The Sky Shield Europe – an initiative by the European Union

Changing times ahead: the European sky shield will soon be installed. Read in this blog more about this topic and Austria’s neutrality.
  • Technology

It is August 2023. The EU takes the initiative: the sky shield Europe or European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI). The war in the Ukraine is still going and thousands of innocent civilians have died – women, children, physically challenged, and more. Buildings demolished, schools and colleges shut down, infrastructure destroyed – but the war shows no signs of ending.

It’s time for a change: the sky shield Europe. Why? Not just physical damages, the war extends to the boundaries of digital operations and data assets as well. In this information age, nations worldwide are constantly bombarded with cyber attacks.

European sky shield

While Ukraine is the direct target, the entire continent of Europe finds itself in jeopardy. As countries feel the sense of intrusion from Russian espionage, the European Union developed its Sky Shield Europe, known as European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI), spearheaded by Germany.

Read on to delve into the European Sky Shield Initiative, its core purpose, the advantages of a sky shield to Europe, measures that the EU must take to protect themselves from cybersecurity attacks, Austria Sky Shield, and more.

What is the European Sky Shield Initiative or Sky Shield Europe?

A sky shield, as the term suggests, is an air defense system shield over the sky. The European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI) refers to a grouping of the states of the European Union (EU) whose objective is to collaboratively fund and defend themselves by forming a common air defense system. The idea is to empower themselves in terms of the defense strategy initiated by Germany in 2022. ESSI includes 19 states as its members (out of the 27 states of the EU) at present.

These are Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, The United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, and Switzerland.

What is the core purpose of the European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI)?

grey plane in air eurofigther

The wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022-23 involved destruction and demolition to the extent of killing innocent civilians and damaging critical infrastructure. While the massive impact even shook the confidence of the powerful nations of the world, states in the European Union felt themselves in danger. With most of them adopting peaceful and war-free foreign policy approaches, they never considered it really mandatory to strengthen themselves in terms of robust defense arms and ammunition.

However, Russia’s “temperament” towards Ukraine made them reconsider their point of views. In August 2022, an initiative was brought by Olaf Scholz, the Chancellor of Germany, which highlighted the need for the European Union to consolidate its security. It was emphasized that Russia being a top-notch military-powered nation and its use of defense equipment to annihilate Ukraine, it was high time the EU nations prepared to face anything. The idea for the Sky shield Europe was born.

With this Germany-led initiative, 15 states (excluding Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, and Sweden) out of 19 mentioned earlier signed a declaration. All these states are also members of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), an entity between nations of Europe and North America that focuses on security and peaceful operations. According to Germany-led ESSI, all the states in the pact of the sky shield Europe would jointly contribute to funding and procuring defense equipment like anti-ballistic missiles to protect themselves from any threats from Russia.

In a nutshell, the unprecedented fear-inspiring, and gruesome attack by Russia on Ukraine impacted innocent citizens and the buildings, structures, and infrastructure in the towns and cities. This necessitated the European Union, under Germany’s leadership, to sign the ESSI agreement. The whole purpose is for these states to collectively protect themselves through joint funding and acquisition of the sky shield or air defense armament.

While at present, only 19 states have entered into the agreement, the ESSI pact remains open for all the European partners, including the major ones like France and Italy, who are currently against it.

What are the benefits for the European Union states from this Sky Shield?

The primary objective of the Sky Shield Europe is to provide security to the states in the European Union. This initiative is similar to the Iron Dome in Israel, which intercepts and destroys any air defense weapons or missiles fired within a range of 4-70 km aimed at the Israeli populated regions. Developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems in conjunction with Israel Aerospace Industries, the Iron Dome has demonstrated a success rate of around 96% in intercepting and destroying the rockets fired from Gaza in the recent fighting between Israel and Palestine.

