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European Sky Shield Initiative: Reinforcing Europe’s Air Defences

Dr Swasti Rao is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • December 28, 2022

    The Ukraine war has reset Europe’s equation with Russia in an irrevocable manner. It has united a seemingly fractured European leadership and provided NATO’s waning presence in the region with an unprecedented expansion and capability boost.

    The European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI) is the latest military upgrade to come out of NATO’s security doctrine. A Letter of Intent (LoI) was signed on 13 October 2022 by Defence Ministers of the 14 NATO countries and Finland (in the process of becoming a NATO member)1 to boost Europe’s short, medium and long-range air defence capabilities. Spearheaded by Germany, the objective of this initiative is to develop a common air and missile defence system to defend NATO and European airspace. Of the 15 signatories, the three Baltic States and Finland share borders with Russia, while Romania, Slovakia, Hungary share a border with Ukraine.

    In the backdrop of the ongoing Russia–Ukraine war, this initiative is an attempt by NATO and its allies to bolster NATO’s Integrated Air and Missile Defence System (NATO IAMD).2 NATO IAMD is the defensive component of the alliance’s Joint Air Power, which aims to ensure the stability and security of NATO’s airspace by coordinating, controlling and exploiting the air domain. It has developed into a highly flexible and highly responsive network of interconnected national and NATO systems comprised of sensor, command and control assets and weapons systems.3 The new European Sky Shield Initiative adds to the NATO IAMD through a jointly developed missile defence system which relies on previously developed technology and interoperability between the signatories.

    The Context

    NATO’s Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană highlighted threat posed by Russia for regional security, as displayed in the indiscriminate missile attacks on Ukraine.4 He stated that commitment between the allied countries "is even more crucial" today than ever due to the recent launch of Russian missiles towards Ukraine.5 Moscow’s precision strikes on military and infrastructure facilities across Ukraine that followed the attack on the Crimean Bridge on 8 October 2022 have been particularly unnerving.6  

    A month later, stray missiles fell on Polish territory that were later found to be ‘misses’ by Ukraine in intercepting Russian air attacks. Such incidents do scratch the vulnerabilities of NATO’s air defences.7 There has been a growing realisation across NATO members to plug the gaps which can lead to a dangerous escalation if left unattended. It must be noted that while more advanced Western air defence missiles are designed to destroy themselves if they miss their target, several of older Soviet missiles do not have such a mechanism. That could be how the stray, Ukraine-launched-but-Russian-made missiles landed on Polish territory killing two people.

    Germany’s Reinvigorated Military Outlook

    The Russian war in Ukraine has brought several overhauls in Germany’s military outlook.8 Spearheading the ESSI is yet another significant milestone.

    German Chancellor Olaf Scholz first touted the idea of integrating various European systems into a common Europe-wide defence system during a speech at Prague in August this year.9 He had argued that the EU-27 need to protect themselves with a solution that would guarantee safety against potential attacks from Russia. In fact, Scholz went as far as proposing the idea of a combined European army, a policy earlier advocated by France but Germany was then sceptical of.10  Scholz pushed the idea for a central military command system with the eventual goal of an EU headquarters. He had also added that it was necessary to build EU's military capabilities in a way that would complement the NATO.

    Scholz’s announcement for joint military capabilities also comes alongside speeding up deliveries of the IRIS-T air defence systems to Ukraine.11 It seems that by committing to the development of important yet missing capabilities in NATO through the ESSI,12 Berlin wants to compensate for its reluctance to send substantial military aid to Ukraine. Germany also wants to strengthen its own air defence capabilities. Bundeswehr currently only has about 12 medium range upgraded Patriot batteries but no other short or long range capabilities.13

    Germany is of the view that an anti-ballistic missile defence system will be more cost effective when purchased jointly. By listing the IRIS-T SLM short-range air defence system (manufactured by Diehl Defence) as one of the three components of the ESSI, the Scholz government is also aiming to promote the German arms industry.14 The other two possible components of the ESSI project that have been listed so far are the Israeli-US Arrow-3 exo-atmospheric anti-ballistic missile defence system and the US PATRIOT medium-range system.15 The focus on US and German made systems seems to be one of the reasons why other leading defence industrial powers in Europe have not joined the programme as yet.

    Does ESSI reflect a united NATO?

    While the ESSI does reflect a further bolstered NATO’s air deterrence and defence to its east, it does not yet show the participation of other NATO members like France, Spain, Poland and Italy. Countries with their own robust air defences that are already inter-operable with that of NATO’s existing NATO IAMDs  have also steered clear of this project. Spain, for example, already has anti-missile shielding equipment interoperable with NATO’s.

    France’s absence despite being a major European power is particularly conspicuous. So is the absence of Poland, a frontline state in the ongoing war in neighbouring Ukraine.

    One of the reasons why France has not joined the initiative could be as a result of prioritising the interests of French defence industrial complex. In the future, if the listed components of ESSI would aim to include, for example, the French SAMP/T system,16 Paris might be more inclined to join the initiative. It would provide a boost to France’s military industry. Like Germany, France too has been criticised for lagging in sending military support to Ukraine.

    Macron’s recent announcement that Paris will be sending short range air defences to Kyiv is seen as compensating for the lack of military support so far.17 Co-incidentally, Macron’s announcement came on the same day as NATO announced its ESSI initiative. Both France and Germany have had a traditional policy of engaging Russia.18 Despite fully supporting the sanctions and EU wide policies towards disengaging from Russia, the two European powers are seen as more mindful of not isolating it totally.19

    Poland, under the Wisla air defence programme, has already been developing military industrial cooperation with the United States since 2018.20 Poland’s Narew short range air defence programme with UK is underway since 2021.21 With such multi-billion dollars’ worth of joint defence programmes with the US and the UK, there seems to be little appetite in Warsaw right now to join the ESSI.

    Cyprus, Ireland and Malta are also not expected to join the integrated air defence as they are not part of NATO. However, close cooperation without formal joining may be expected as momentum picks up.

    However, some of the participating countries like the Baltic states are developing their own air defence programmes and for them, ESSI could be an opportunity to complement existing capabilities and acquire new ones.22


    The ESSI, for now, demonstrates a concrete objective for bolstering NATO’s air defences in a cost-effective manner. Under German leadership, this initiative will boost a hitherto non-military stature of Germany within the EU. While the ESSI is directly triggered by Russia’s war in Ukraine, NATO’s insufficient air defences along its eastern front have been a matter of deliberation within the East European members of the alliance. The ESSI may expand later with the inclusion of new members. A modern, inter-operable and coordinated air defence will enhance NATO IAMD’s capabilities, provided jointness and coordination are prioritised over other differences of opinion among the prominent European states.23

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.