Poland joins ESSI, France isolated in air defense in Europe

Since its launch in August 2022 by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the European SkyShield Initiative, or ESSI, has established itself as a unifying and powerful pact, to bring about an efficient and homogeneous European air defense.

More than fifteen countries had already announced their membership of the ESSI in August 2022. There are now 22, while Greece, Turkey and Switzerland recently undertook to join. Several European countries, however, have not signed up to it. This is particularly the case for France and Italy.

Indeed, the ESSI, as designed by Berlin, only integrates 3 complementary anti-aircraft systems: the anti-ballistic Arrow 3, the long-range Patriot PAC, and the medium-range IRIS-T SLM. The other European systems were therefore excluded, NASAMS, CAMM, Mica VL and above all, Aster, competitors of the Patriot as well as the German IRIS-T SLM/SLX.

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Poland announces intention to join the European SkyShield Initiative

Among the European countries that have so far resisted the ESSI surge, Poland played a central and determining role. Although the country does not have its own industrial and technological solution in the field of medium and long-range anti-aircraft systems, it will have, in the years to come, a very powerful air defense.

ESSI Sweden Denmark
Sweden and Denmark joined the ESSI in February 2023

This will consist, in fact, of 6 Patriot PAC-3 batteries, supported by 44 short-range batteries armed with the British CAMM missile, and 22 SHORAD PSR-A Pilica batteries armed with a double 23 mm mount and Manpads GROM missiles.

Poland also benefits from one of the two AEGIS Ashore systems, armed with American SM-3 and SM-6 anti-ballistic missiles, implemented within the framework of NATO. Like the Israeli Arrow 3 acquired by Berlin, the SM-3 is an exoatmospheric anti-ballistic missile designed to intercept MRBM and IRBM threats.

If certain interceptions were successful against MIRV equivalents by SM-3, during tests, the system is however not designed, nor cut, to provide protection against a Russian or Chinese strategic strike. Let us recall, in this respect, that Russia no longer uses MRBM missiles or IRBM missiles, only semi-ballistic SRBMs and ICBMs and SLBMs, mainly Mirvés, against which these systems are inoperative.

By its geographical position, but also by its ambition in terms of military capabilities, Warsaw now undoubtedly plays the role of pivot of European defense in the face of the Russian and Belarusian threat. Suffice to say that the Warsaw arbitration, in this area, was most anticipated.

AEGIS Ashore Poland
Poland hosts one of the two NATO AEGIS Ashore sites forming the European anti-missile shield against MRBM and IRBM type threats.

The defeat of PiS and President Duda last fall against Donald Tusk's pro-European joint list made it possible to normalize Poland's relations with France, as well as with Germany. It is in this context that the latter announced this week that Warsaw would join the European SkyShield Initiative, as a mark of improving German-Polish relations.

The Polish armed forces already having Patriot PAC-3 batteries, they will be able to quickly integrate the communication and information exchange standard on which the ESSI is based.

France more isolated than ever in Europe in the field of air defense

This is, of course, a hard blow for Paris. In fact, Warsaw's resistance in this area allowed the French authorities, who were very critical of the way the ESSI was designed, effectively excluding the only long-range European anti-aircraft system, and serving, above all, as commercial step to the IRIS-T SLM from Diehl Defense.

Poland's accession will, in fact, allow the ESSI to build a homogeneous air defense bloc in Northern Europe, Eastern Europe and Central Europe, guaranteeing its operational effectiveness.

ESSI Europe
The European Sky Shield map from a few months ago. Since then, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey and Poland have announced that they are joining the initiative, creating a homogeneous northwest-southeast bloc in Europe.

Paris thus loses a powerful negotiating axis, facing Berlin, to lead it to open the initiative to all European systems, such as NASAMS, CAMM, MICA VL and above all, SAMP/T Mamba, d 'as much as the latter shows great effectiveness in Ukraine, and the Aster missile showed that it was the equivalent of the Patriot and the SM-6, in the low-layer anti-ballistic function.

Worse still, by its accession, Warsaw will probably force Berlin's hand to integrate the CAMM into this panoply of systems integrated into the ESSI, which will not fail to satisfy London, but also Rome, Leonardo having co-developed the missile with MBDA UK, with, ultimately, the potential to completely marginalize France and MBDA France, in the anti-aircraft field, in Europe.

A threat to the future of MBDA France's anti-aircraft missile sector

In fact, Warsaw's membership in the ESSI constitutes, directly and indirectly, a major threat to the very future of MBDA France's anti-aircraft missile sector, in which Paris has invested considerably in recent decades.

