Putin, Trump, production capacity: the defence challenges facing Europe

<span>Leopard 2 tanks at a munitions factory in Unterluess, Germany.</span><span>Photograph: Getty Images</span>
Leopard 2 tanks at a munitions factory in Unterluess, Germany.Photograph: Getty Images

Europe is racing to avoid a “blame game” on defence as it grapples with how to increase production amid a serious ammunition shortage in Ukraine and growing questions over the future of US support.

As Ukraine enters the third year of Russia’s full-scale invasion and worries mount about the US commitment to Nato, politicians, diplomats and experts largely agree that Europe needs to do more on defence. The fraught topic will no doubt be on the agenda as about 20 European leaders gather in Paris on Monday to send Vladimir Putin a message of European resolve.

While many European countries have boosted their defence spending, it remains unclear how much political will there is in capitals to go further – and what is actually realistic for countries who for decades relied on the US as their ultimate security guarantor.

Jim Townsend, a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and Nato policy, said: “Right now, does Europe have the ability to fill gaps the US might leave? The answer is no. Europe knows that, European industry knows that, Putin knows that.”

In European defence policy circles, views are split on what to expect after the US presidential election, particularly given recent comments from Donald Trump that, if re-elected, he would not defend Nato allies who fail to meet defence spending targets.

Related: Zelenskiy says 31,000 soldiers killed, giving figure for first time

Asked how much European policymakers fear the impact of a possible Trump presidency, a senior European defence official said: “A lot.”

They added: “Under the surface, there is now a lot being considered and proposed regarding further boosting European support for Ukraine in case the US is out.”

Others have taken a more optimistic view.

Hanno Pevkur, Estonia’s defence minister, said in a phone interview: “I do not believe that there will be a very dramatic change, because I truly believe that as much as the US is important for European allies, the same European allies are important for the United States.”

Kajsa Ollongren, the Dutch defence minister, said that regardless of Trump’s remarks, the war in Ukraine had been “a wake-up call to democracies around the world and Europe in particular”.

“Europe indeed needs to take more responsibility for its own security. That means a big financial investment,” she said in an email, adding that this was “actually what we are doing right now. Defence investments in Europe have grown substantially.”

“We need action, not a blame game,” the Dutch minister stressed.

Nato announced this month that 18 of its members were set to meet a target of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defence this year. This compares with three members a decade ago. Last year, defence spending in European Nato countries and Canada rose by 11%.

The EU has spent billions on a fund partially reimbursing member states for aid sent to Ukraine. And the EU and Nato have put plans in motion to help boost defence production, with the European Commission expected to unveil a new European defence industrial strategy in the coming weeks.

But there are still challenges, according to Townsend, who is now an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“Money is slowly coming in,” he said, but some countries “need to spend more than 2% — a lot more than 2%, like Germany – to get their forces up to snuff.”

Industrial capacity remained insufficient, he said.

“Industry is too small in terms of Europe, and the US has got the same problem – even if the money and political will was there, industry will not be able to deliver at scale what is needed and so it could take years for delivery of some things.”

While the bloc has been providing Ukraine with more ammunition, it has failed to deliver at the pace and volume many hoped.

Thierry Breton, the European commissioner who has been overseeing efforts to boost defence production, said: “We are now entering the industrial phase of the war.”

The new European strategy, which will be accompanied by an EU defence industry programme, will move toward an approach that is “more permanent, wider in scope and budget, and with a structural impact on European defence industry”, he said in an emailed statement.

“With this package, we will confirm the need to push for and incentivise joint acquisition as well as direct investment in the production capacity of defence equipment (beyond ammunition).”

Breton said the EU had “reached the capacity to produce” more than 1 million rounds of ammunition a year (though in 2023 it fell far short of that target). This would reach 1.5m by the end of 2024 and 2m next year, he said.

There is a sense among both policymakers and experts that more urgency is needed.

Camille Grand, a former Nato assistant secretary general for defence investment, said he was “optimistic in the mid-term, and I am worried in the short-term, because there are some things that are absolutely urgent to do when it comes to Ukraine”.

Pevkur said “the top, top priority is to make decisions regarding taking everything you can from everyone’s stocks, especially ammunition, to send to Ukraine”.

Even if Europe does more, however, there are limitations.

Sophia Besch, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: “Does stepping up mean that we have to prove ourselves to the United States, prove that we can fairly burden-share and take care of our own security in a way that is proportionate and appropriate inside the alliance with the United States? Then, to be honest, we’re still struggling but there’s a more realistic scenario there.”

However, she added, “if stepping up means that we have to replace the United States, I don’t see a way of that happening”.