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The German frigate Hessen received a send-off to the Red Sea from Wilhelmshaven on February 8, where it participatef in the international mission to protect shipping in the Red Sea. Picture: CARMEN JASPERSEN/REUTERS
The German frigate Hessen received a send-off to the Red Sea from Wilhelmshaven on February 8, where it participatef in the international mission to protect shipping in the Red Sea. Picture: CARMEN JASPERSEN/REUTERS

London — On February 27, the frigate Hessen became the first German warship since 1945 to fire in anger as its crew engaged three unidentified drones they believed posed an immediate threat to Red Sea shipping.

The first salvo of two SM-2 interceptor missiles missed as a fortunate consequence of what German officials later said was human error — the first drone targeted, which the Germans said failed to transmit a standard identification signal, turned out to be a US MQ-9 Reaper operating separately to the US-led “Prosperity Guardian” shipping protection mission.

The next shots, however, successfully brought down two Iranian-made drones almost certainly operated by Houthi fighters in nearby Yemen who have wreaked havoc on international shipping routes in recent months.

Four days later, the Italian frigate Duilio brought down a similar unmanned aerial vehicle which officials said had approached the ship. The two events are a reminder that Europe is being dragged deeper into a growing conflict that it is now racing to adapt to.

In February, the EU agreed to send its own task force to the Red Sea to protect shipping against drone missile strikes, a force that will work parallel to the US mission.

But it is the conflict in Ukraine, and the realisation that regardless of whether Donald Trump returns to the White House, the US is refocusing on Asia and therefore less on Europe, that are truly forcing change.

The past few weeks have shown European leaders grappling with that new reality amid increasingly public rows over how the continent can best handle Ukraine, avoid catastrophic war and co-ordinate its own defence without always having to turn to the US.

Since the founding of Nato in 1949, European nations have based their defence on a partnership with Washington — and have often struggled to find common ground beyond that, with talk of a joint European army unravelling several times.

The past two weeks have seen another spike in often highly public disagreements, particularly between Berlin and Paris. On the surface, arguments tend to be over specific policies or statements — such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s suggestion that European nations shouldn’t rule out sending combat troops to Ukraine, or whether Berlin should provide Taurus cruise missiles to Kyiv.

More broadly, however, they represent a resumption of a long-predictable tussle for control of European defence policy between Germany and France, one that may determine how the continent is defended in the coming decades.

The mounting violence in the Red Sea is now clearly part of that growing challenge. So far, US Navy vessels — alongside two British counterparts and one French warship — have shot down the vast majority of incoming drones and missiles. Strill, there are mounting concerns in Washington that this is exhausting US stockpiles.

Ultimately, most of the ships passing through the Red Sea are en route to Europe, and it appears inevitable those nations will need to step up their defence despite the mounting risk.

Ukraine, however, is now proving a much more dramatic driver. With US military supplies to Ukraine blocked in Congress, Kyiv is much more dependent on Europe for weapons to survive the coming year — and is already complaining that EU nations managed to deliver fewer than a third of the 1-million artillery shells they had promised by the end of March.

European leaders broadly agree that they must fix that problem fast. The past two weeks, however, have seen public rows on how to do so.

Macron’s suggestion of combat troops was roundly rejected by several Western nations, most particularly by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whom Macron had mocked for his attempts at the beginning of the war to limit German supplies to sleeping bags and helmets.

By most measures, Berlin has since chalked out a slot as the leading military supporter of Ukraine in Europe, with the Keil Institute reporting its contribution in the two years from January 2022 at €17.7bn, more than double Britain’s £7bn and much more than the €2.6bn reported by France.

But Germany has been repeatedly pilloried for its initial reluctance to send each new tranche of arms, from Leopard tanks to its current refusal to send Taurus cruise missiles or allow them to be used against targets in Russian territory in the same manner as similar missiles from the UK, France and the US.

Germany has nevertheless agreed to triple its forces assigned to Nato in Lithuania near the Suwalki Gap between Belarus, Poland and the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, an increase that Britain and France, which provide the majority of troops for a UK-led force in Estonia, have so far failed to match.

German officials have pledged to commit 2% of GDP to defence, perhaps even more, though the timescale remains murky.

Still, Germany’s reputation in military and intelligence circles took another hit last week. Russian media leaked details of a hacked call from a German general at the Singapore air show on an unsecured internet connection that included details of internal German disagreements over Taurus as well as British military activities delivering Storm Shadow missiles.

That prompted comments from analysts and former officials questioning Germany’s reliability as an ally, as well as pointed reminders that Berlin remained in favour of the Nordstream pipeline that would have increased Europe’s energy dependency on Russia until well after the Ukraine invasion.

Ironically, the leak and accompanying talk of divisions within Europe overshadowed coverage of Nato’s largest military drills since the end of the Cold War — Steadfast Defender — which saw German, British and other combat engineers transporting thousands of military vehicles over Polish rivers to demonstrate commitment and ability to reinforce Nato’s eastern flank.

However — at least in mainland Europe — there is growing concern that current forces might be far short of what is required, and that fighting in Ukraine and growing European tensions might spill into a wider war sooner than expected.

This week, Der Spiegel reported that German defence minister Boris Pistorius, who earlier this year had described his country’s armed forces as unfit for war, would introduce proposals allowing conscription and for numbers to be increased rapidly in a time of danger.

Such an approach, however, is hugely controversial in Europe — a majority oppose conscription even in Poland. Poland, however, now spends 4% of its GDP on the military with just over 200,000 active-duty forces, a number it intends to increase by another 100,000, as well as an even larger reserve.

The further from the threat, the lower the enthusiasm. A YouGov poll in January showed 38% of under 40s in Britain would refuse conscription in time of war, with 30% continuing to hold that position even if the country faced imminent invasion.

All British officials have stressed they have no plans for conscription despite January talk of a “citizens’ army”, arguing that the UK itself faces limited immediate threat with Russia’s forces at the other end of Europe.

Those closer are inevitably less sanguine. Two weeks ago, the incoming commander of Estonia’s defence forces, Col Andrus Merilo, told Estonian TV that Europeans needed to realise that a future, wider European war might already have begun in Ukraine.

“The war in Ukraine has been going on for 10 years now (with Russia’s annexation of Crimea), and two years ago it escalated to the next phase, the full-scale attack,” he said. “The question is what phase this crisis will evolve into ... If Russia has plans of directing its military aggression in other directions, most probably it won’t pause to give us time to prepare during these intervening years.”


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