Indeed, the ESSI will generate a normative dimension from which French industrial and military systems will be excluded, this very severely handicapping the chances for Paris to place its systems in Europe, but also beyond, the normative power and the installed base being key arguments in decisions to acquire defense systems.

aster 30 Mamba SAMP/T
The only operational European anti-aircraft and anti-ballistic system, the Mamba SAMP/T, is today excluded from the ESSI.

Furthermore, Germany's central position, geographically as well as politically, and especially technologically, in this program, will position its defense industry, and more specifically Diehl Defense and Hensoldt, at the heart of European developments in this area, further marginalizing France in this area, unless it acts of submission to Berlin.

What alternatives for Paris in the face of the ESSI surge?

The situation is therefore very complex for France, and for the entire air defense sector articulated around MBDA France and Thales. Paris, however, has several alternatives to limit the damage, or even to turn this looming debacle into a decisive asset.

Join the initiative to convince Berlin to integrate other anti-aircraft systems from within

The first and most obvious alternative would be to convince Berlin to change the paradigms of the ESSI, in order to allow Paris (and Rome) to join. This assumes, of course, that the initiative extends beyond the three systems which today form its backbone.

This option, which would be quite obvious, very favorable and desirable, on a European scale, is however, to date, unlikely. Olaf Scholz has, in fact, made these paradigms the pillars of the initiative, in particular to support his own industrialists, and make Germany the pivot of European Defense, by air.

Olaf Scholz Prague
Olaf Scholz during the speech in Prague in August 2022, kicking off the ESSI.

On the one hand, if such an option were simple and easy to implement, it would have already been implemented, even though 20 months have passed since the Prague speech marking the launch of the ESSI.

On the other hand, for Olaf Sholz, the very articulation of this offer, designed to exclude France, reflects his own positioning in terms of European cooperation, putting Germany in the position of political and technological leader, very far from the position balance initially posed by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron in 2017.

Finally, the German defense industry, very politically introduced, will not let the Aster and the MICA VL NG steal the show from the IRIS-T SLM system and the IRIS-T family under development, designed precisely to impose in the European armies, as the Leopard 2 has done this before.

Finally, the ESSI was designed to ensure support from Washington, at least, for its implementation. The IRIS-T SLM not being an alternative to the Patriot PAC-3, and the US industry having no alternatives to the German SLM at medium range, the two offers are perfectly complementary. Conversely, between the MICA VL NG and the Mamba, France has a competitive offering of both systems.

IRIS-T SLM firing
The IRIS-T SLM is undoubtedly the system that will benefit the most from the ESSI, representing the lowest common technological and operational denominator of the initiative.

There is, therefore, no objective reason to let France disrupt this hegemonic growth for its founding actors, especially since geographically speaking, the addition of it in the European air defense glacis will only change very much. its effectiveness in the face of the Russian threat, and even in the face of possible Iranian threats.

It will therefore be necessary for Olaf Scholz to leave the chancellery, and for his replacement to share a vision closer to that of Merkel, to impose a political decision on German and American industrialists, in order to hope for a change of position in this area, allowing Paris to join the ESSI, without major renunciations.

Build a competitive French offer that is essential for Europeans

The second option, for Paris, would be to build an alternative offer to the ESSI, intended for Europeans, based on competitive advantages exclusive to France. Unable to differentiate itself in a sufficiently significant manner, from a technological or operational point of view, against the Patriot PAC-3 and the IRIS-T, the only card that can be played here by Paris is based on French deterrence.

The principle would be to highlight that the extension of the French deterrence protection bubble to certain European neighbors would require strict coordination of air defense means, to allow Rafale B armed with ASMPA missiles, their escort and support aircraft, to operate from the airspace of the country concerned.

RAfale B ASMPA
The growing interest of several Eastern European countries, for the offer made by Emmanuel Macron in 2020, concerning the extension of French deterrence, constitutes an exploitable axis to counter the technological hegemony of Germany in within the ESSI.

As French deterrence is not integrated into NATO deterrence, and acts strictly autonomously, it is therefore essential, in this case, that the air defense system of the protected country is interconnected and fully compatible with the defense initiative. French European strategy.

Note that if the extension of French deterrence had caused a Taulé in Europe, when mentioned by Emmanuel Macron, the positions of many countries have evolved greatly on the subject since the start of the war in Ukraine, and even more since the repeated threats from Donald Trump, on NATO and American strategic protection in Europe.

Thus, while it had been at the forefront in terms of criticism of the opening made by the French president in 2020, Poland seems to have, today, much more encouraging positions towards him. Note also that membership in the ESSI is only symbolic for many countries, which have not yet initiated the acquisition of compatible systems.

Focusing entirely on naval and/or non-European exports

The last option, for Paris, would be to abandon the idea of ​​being able to impose itself in Europe in the face of the ESSI, and to concentrate all efforts and lines of communication on other, more promising markets.

