Europe’s roads and railways aren’t fit for a fight with Russia
Having a better army doesn’t much matter if you can’t get it moving.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has focused attention on preparing the EU’s roads, railways, ports and airports for the rapid movement of troops and tanks. Relieving bottlenecks and buttressing tracks and bridges used by both military and civilians is crucial to the Continent’s defense program. But despite those worries, the EU isn’t planning any immediate increase in spending on the issue.
“The further east you go, the infrastructure does not support the heavy weight of U.S., German, British and Dutch tanks, it’s the bridges,” said retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army Europe and now affiliated to think tank CEPA. “We’ve got to show we can move as fast or faster than the Russian Federation in the Suwałki Gap [between Poland and Lithuania] or in Romania.”
The Connecting Europe Facility (CEF), the EU’s funding vehicle for infrastructure projects, was agreed last year and it allocates €1.7 billion to military mobility — down from the €6.5 billion that was initially proposed (but more than the zero that some advocated). Cutting the budget seemed like a good idea back when EU leaders thought war was a remote scenario.
On Thursday, EU diplomats agreed with the European Commission on spending nearly €340 million of the CEF military envelope on 22 mostly small-scale projects as part of that program — largely in Central Europe.
Those projects include strengthening rail links from Antwerp into Germany so that longer trains can move east, upgrades at two airports in Poland and boosting transport links to the Tapa military base in Estonia.
One official involved in the talks said countries also agreed to bring forward the next round of project funding to May from September, although that won’t change the size of the overall budget.
Critics complain that the scale of the funding is well below what’s needed to prepare the Continent for a military threat, and some members of the European Parliament are pushing for a much faster increase in spending.
“The money is ridiculous,” said Romanian MEP Marian-Jean Marinescu. The European People’s Party lawmaker was one of the Parliament’s leads in negotiations on CEF. The final total agreed is “almost nothing” compared to the bloc’s strategic needs, he said.
Despite earlier skepticism, there’s been a “180-degree” turn on the need for military mobility spending thanks to the war, according to a senior Commission official working on the issue.
“In Europe, one has had the sentiment that we did not need to spend on defense,” said Georg Riekeles, who covers security at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank. “Since February 24 [when Russia attacked Ukraine], that picture has completely changed.”
The problems with infrastructure have been apparent for years, as NATO expanded to the east, but spending on roads and railways didn’t follow.
In 2017, Hodges led U.S. troops landing at Bremerhaven, in northwest Germany. While the port infrastructure was up to scratch, routes out were not. “There is a choke point in how fast can you get on the road,” he said. “No matter how big the port is, if you’re not prepared for rapid movement then everything gets stacked up.”
Fit for a fight
It’s a problem as the alliance looks to beef up its forces in the east to deter Russia.
“Just to get into Romania over the Carpathian mountains, it’s very difficult with a tank on the back of a transport truck,” said Hodges.
While NATO coordinates military action, it doesn’t finance bridges, railways and roads. That’s where the EU is supposed to step up with the CEF.
“[Militaries] are using the same infrastructure as the civilians, and so they run into the same problems,” said the Commission official. “They run into problems in ports, for a modal shift from ships to rail, they run into the same bottlenecks in urban nodes or with the same reduced train lengths, they have the same problems that certain airports are not linked to rail.”
The CEF military mobility money is aimed at connecting airports to railways, strengthening bridges and clearing space at ports for rapid landing. Other larger projects — such as Rail Baltica, a €5.8 billion European standard-gauge train connection running through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to Poland — are also cited as critical for defense.
As part of Thursday’s round of project approvals, €5 million will go to boosting military capability on the Latvia leg of Rail Baltica.
The biggest funding approval was €60 million for Via Baltica, a road link through the Baltics, hardly a major investment given new schemes typically cost billions.
Marinescu wants the bloc to move now rather than wait for the next seven-year CEF infrastructure budget in 2028: “We have to have something now,” he said.
In a debate in Parliament’s transport committee last week, he proposed dipping into the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility as some €232 billion of the post-pandemic fund’s loans have yet to be earmarked for use.
“Part of this money … could be used for our needs in dual-use infrastructure,” Marinescu said.
This week, more than 60 MEPs from groups across the political spectrum sent a letter, obtained by POLITICO, to EU leaders and French President Emmanuel Macron to “draw … attention to the urgent need to boost the Military Mobility program.”
That means directing more EU cash to “strategically urgent projects, in particular in the Eastern part of the EU,” and simplified procedures for project evaluations and environmental impact assessments, they wrote.
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