transform its expeditionary and peacekeeping troops through ISAF and EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions. The Netherlands has also played an important role in Central Afghanistan and has maintained a combat-ready ground force that was able to work with the USA and the UK especially in developing COIN capabilities during Task Force Uruzgan. As such, NATO has played a central role in shaping Dutch military innovation. The Dutch have also gone further in their naval cooperation with Belgium via the so-called Benesam arrangement, whereby the two nations have integrated command, training and basing for frigates and mine hunters in order to maintain an active naval capacity.

Finally, Norway and Denmark have both come out of Afghanistan with a clear direction for their militaries and, in particular, their armies. Norway has sought to bolster its northern borders and economic interests with new battalions, a doctrine it is familiar with from its time being one of two NATO member countries with a border with the Soviet Union. Due to its sizable commitment in Afghanistan, Denmark has also developed a more directed doctrine of transformation to work directly with the USA. They have determined that their strategic interests lie with being able to integrate with US forces to the detriment of being able to operate alone or with other European states. For all of these states, a frontline was an important moderniser for their militaries, especially their armies. However, beyond a frontline or a resurgent Russia, there is a limited scope or even ability to look for innovation and transformation in the way understood in the bigger European military states.


Although national military organisations do not always want to acknowledge that some ‘core tasks’ of their military business can no longer be achieved, for others this Rubicon has already been crossed (Galbreath and Smith, 2016, pp. 193-194). In this category are European countries that are just simply disinvesting in their militaries as a matter of political choice. Namely, countries such as Belgium, Austria, and Sweden have militaries that are increasingly designed for deployment in multinational peacekeeping operations rather than for territorial defence, although they do remain under the USA’s nuclear umbrella.

For European states such as Belgium, the main driver of force transformation and reform is a lack of resources. Rather than being uniquely related to defence policy, these militaries essentially become an extension of foreign policy. Although they retain very limited military capacity, they still attempt to demonstrate their utility to allies and partners by contributing an air squadron or some personnel to a NATO, EU or coalition crisis management or peacekeeping operation (see Chapters 4 and 6 for NATO and EU operations). Naturally, especially in the case of Sweden and Austria, there are historical and political reasons why the military may be relegated the further we move away from the Cold War.


This chapter has described historical approaches as well as state-of-the-art theories for explaining military innovation generally, and with regard to European defence specifically. It has sought to give the reader an understanding of the type of questions and challenges that scholars of military innovation have grappled with over the past century (see Box 11.1). The first section teased out some of the larger themes that strategists and scholars have derived from studying how militaries operate, both as organisations conducting and preparing for combat operations. These themes have ranged from attempting to understand the character of the next war to a realisation that military organisations often learn different (often wrong) lessons from the same wars. How the external threat environment is perceived, combined with the inevitable competition between various distinctive ‘advocates' of innovation is what drives change in defence organisations.

From the work of Barry Posen to Theo Farrell, we have seen how the study of defence innovation has assumed a destinct social-science methodology since the early 1980s. Four models of innovation were defined (see Table 11.1). The logics in these approaches portray innovation as deriving from civil-military dynamics, to variations of interservice rivalry and intraservice competition over scarce resources. Finally, we have seen that military culture is also a key driver of, or restraint on, defence innovation. An analytical framework to cut across these literatures of transformation was then provided before turning that framework on the specificity of European defence innovation. It suggested that change can be understood via the concepts of transform, transfer and translate and that European states tend to fall into the categories of fellowship, frontline, and falling. There are clearly challenges facing all European armed forces - not least declining budgets and personnel. Yet, there is a demonstrable shift occurring in both the global and regional political-security atmosphere. It is difficult to predict what the future operating environment or the shifting security architecture in Europe may bring. But change is the only constant in life and, therefore, some form of innovation is inevitable.

Further reading

Coker, Christopher (2015), Future War. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Farrell, Theo, Rynning, Sten, and Terriff, Terry (2013), Transforming Military Power Since the Cold War:

Britain, France, and the United States, 1991-2012. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Freedman, Lawrence (2017), The Future of War: A History. New York: Public Affairs.

Galbreath, David J. (2014), ‘Western European Armed Forces and the Modernisation Agenda:

Following or Falling Behind?’, Drfence Studies, 14 (4), 394-413.

Grissom, Adam (2006), ‘The Future of Military Innovation Studies’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 29 (5), 905-934.

King, Anthony (2011), The Transformation of Europe’s Armed Forces: From the Rhine to Afghanistan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


European Defence Agency:

NATO Allied Command Transformation:

RAND research on military transformation:

Royal United Services Institute: https: 11

The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs:

UK MOD Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC): development-concepts-and-doctrine-centre

US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA):

War on the Rocks blog:


Bacevich, Andrew J. (1986), The Pentomic Era: The U.S. Army Between Korea and Vietnam. Washington, DC: National Defense University' Press.