Aster 15 Charles de Gaulle
The Aster missile and the PAAMS system currently equip more than forty major naval units around the world, and more than sixty in the years to come.

The first of these markets is the naval sector, for which the Aster, the PAAMS system and the MICA VL have already achieved numerous successes, including for export. To fully play this card, sufficiently to preserve the skills and competitive sustainability of the entire French air defense sector, Paris will have to agree to certain investments, especially since the main competitor here is American.

The overhaul of the PAAMS system, and more specifically, of the SYLVER vertical launch system, would certainly prove necessary in this hypothesis, to guarantee an effective competitive positioning against the American Mk41, SM-2/3/6 and ESSM.

More efficient than the American VLS in many areas, particularly regarding launch rate, the SYLVER however suffers from the impossibility, to date, of loading several short missiles in a long silo. We're talking about multipacking.

Thus, the ESSM missile, a competitor to the Aster 15 and the MICA VL NG, can be embarked by 4 in a single MK41 silo, allowing a frigate with only one Mk41 tactical module system, equivalent to the SYLVER 50, to implement 32 ESSM missiles, for only eight silos.

SYLVER 70 MDCN
Although efficient, the French SYLVER system does not allow several short missiles to be imported simultaneously in a single silo. A new version of this system, integrating this possibility, would represent a considerable operational and commercial advance compared to the American Mk41.

This development requires a thorough redesign of the SYLVER, but would erase the greatest weakness of this system on the international scene compared to the American MK41, while highlighting two arguments that are often very appreciated. Indeed, the Sylver, like the Aster 15/30 and MICA VL missiles, and the SAMP/T Mamba system, are ITAR Free, and German Free.

Either are frequently requested, today, particularly in the Middle East and South America. The combination of the two is undoubtedly a major asset in these theaters.

Conclusion: a now reduced window to react

As we can see, the decision announced by Warsaw to join the European SkyShield Initiative is, without doubt, a hard blow for Paris, in its efforts to change the technological paradigms surrounding this initiative.

Worse still, unless it submits and renounces integrating Mamba and MICA VL into the ESSI compatible technological offer, there is now little chance that Paris will be able to alter the determination of Berlin and its chancellor in this area. As France does not intend to purchase the IRIS-T SLM or the Patriot, French membership, in this hypothesis, would have no justification.

MBDA France
The sustainability of MBDA France's surface-to-air missile division today relies on a rapid decision from Paris on how to respond to Polish membership of the ESSI.

The fact remains that Paris still has a few options to try to contain the threat that ESSI represents on the market and the sustainability of French industry in the field of air defense.

One, European, would consist of merging an alternative offer to the German ESSI, with the extension of deterrence mentioned by President Macron in 2020, on the subject of which positions are evolving rapidly, now that US protection is weakened by the threat of a victory for Donald Trump in the next presidential elections.

The other is based on the pure and simple abandonment of this European land market by France, to become fully involved in the naval field, as well as in non-European export markets, by highlighting the ITAR- FREE and GERMAN-FREE of these systems.

In any case, Paris will now have to choose a course of action very quickly, and invest fully in giving it substance, and thus guarantee the sustainability of this know-how of the French BITD. The worst posture here would be to remain in the same wait-and-see attitude that allowed ESSI to attract 23 European countries to its scope, effectively closing as many potential markets to MBDA France.

Article from April 18 in full version until May 26

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5 Comments

  1. We have always had this choice and have for years. Supplying alternative markets who love our Itar free equipment and especially naval.

    From an economic point of view, who will produce asters 15 and 30 in the next 10 years and in large quantities?
    It’s obviously the ships.

    The war in Ukraine demonstrated that we cannot hold out by demolishing 100k drones with 2 million missiles on all possible targets in a territory.
    On the sea it's another story, because apart from your target frigate there is not much else except water.
    Let's develop a Rapidfire/LMP/aster15/aster30 quartet suitable for naval use and let's go for it!!!!!
    The Irys T systems which will be sold to all Eastern European countries will probably never fire a missile
    The boats will be another story.

  2. On the one hand there is not only France but also Italy, on the other the weak point of the ESSI is its integration within the EU, so part of the budgets will be extracted from the European budget and the, Italy and France have a role to play because they can block or slow down the project. Germany went a little strong by integrating Israel into the project, concerning the USA, Germany is a bit of a Trojan horse, even if we wish it would be interesting to see Germany's position if Trump is elected, especially since the latter makes his policy based on men and not countries, not sure he will appreciate Scholz

  3. The development of a means of exo-atmospheric interception is indeed crucial for the security and defense of Europe.

  4. Scholz is not a partner for France unlike Merkel.
    Deutchland uber ales….
    He will do everything to destroy our arms industry. We are decidedly naive and not very competent in commercial terms compared to Germany….
    Our responsible minister is not very smart...

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