Sky Shield Europe is conceived with a similar strategy. In terms of technical capabilities, the European Sky Shield Initiative will showcase a multi-layered defense including medium-range (IRIS-T SLM), long-range (MIM-104 Patriot), and Very Long Range (Arrow). These characteristics would equip the European Union to combat the attacks fiercely and safeguard their life and property.

European sky shield nations

The best advantage of the ESSI for the states of the European Union is that they are combinedly and collaboratively securing the funds and procuring the defense artillery and missiles, which ensures cooperation, collective security, and cost-effectiveness for all.

What is the role of Ukraine in the European Sky Shield Initiative?

The European Sky Shield Initiative aims to secure the European continent by building an integrated, ground-based air defense system through the collaboration of all the current members of the pact. By being a part of this initiative, Ukraine could further strengthen its existing military and defense system, thereby developing greater resilience in its war against Russia.

In addition, Ukraine uses the NASAMS system apart from the IRIS- T, which could significantly boost the project. Most importantly, as Ukraine has been at war against Russia for almost a year, it is familiar with the latter’s tactics and strategies, and this practical experience could be highly valuable to the European Union in developing its ESSI scheme.

What other measures must the states of the European Union adopt?

Yet another aspect of the Russian attack on Ukraine that must not spring a surprise is the cyber side of it.

Russia had employed hackers, cybercriminals, and various cyber weapons to destroy Ukrainian information assets.

It had launched wiper attacks to damage all the data pertaining to companies, hack financial and banking websites, tried attacking satellite communications, and a lot more.

However, the cyber attack wasn’t unexpected for Ukrainian cybersecurity experts. It started in 2014 when Crimea was attacked. Since then, Russia has caused several attempts, including destroying Ukraine’s power grid in 2015 and 2016 while launching a virus attack in 2017. A virus, Notpetya, from Russia, caused a loss of billions of dollars to companies across the globe.

There’s no denying that Russia’s cyber moves were powerful and detrimental, yet experts worldwide speak of Ukraine’s commendable resilience in combating these attacks. – as Brad Smith, Vice-President of Microsoft, says.

cyberwar sky shield

“The Russians were every bit as aggressive as we expected. But the reality is, thanks in part to the resilience of  Ukraine and the advance in cybersecurity technology, in the first year of this war, at least, the defense has proven to be stronger than offense, when it comes to attacks in cyberspace.

That said, the European Union must also roll up its sleeves and be prepared for a cyberwar anytime. Certain measures that these states must adopt in connection with cybersecurity include leveraging technology advances to protect their data assets.

Listed are some of the smart strategies adopted by Ukraine that enabled it to stay resilient despite the recurring attacks by Russia. A lot of these would be applicable to the EU as well.

  • In the case of Ukraine, a lot of sensitive data was migrated to the cloud and data centers located outside Ukraine. This was certainly a smart move, and the EU must devise similar strategies to secure their information.
  • Like the Ukrainian government, the European Union must also seek the professional guidance and advice of leading tech giants like Microsoft and Google, who helped Ukraine detect the cyber intruders before they could cause a massive attack.
  • In addition, Ukraine was intelligent enough to share information between private and public sectors that served as a “signal” in case something went wrong. In other words, the defense from a military attack these days requires nations to distribute their data assets across borders.
  • Recent developments in cyber threat intelligence helped Ukraine combat many destructive cyberattacks from Russia. The latter had deployed ways to penetrate several networks and then spread malware to destroy all the data. The lesson learned is that the European Union must enable their cybersecurity resources to the latest advances in the domain and be prepared to defend against the deadliest attack.
  • As several countries came forward to defend Ukraine, Russia spread its espionage activities to other nations and organizations as well. Besides the United States, other nations like Poland, Denmark, Finland, and a lot of other NATO organizations seem to be targeted. This makes it imperative for the countries to strengthen their cybersecurity forces and invest and deploy more efficient resources, especially in critical departments.
  • Russian agencies are conducting various cyber-related operations to bolster their efforts in the war. First, they are aiming at the Russian population itself for support. Second, they are targeting the Ukrainian people to make them diffident and incapable of combating the Russian attacks.

