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First EU defence research priorities imminent

Decision to be made on targets for €13-billion research fund

The EU is set to choose the priorities for its first defence research programme by the end of this year, as the bloc continues its volte-face on military activities in response to rising geopolitical tensions and skirmishes.

While the €13-billion European Defence Fund, the EU’s first full programme for funding defence R&D, is not due to launch until 2021, preparations and pilot activities are already underway. As a result, policymakers have decided that now is the time to clarify the focus of the EDF and related programmes.

“Defence matters again in Europe,” Jorge Domecq, chief executive of the European Defence Agency, which supports EU defence activities, said at a conference in Vienna on 2 October. The defence research priorities to be chosen this year will not only shape the 2021-27 EDF, but will also inform the activities of some contemporaneous civil programmes, he said. These include the Horizon Europe R&D programme, regional cohesion funding and the Cosme programme for small and medium-sized businesses.

The priorities will be based on the 2018 Capability Development Plan—the EU’s overarching defence strategy—Domecq said, and will aim to tackle shortfalls in Europe’s military capabilities. The plan’s priorities cover themes including cyberoperations, space-based infrastructure, and land, sea and air operations.

Such priorities have been informed by Russia’s increasing willingness to breach military boundaries on the ground and online, according to speakers at the conference. They have also been informed by United States president Donald Trump’s seemingly wavering commitment to his country maintaining its guardian role, speakers said.

“Never before has there been such a high political consensus for increased cooperation in defence matters,” industry commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska said. This cooperation is the EU’s response to “rapid changes” in the global geopolitical context, she said.

The EDF, which will provide €4.1bn for defence R&D and €8.9bn for prototyping and procurement, will be largely off-limits to countries outside the EU. Polish MEP Zdzisław Krasnodebski, the EDF rapporteur in the European Parliament, said that the rise of China, instabilities on the EU’s southern border and concerns about transatlantic ties had all helped to convince the majority of EU politicians that a dedicated fund for defence R&D was needed.

Even those who do not think the EU should fund defence activities are in consensus that European countries should reduce duplication of weapons systems and imports of defence technologies from third countries, Krasnodebski said. In 2015, just 16 per cent of defence equipment was procured through collaborative European calls, according to Parliament data. The EDF should “allow the small countries and the small and medium-sized enterprises to participate in the big projects,” Krasnodebski told Research Europe. Defence research should help to trigger innovation in industry, he said.

Frank Treppe, president of the European Association of Research and Technology Organisations, welcomed the planned launch of the EDF and said that research institutes should be involved right from the start.

“If industry and research and technology organisations are co-designing themes for projects then we will see closer collaboration from the very beginning,” Treppe said. The EDF should be implemented “hand in hand” with Horizon Europe, he added.

Philippe Brunet, director-general of the Commission’s industry division, said it was imperative to “build new confidence” between groups of organisations that are not used to talking to each other.

Throughout the conference, the EDF was compared to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the US, which works with academia, industry and other government agencies on breakthrough defence technologies.

Brunet said that the comparisons were valid. “When there is something that no one wants to engage in, Darpa takes the lead,” he said. “Europe should have something similar.”

This article also appeared in Research Europe and a version appeared in Research Fortnight