Fifteen European countries unite to boost air defence capabilities

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By Alice Tidey
A convoy for the transport of the Patriot air defense missile system leaves the Bundeswehr site of Air Defense Missile Group 26 in Husum, northern Germany, March 16, 2022.
A convoy for the transport of the Patriot air defense missile system leaves the Bundeswehr site of Air Defense Missile Group 26 in Husum, northern Germany, March 16, 2022.   -   Copyright  Frank Molter/dpa via AP   -  

Fifteen European countries on Thursday announced that they would jointly procure air defence systems to protect the continent under a newly-created European Sky Shield Initiative. 

Germany, which spearheaded the project, will coordinate the joint procurements to urgently plug existing gaps with regard to possible air attacks at close range -- including drones -- as well as medium and long-range, and especially against ballistic missiles and cruise missiles which Russia owns, its defence ministry said.

"It is about being able to set prices accordingly and, of course, it is also about being able to support each other jointly in terms of maintenance. So it's a win-win situation for the countries that are part of it," Minister Christine Lambrecht told reporters on Thursday morning.

Fourteen of the countries involved -- Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, and the United Kingdom -- are NATO members. Finland, whose application to the transatlantic military alliance is pending, is also taking part. 

"We are open to everyone and we know from many countries that there is still a great deal of interest and we have done preparatory work by starting negotiations in advance in the signatory states," Lambrecht added.

The announcement came just hours after the UK and France announced that they were increasing their deliveries of air defence systems to Ukraine following a wave of Russian missile strikes against Ukrainian cities earlier this week. Germany has also supplied Kyiv with multiple IRIS-T systems.

The ESSI initiative has been championed for weeks by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz who dubbed it a "security gain for all of Europe" in a speech in Prague in August and argued it would be more economical and efficient than national systems.

The systems that are likely to be purchased are the German-made IRIS-T, the US Patriot system and the Israeli-manufactured Arrow system, designed to neutralise longer-range threats. Contacts with the manufacturers have already been made, Lambrecht said.

NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană welcomed the creation of the initiative, saying in a statement that "this commitment is even more crucial today, as we witness the ruthless and indiscriminate missile attacks by Russia in Ukraine, killing civilians and destroying critical infrastructure."

"The new assets, fully interoperable and seamlessly integrated within the NATO air and missile defence, would significantly enhance our ability to defend the Alliance from all air and missile threats," he added in a statement.

"It is important that things now move quickly with regard to the procurement of Patriots, with regard to the procurement of Iris-T and, of course, with regard to the procurement of a defence system that goes beyond that.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has spurred a "reset" of NATO posture with allies sending more capabilities to the eastern flank including fighter jets, warships and troops.

Leaders also decided to up the number of its forces at high readiness massively to over 300,000 next year and named Russia as the main threat to the alliance as part of their new "Strategic concept".