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The European Union plans to increase defense spending by 70 billion over the next three years and is promoting more joint procurement among its members, Defense News reported.

The war in Ukraine has forced Europe to face the return of conventional weapons to the continent, and with it the consequences of decades of underinvestment in its defense capabilities. Dwindling ammunition stocks, in particular, have forced officials to collectively rebuild stockpiles.

But cooperative procurement efforts have so far failed to materialize on a large scale. At the European Defense Agency's (EDA) annual conference, stakeholders from the union's civilian and defense leadership analyzed what is preventing EU members from procuring weapons effectively.

The EDA's annual defense data report contains positive news. The EU spent 214 billion euros on defense in 2021, a new high for the bloc and 6 percent more than in 2020, the first time its spending exceeded 200 billion euros.

Member states spent €52 billion on procurement and research and development (R&D), also a record high of 24% of total defense investment and 16% more than was spent in these areas in 2020.

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell welcomed these investments, but raised the bar even higher by promising member states to add 70 billion euros to defense spending over the next three years. While acknowledging that this goal will prove challenging, Borrell warned that focusing solely on national, current defense priorities and relying on off-the-shelf acquisitions will only expand the current “fragmented European Union capability landscape.”

Borrell also noted key areas for improvement: joint procurement remains lower than desired, and investment commitments among members are uneven.

In 2021, joint procurement totaled about €8 billion, representing only 18% of all defense investment. That's up from 11% in 2020, but also well below the EDA's "modest benchmark" of 35%, Borrell noted.

Borrell and others at the conference urged member states to meet short- and medium-term weapons needs by "buying more and buying more together."

But the ministers and stakeholders in attendance were also realistic about the challenges of a joint EU procurement effort. While delays and difficulties in launching high-profile projects such as the trinational Future Combat Air System (FCAS) made headlines, even smaller projects launched under initiatives such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) failed to get off the ground after years of planning.

Member nations “have repeatedly made the mistake of hyping some initiative, and actually promoting it as a real game changer in defense security, and then inevitably, disappointment came,” Jires said during a panel discussion at the conference.

Officials noted that the war in Ukraine provided a window of opportunity for procurement to replace obsolete Soviet-made equipment among EU member states. To some extent, this is already happening, as Germany this year launched the "Ringtausch" or "Ringswap" equipment exchange program to encourage allies to send their Soviet-era equipment to Ukraine and receive NATO-compatible equipment.

More could be done to link the European Union and NATO to help replenish needed supplies and increase joint defense procurement.

According to Stacey Cummings, director general of the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA), NATO members can use a basic online tool to coordinate their investments.

Cummings said she introduced the concept of an "online clearinghouse" to the alliance representatives, which would be based on the NATO Logistics Stock Exchange, an online marketplace. This would allow member states to access existing contracts as well as view each other's surplus stockpiles “so that nations can seamlessly offer stock, or other defense systems, to other participating nations,” she explained.

But there has long been "a sheer lack of information-sharing" between the EU and NATO, which isolates non-EU NATO members such as the United States, Canada and Norway and impedes the union's ability to share its defense investments, Czech Deputy Defense Minister Jires said.

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