Interview with Stefano Cont, Director Capacity, Armament & Planning (CAP), European Defence Agency, Brussels
The European: Director, when you took over your position in April 2022 you declared: “At a time when defence expenditure is expected to increase significantly (…), European cooperation and collaborative capability development will be key to making sure the money is spent well and efficiently.” After a year of war in Ukraine, we are seeing closer cooperation between NATO Member States, but we are also observing some European nations going it alone in procurement. Can you describe the European Defence Agency’s (EDA) central role in making cooperation and coordination possible?
Stefano Cont: Cooperation is part of our DNA at EDA. Our mission is to enable cooperation between our members. What we have witnessed with the change in the environment is a greater willingness to cooperate within the European Union (EU) and particularly within the structures of the EDA. So much so in fact that the Steering Board is currently considering the establishment of three additional projects to meet the needs of many participating Member States (MS) in joint procurement.
The European: What factors explain this achievement?
Stefano Cont: This has only been achieved because EDA is a lean and agile organisation that can react speedily to Member States’ demands and we are prepared to meet those needs in whatever way they suggest. This points to the relevance of the Agency in that it can respond to crises while still undertaking its core functions and without losing focus on immediate demands and issues.
The European: Within these wide-ranging requirements, what is your strategy as EDA’s Capability, Armament and Planning Director?
Stefano Cont: Part of my remit is not just to develop capabilities but also to engage in armaments procurement. This is all the more necessary in view of the changing economic environment within which we have to work. With the increases in defence spending, there is a necessity to ensure that needs are balanced and that no one MS who wishes to have our assistance is left behind. Therefore, the methods of coordination which we employ on behalf of the MS are critical to the success of their endeavours. If the MS are successful, the EDA has served its purpose.
Overall, we need to ensure that the level of cooperation to meet short-term needs is expanded and enhanced to take in the medium-and long-term perspectives, thus ensuring that Europe has what it needs, on the basis of a common view of what the defence landscape should look like in the future.
The European: Director, only 18% of all investments in defence programmes are conducted in cooperation. It seems that MS only seek cooperation when they have no national industrial capabilities or when the partner accepts the given military requirements. What are the consequences of this attitude for the MS’s Capability Development Plan (CDP)? How much power do you have to influence MS?
Stefano Cont: What you must remember is that the CDP gives rise to the EU Capability Development Priorities that are agreed by the Ministers of Defence for all EDA participating MS. These are not simply EDA priorities, and they are not developed in isolation. They are developed with the active participation and involvement of all our MS to ensure that we have an overall picture of where our priorities should lie.
The European: And what level of cooperation in defence programmes is required?
Stefano Cont: There must be an alignment of several factors in order to raise the level of investment that is undertaken cooperatively. The difficulties that we have encountered in the past few years have been different planning horizons in MS and budgetary frameworks and laws that are different in all our MS, as well as the different needs and aspirations for national defence.
The European: How important are geographical factors?
Stefano Cont: We realise that the geographical position of one MS can entail totally different requirements to that of another, located in another area. Notwithstanding this, we continue to promote joint investment to the greatest extent possible. Again, this comes back to my remit within the armament procurement regime. We have shown that we can obtain speedy and positive results. And we mustn’t forget that investment in a country’s defence is not just in defence programmes as such, but across the whole range of activities that the militaries and defence forces of our MS must undertake.
The European: And what influence can the EDA exert there?
Stefano Cont: This is an area that covers doctrine, training, material and personnel and not just high-end armament programmes. To ensure success, we must help our MS focus on all areas of their activity and develop joint planning and a joint view of the future of European defence, encompassing planning, armament and capability development.
The European: You are at the interface of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD). Could you briefly describe how CARD and PESCO are linked?
Stefano Cont: There is a symbiotic relationship between CARD and PESCO, as well as with the other European defence initiatives. CARD should be seen as the pathfinder for PESCO. CARD tells us where we stand and where we should be going, collaboratively. PESCO is one of the vehicles through which we can collaborate in developing our capabilities. However, PESCO is not just about capabilities. The more binding commitments for each Member State associated with this initiative are even more important. The clue is in the title – PERMANENT and STRUCTURED COOPERATION. The Member States, who are the driving-force behind PESCO, have been striving to attain this goal since its establishment. CARD enables us to review how the MS are developing to ensure that there is a structure and a permanence to the cooperation they undertake.
The European: It seems that there is a long road ahead..
Stefano Cont: …yes indeed! What CDP, CARD and PESCO allow us to do is to align our planning processes, which is the basis on which a secure Europe can be built. This allows us all to travel in the same direction, if not necessarily at the same speed. As I indicated earlier, the needs of one MS will be different to that of the next, but with a knowledge of our MS’ future planning, we can assist them in attaining their goals, which will then benefit all of Europe.
The European: Let us finally have a look at an issue that gained importance, in particular since the start of the war in Ukraine: the mitigation of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) threats. What is EDA’s approach in these fields?
Stefano Cont: EDA and specifically my directorate, have been extremely active in the whole area of CBRN for the last 10 years and not just since the start of the war in Ukraine. For the past three years, EDA has been running a specific project regarding CBRN to develop a joint approach to CBRN needs and requirements, particularly in the field of sensors. Furthermore, CBRN is one of the areas that we are currently preparing for MS joint procurement. This area will become even more important in the future and EDA will be at the forefront to ensure that our defence personnel receives the best equipment possible.
The European: Director, I thank you for this conversation.