Europe, a land of military innovation

Article published on Nov. 3, 2017
Article published on Nov. 3, 2017

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

How is it that several European armies, while remaining smaller in size, funding and firepower, compared to the US army, are comparably-powered allies? The British, French, German, Polish, and many others are considered among the most powerful forces in the world, and seem to have found a way to remain so.

Clearly, it would be foolish and wrong to say that the only stilts beneath American military power are size and money: there are many others. If only through the nuclear technology within their submarines and aircraft carriers, or their multirole stealth jet-fighters, anyone will agree that US military innovation is something to be reckoned with. Their strategic sense, while not always crowned with success, has shown valuable throughout history. So why are European allies still so proactive in military technologies, instead of simply lagging behind the American ally and buying whatever they can from across the Atlantic? And, before that question, lies another: which major military inventions can be chalked up on the European blackboard?

While there are many celebrated examples of innovation brought out by ‘need being the mother of invention’ from the Second World War, the Europeans maintain a sustained level of investment in military technology.  This not also delivers tactical advantage to their forces but drives forward their defence industries enabling European manufacturers to compete with their US counterparts.

Submarine technology has been pushed forward by Europeans lately, with the development of the submarine pump-jet, first fielded on the HMS Churchill. These propulsion systems, which are already thrusting forward British and French submarines, are replacing bare shaft propellers, which submarines had until now shared with surface ships. A pump jet, which uses the Newtonian principle of mass displacement, pumps water out of the ship at a high pressure, to thrust it forwards. It provides increased manoeuvrability compared to propeller shafts and, more importantly, is far quieter. Sonar evasion and acoustic stealth are critical to submarines, which evolve in an environment which carries sound 5 times faster and better than air, and therefore need to keep their sound signature as low as possible. Kyle Mizokami, describing the acoustic feat of pump jets on the modern Virginia class US submarines (the US followed the British on pump jets), says: “They [...] are powered by one General Electric SG9 nuclear reactor, driving a propulsor/pump-jet instead of a propeller. Speeds are reportedly twenty-five knots on the surface and thirty-five knots underwater, and the submarines are reportedly as quiet at twenty-five knots as the Los Angeles class is alongside the pier.

On the surface of the seas, stealth frigates are likely to be the next game changer, with their capacity to monitor ocean surface and support beaching operations while remaining undetected. The latest destroyer to have come out of the docks of Maine is the USS Zumwalt which, despite yielding heavy firepower looks like a fishing boat on a radar. The technology was championed by the Swedes, who were the put to sea the Visby corvettes, which reduced almost to zero their Radar Cross-section (their radar signature), through engineered shapes, retractable gear and composite materials. They received additional stealth through optimized heat dispersion, so as to evade heat-tracking observation, and reduced acoustic signatures, so as to evade sonar detection. Despite being first to jump into the technological void, Visby-class are considered an engineering success. The US Navy quickly followed suit with the Zumwalt, but the US warship is criticized for being far behind its European cousin, in combat potential (both resilience and firepower) as well as seaworthiness. James Holmes says, about the Zumwalt: “Others question their ability to remain buoyant and stable after suffering mishaps or battle damage […] The navy recently opted to substitute lesser-caliber 30-mm guns for the 57-mm guns originally envisioned to empower the ship to duel small boats and light surface combatants.”

European weapon industries have shown their worth by persuading the US army to resort to their equipment, breaking with the tradition of equipping American forces with American equipment. The Department of Defense opted to fit German tubes onto their main battle tank, the M1 Abrams, considered among the most powerful in the world. The cannon is the 120mm Rheinmetall model, which is also fitted onto Leopard 2 tanks in the German Army. It combines steel, plastic, composite and chrome, it provides excellent accuracy, power, and durability – well beyond other cannons on the market. Combined with depleted uranium shells, it is considered “the cannon no one wants to face”. National Interest quoted it “could hit a moving target at two thousand meters with 90 percent accuracy […] and could penetrate 420 millimetres of RHA positioned at a sixty-degree angle for maximum armour thickness”. On the current international military chessboard, the German Rheinmetall M256 tube and depleted uranium pierces any armour, anywhere in the world. 

The most recent acquisition was carried out by Qatar which is currently receiving its first vehicles, as reported by Christopher Gross : “Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) has delivered almost half of the 62 Leopard 2A7+ series main battle tanks (MBTs) on contract to Qatar. The deal is the company's first major export contract for heavy armour in the Middle East.

On the Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) side, which forms a key strategic facet of land force capacity, French Defence industry Nexter and British BAE systems have formed a joint venture in order to design the new-generation CTA 40mm cannon (Cased Telescoped Armament), which greatly increases both range and armour-penetration power for IFV turrets. CTA 40 mm is a new ammunition architecture, which breaks with traditional ammunition architecture turning the traditional bottle shape into what looks like a beverage can. Aware that most armoured vehicles were now immune to 30mm fire, CTAI opted to re-think the architecture of the round, and designed a shorter, stouter cartridge, which deals several times more damage than its 30mm counterpart, at far greater rounds, while having a smaller volume. IFVs are mainly the battlefield counterpart of other IFVs, and the acquisition of 40mm CTA turrets will therefore enable IFVs to rule the battlefield, by killing any other light armour (enemy IFVs and other types of lightly-armoured vehicles) within their range, while remaining out of theirs. 40mm CTA is set to replace the current 30mm cannons in UK service over the next couple of decades. British MoD recently validated the manufacturer's claims: “Equipped with CT cannon, ammunition handling system, CTAS controller, gun control equipment and gum mount, the cannon occupies less space than a conventionally configured 40mm cannon without any loss of firepower.

It has been half a century, or even a full century by some regards, since European countries could pride themselves as largest army in the world. Since then, their comparatively smaller volumes have brought them to rely on advanced levels of training, and tip-of-the-spear armament, to stay abreast with their global counterparts. The high levels of technology which compact armies require have greatly contributed to the remarkable success of Europe’s defence industry: Europe is no exception; many countries in the world, namely in the middle-East, have to compensate their relatively small military headcounts with technological “force multipliers”.