Finally, the Russians are targeting the West – the United States and the European Union- to undermine their abilities and make them feel degraded in comparison to the Russian Military power. The European Union must keep these tactics of the Russian army in mind and devise intelligent strategies to defend themselves.

Companies like Microsoft are using AI, analytics tools, huge data sets, and other technologies to track and forecast cyber attacks. The company claims that Russian cyber-influence tasks enhanced their propaganda by nearly 216% in Ukraine and 82% in the United States since the war began.

According to Brad Smith, four principles underlie the need for nations to thwart the new and upcoming cyber threat issues. First, Russian cyber attacks are engineered by a common set of actors within and outside Russia and use similar digital tactics. Second, there’s a need for greater collaboration between the public and private sectors. Third, nations must understand the importance of protecting open and democratic societies. Finally, encourage the free expression of views and eliminate censorship in such societies.

In the case of Ukraine, the experts were assured that at any cost, Russia would not completely destroy all the sensitive or confidential data assets. This is because the ultimate goal of Russia is to take over Ukraine, and for it to sustain its leadership, the data, and digital assets cannot be compromised. That served as an instrument of consolation to the democrats, who felt relieved somewhat that the data would not be completely gone.

However, this does not apply to other nations that Russia might be eyeing. Therefore, it is extremely important for developed nations like the United States and the European Union to take appropriate measures to keep their documents and data secure.

Researchers found that Russia had been covertly using its cyber strategies not just to destroy but rather to gain entry into Ukrainian intelligence. An example is that of a Russian hacking group named Turla which remained undetected during the war. This group used an older malware, Andromeda, which spreads through infected USB devices, to gather intelligence.

Does the Sky Shield initiative hold any positive aspects for Austria?

While the Sky Shield applies to all the states in the European Union, two names remained deterrents due to their nature of neutrality. Of the 19 states mentioned, Austria and Switzerland joined the European Sky Shield Initiative a little later. The reason is that these nations hold the torch of neutrality; they are peace-loving and don’t side with nations or engage in wars. This aspect posed challenges for Austria and Switzerland to sign the ESSI declaration.

These nations are known for their historical neutrality, and they did not want to break their “culture”. Furthermore, Austria and Switzerland aren’t members of NATO, so they were not in favor of altering their policies and supporting the military attack.

However, on July 7, Austria and Switzerland joined the European Sky Shield Initiative. They reaffirmed that even though they are becoming a member of the initiative, that does not absolve them from their traditional principle of neutrality. The motto behind joining the Germany-led initiative is the philosophy that while they certainly don’t engage in wars, they need to protect their citizens and remain safe.

Considering this aspect, the idea of Austria Sky Shield seems convincing as the security of the nation certainly takes priority before anything else. Besides, considering the aspects of cost-savings and collaboration imbibed in ESSI, Austria feels assured that it will be in a secure position while not compromising on its core ideologies.

Closing thoughts

The Russian war on Ukraine shows no signs of coming to an end. Besides, the invasive tendencies of Russia are only expected to spread across the world, resulting in similar consequences. The European Sky Shield Initiative is certainly a bold yet rational move as it lets the states in the EU join hands financially and strategically, to build a robust air defense system, thereby achieving economies of scale.

It’s great that the nations advocating neutrality – Austria and Switzerland – have also joined the group.

With developed nations like the United States and the European Union holding a lot of their assets as data and in digital format, the challenge is to consolidate their cybersecurity resources and prepare themselves for a cyber war. Cybersecurity threats are only proliferating with the Russian-Ukraine war intensifying.

The experts opine that the repercussions of the war are yet to be experienced, and it’s high time nations adopt suitable measures to remain alert. As the doors of the ESSI pact remain open to all EU members, it makes sense for the rest of the nations to join the initiative.