Drones and EU’s Defence Industry: A Case Study

With 28 heads and frequently as many diverging opinions, the European Union should never provide enough of intellectual stunts to find some sense of community. Take for instance the so-called Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). EU member states agree on the need ‘to deepen defence cooperation by improving the capacity to conduct missions and operations and by making full use of synergies in order to improve the development and availability of the required civilian and military capabilities’ as . With pressures mounting from an instable neighbourhood and fierce competition from international arms manufacturers, the EU’s last significant military powers fear both to overstretch their armed forces and to lose what remains of their technological edge.

Image courtesy of Gary Owen, no rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Gary Owen, no rights reserved.

Hence the relentless and somehow paradoxical discourse traditionally promoted by the CSDP, meaning that EU member states need to rely on each other in order to preserve their sovereignty. Jorge Domecq, chief executive of the European Defence Agency (EDA), bluntly pointed out in a 2015 interview[1] that ‘the sharp decline in national defence research and equipment budgets is here to remind us that we should spend more and better together if we want to retain the capabilities we need to act as a security provider.’ This statement aimed more precisely at the development of drones, where EU industrial capabilities are severely lagging behind other contractors, most notably Americans.

From bombing IS-stronghold in Syria and Iraq to monitoring vast areas in Sahel for counterterrorism operations, drones are nowadays an inescapable battlefield asset for western armed forces. Drones can be divided in three categories: unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV), medium-altitude/long-endurance surveillance drones (MALE) and its high-altitude version (HALE). European states are generally supplied by American firms for any versions, but most especially for UCAV with General Atomics best-seller MQ-9 Reaper. Fitting NATO standards, Reapers were massively supplied to European powers fighting in Afghanistan during the past decades. The United Kingdom received 11 units between 2007 and 2014 when six were delivered to Italy and four to Spain and Netherland. France ordered 12 in 2013.[2] Germany is a historical client of Israeli contractors and IAI’s Heron systems, of which Berlin ordered recently three to five further MALE models for €600 millions.

Such dependency on foreign contractors is a hard blow for European states, whose military capabilities partly rely on external powers, and more generally for EU’s defence and technological base. The development of a genuinely European savoir-faire in terms of drones’ manufacturing has been set on the top of the CSDP agenda. For this, the EDA was assigned to coordinate EU members’ strategy by mutualising their R&D expenditures. The way was already paved by programs such as the MIDCAST Detect & Avoid project for drones’ air traffic integration. MIDCAST successfully integrated a consortium of 11 European leading companies, such as Saab, Airbus D&S, Safran or Thales, under the supervision of the EDA. Furthermore, the European Space Agency and the EDA jointly led the DeSIRE project, a multinational team of technology companies developing satellite communication systems compatible with drones.

EU’s heavyweights mostly responded positively to the signals sent by the European institutions, and some noticeable projects blossomed. France, Germany and Italy defence ministers solemnly declared in May 2015 the launching of a joint development phase for a European MALE drone system, supposed to be operational by 2025. Planned to last two years, the study is jointly overseen by Airbus Defence & Space, Dassault Aviation and Finmeccanica. The CEOs of the three leading European defence companies warmly welcomed an initiative giving them a chance to recover from their leeway in the drone industry.

France unusually let Germany take the financial lead in the European MALE drone program, but only to avoid putting all its eggs in one basket. Currently the most proactive EU member in the fight against global terrorism, with troops engaged in Sahel and in the Middle-East, France is eager to develop autonomous capabilities in every field of unmanned aircraft systems. This includes UCAVs, for which only the United Kingdom, the other significant military power of the EU, seems a reliable partner. London and Paris are thus engaged since 2014 in the so-called Future Combat Air System (FCAS) development program, encompassing a fifth-generation aircraft and a UCAV system. President François Hollande and Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed the £750 millions joint-development program in March 2016 during a bilateral summit in Amiens.

Yet, all these positive multilateral demarches hide a bleaker side. It seems evident that only the biggest economies put their financial weight in the balance, but the “European” scale of these joint-programs is in fact dangerously tight: France is seeking, as usual, complete sovereignty in both MALE and UCAV programs, Germany and the United Kingdom look for their direct strategic interests, Italy sustains its military industrial base, and that’s all. Spain was part of the MALE program before withdrawing for financial constraints in 2015.

Some potential European partners get cold feet in front of more pressing issues, and prefer to keep relying on foreign supplies. Poland, a NATO member and a big defence spender, should be first in the line for European joint-development programs. But the Polish government communicated recently about its willingness to buy MQ-9 Reapers and is considering the purchase of UAVs from American or Israeli manufacturers. In contrast, no sign of interest has been given by Warsaw to the European MALE drone program, despite EDA’s notorious lobbying for more EU members’ participation.

Overall, the prospect of a European drone industry suffers from two connected issues. First, only a few EU members, namely France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom, are willing to put their weight in the balance. These are understandably the only European states able both to finance such industrial projects and, considering drones’ operational costs and complexity, to use such weaponry in future conflicts. Second, Eastern European states are more interested by consolidating their relations with the United States than betting on an elusive CSDP to balance against a potential Russian threat. Even if the EU proved capable of developing a full range of UAVs, this lucrative bit of military industry would first of all benefit to already dominant western companies such as Airbus, Dassault or Finmeccanica. Once again, EU’s inability to find a common understanding of global strategic issues makes irrelevant any attempt to mobilise resources. The fact that everybody agrees on the growing importance of drones, industrially and militarily, does not seem to change anything to this sad state of fact.

[1] Jorge Domecq, “RPAS: the European Challenge,” European Defence Matters 8 (2015): 18-21.

[2] SIPRI Arms Transfers Database.

[3] Lars Hoffmann, “German Armed Forces Will Lease Israeli Drones,” Defense News, 13 January 2016.

[4] Ben Vogel, “MIDCAS completes sense-and-avoid tests,” HIS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 30 April 2015.

[5] Joint statement issued by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister of Defence, and his German and Italian counterparts, French Ministry of Defence, 18 May 2015.

[6] European MALE drone development: Airbus, Finmeccanica and Dassault Aviation welcome the signature of the trinational Declaration of Intent by Germany, Italy and France, Joint Press Release, Munich/Paris/Rome, 18 May 2015.

3 UK France Summit Leaders Conclusions, Amiens, 3 March 2016.

[8] Jaroslaw Adamowski, “Poland Mulls Drone Offers From General Atomics, Elbit,” Defense News, 9 April 2016.

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