SecurityEconomyInternationalKey TopicPolitics

“Sky shield” over Europe

12. February 2024 - from Dr Theodor Benien

The European Sky Shield Initiative, or ESSI, initiated by Germany, aims to significantly improve Europe’s defences against possible air attacks. To date, 19 nations have joined the initiative. Their goal: to jointly procure, deploy and maintain radar systems, anticraft guns and surface-to-air missiles.

Defending against missiles, planes and drones

Air defence describes the ability to defend against aerial threats such as missiles, mortar and artillery shells, drones, heli­copters and fixed-wing aircraft. Experts differentiate between three layers of interception where capability gaps exist which ESSI seeks to address:

  • Short range: ranges of up to 15 km at altitudes of up to 6 km
  • Medium range: ranges of 15 to 50 km and up to a maximum altitute of 25 km
  • Long range: ranges of over 50 km and altitudes of up to 35 km

The European Sky Shield Initiative, or ESSI, seeks to substantially enhance Europe’s air defences in coming years. It was prompted by Russia’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine, which in February 2024 will have already lasted two years. One of the most important realizations: the civilian population in Ukrainian cities is not well protected against Russian air attacks, thus making them highly vulnerable. For this reason, the defence ministers of 15 NATO countries agreed in Brussels on 13 October 2022 to set up a comprehensive “sky shield” over Europe. The planned protective umbrella was called into being at Germany’s initiative. Experts see this as evidence that Germany is finally willing to take up a greater leadership role on the Western stage.

In a keynote address at the end of August 2022 in Prague, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz put European air defence squarely on NATO’s policy agenda. “We have some serious catching up to do in Europe when it comes to defending ourselves against threats from the air and space”, declared Scholz in his speech, going on to say that, “This is why we in Germany will be investing substantially in air defence in coming years.”

The Chancellor sees clear political, military and financial advantages here: “A jointly established air defence network in Europe would not only be less costly and more efficient than if each of us set up our own expensive, highly complex air defence systems. It would be a major gain for the security of all Europe – and an outstanding example of what we mean when we speak of strengthening the European pillar of NATO.”

Bridging current capability gaps

The European Sky Shield Initiative aims to protect NATO’s European nations more effectively from aerial threats. This entails expanding existing capabilities and plugging current capability gaps. To do this quickly, ESSI member states plan to jointly procure, deploy and maintain systems such as radars, automatic cannons and anti-aircraft missiles.

European Sky Shield Initiative

At present, 19 European nations are taking part in ESSI: Germany, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Denmark, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Austria and Switzerland.

Progress since the start of the ­programme

Ever since its creation, observers have been intently watching to see if the political declar­ations would lead to concrete actions, especially since France, one of Germany’s most important security partners, has yet to join the initiative. However, despite lingering scepticism, the European project has made respectable headway during the past two years:

  1. October 2022: The new programme begins with 15 nations. In the meantime, its membership has grown to 19 countries, including Finland and NATO candidate Sweden as well as Austria and Switzerland, two neutral nations, in July 2023.
  2. June 2023: Germany’s military procurement agency, the Federal Office of the Bundeswehr for Equipment, Information Technology and Utilisation, or BAAINBw, signs a contract for six fire units of the ground-based, medium-range IRIS-T SLM air defence system.
  3. Rheinmetall’s Skyranger 30 is the future solution envisaged for the ESSI short-range domain (for defending against drones, for example). In Germany negotiations are currently underway for procurement of the Skyranger 30, to be mounted on the Boxer wheeled armoured vehicle. Hungary, another NATO member state, was the first country to order a prototype of the Skyranger 30, which it plans to install on its Lynx infantry fighting vehicles, a tracked system made by Rheinmetall. Denmark also recently announced that it would be procuring around fifteen Skyranger 30 air defence systems.
  4. September 2023: German defence minister Boris Pistorius and his Israeli counterpart, Joav Galant, agree on the purchase of the Arrow 3 anti-missile system, which is considered the best of its kind worldwide. Developed and manufactured by Israel and the USA, it is designed to intercept ballistic missiles outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Procurement of Arrow 3 by the Bundeswehr is taking place outside of the ESSI framework.
  5. October 2023: In a further step, ten nations sign a memorandum of understanding containing the parameters for joint procurement of air defence solutions.

The upshot: closer defence cooperation in Europe

The investments in air defence related to ESSI will have the potential to advance the cause of European defence cooperation in general. This makes sense not just in terms of military effect­iveness and interoperability, but also from the financial standpoint. This is because the costs will be shouldered by multiple member states.

There’s another advantage. Under this initiative, the government in Berlin can prove that it has the political will to assume greater responsibility for European defence and to take the lead in the urgently needed programme to revamp Europe’s air defence capabilities. Moreover, several NATO nations have long expected their German ally to take this step. ESSI can therefore be seen as a political opportunity for Germany within the Atlantic Alliance.


Dr Theodor Benien

worked for over 30 years as Head of Communications in various divisions of the Airbus Group and was most recently Vice President Communications in the Eurofighter consortium. Since 2020, he has been working as an independent communications consultant with a focus on international security and defence policy.

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