Clausewitz, Carl von (1997), On War, abridged edition. Ware: Wordsworth Editions.

Coonen, Stephen J. (2006), 'The Widening Military Capabilities Gap between the United States and Europe: Does It Matter?’, Parameters, 36 (3), 67-84.

Cote, Owen R. (1998). The Politics of Innovative Military Doctrine: The U.S. Navy and Fleet Ballistic Missiles. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Croft, Stuart, Howorth, Jolyon, Terriff, Terry', and Webber, Mark (2000), ‘NATO’s Triple Challenge’, International Affairs, 76 (3), 495-518.

Edmunds, Tim (2006), ‘What Are .Armed Forces for? The Changing Nature of Military' Roles in Europe’, International Affairs, 82 (6), 1059-1075.

Farrell, Theo, and Bird, Tim (2010), ‘Innovating Within Cost and Cultural Constraints: The British’, in Terry Terriff, Frans Osinga, and Theo Farrell (eds), A Transformation Gaff American Innovations and European Military Change. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 35-58.

Farrell, Theo, and Rynning, Sten (2010), ‘NATO’s Transformation Gaps: Transatlantic Differences and the War in Afghanistan’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 33 (5), 673-699.

Farrell, Theo, and Terriff, Terry (eds) (2001), The Sources of Military Change: Culture, Politics, Technology. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Farrell, Theo, Rynning, Sten, and Terriff, Terry' (2013), Transforming Military Power since the Cold War: Britain, France, and the United States, 1991-2012. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Galbreath, David J. (2014), ‘Western European Armed Forces and the Modernisation Agenda: Following or Falling Behind?’, Defence Studies, 14 (4), 394-413.

Galbreath, David J. (2015), ‘RMA, European Militaries and the Limits of Modernization', in Andrew Futter and Jeffrey Collins (eds), Reassessing the Revolution in Military Affa irs: Transformation, Evolution and Lessons Learnt. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 156-174.

Galbreath, David J. (2016), ‘Understanding Changes in European Militaries: A System Approach’, Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, Atlanta, Georgia, 15-18 March.

Galbreath, David J., and Smith, Simon J. (2016), ‘Military Capabilities and Force Transformation’, in Laura Chappell, Jocelyn Mawdsley, and Petar Petrov (eds), The EU, Strategy and Security Policy: Regional and Strategic Challenges. London: Routledge, pp. 186-201.

Gray, Colin S. (2005), ‘How Has War Changed Since the End of the Cold War?’, Parameters, 35 (1), 14-26.

Grissom, Adam (2006), 'The Future of Military Innovation Studies’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 29 (5), 905-934.

Horowitz, Michael C. (2010), The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

King, Anthony (2011), The Transformation of Europe’s Armed Forces: From the Rhine to Afghanistan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Luhmann, Niklas (2006), ‘System as Difference’, Organization, 13 (1), 37-57.

Mewett, Christopher (2014), ‘Understanding War’s Enduring Nature Alongside Its Changing Character’. Available at: https: / / / understanding-wars-enduring-nature-alongside-its-changing-character/ (accessed: 5 November 2018).

North Atlantic Council (2014), ‘NATO Wales Summit Declaration’, Press Release (2014) 120, 5 September. Available at: (accessed: 15 October 2018).

Osica, Olaf (2010), ‘Transformation through Expeditionary Warfare: Military Change in Poland’, in Terrj' Terriff Frans Osinga, and Theo Farrell (eds), A Transformation Cap? American Innovations and European Military Change. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 167-186.

Posen, Barry (1984), The Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain, and Germany between the World Wars. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Rasmussen, Mikkel V. (2013), ‘The Military Metier: Second Order .Adaptation and the Danish Experience in Task Force Helmand’, in Theo Farrell, Frans P. B. Osinga, and James A. Russell (eds), Military Adaptation in Afghanistan. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 136-158.

Rosen, Stephen P. (1988), ‘New Ways of War: Understanding Military Innovation’, International Security, 13 (1), 134-168.

Rosen, Stephen P. (1991) Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Sapolsky, Harvey M. (1972) The Polaris System Development: Bureaucratic and Programmatic Success in Government. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University' Press.

Sapolsky, Harvey' M. (2000), ‘On the Theory of Military Innovation’, Breakthroughs, 9 (1) 35-39.

Terriff, Terry, Osinga, Frans, and Farrell, Theo (eds) (2010), A Transformation Gap? American Innovations and European Military Change. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wiesner, Ina (2013), Importing the American Way of War? Network-Centric Warfare in the UKand Germany. Baden-Baden: Nomos.

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