01 Dec 2016   |   News

EU to launch €90M military research pilot in 2017

New programme will be a “very different animal” from Horizon 2020. This is a first step - to test the waters - in carrying out defence research at a European level

The European Commission confirmed that a €90 million pilot programme of military research will get under way next year and said a potential €3.5 billion could be allocated to defence R&D between 2021 and 2027.

The new defence plan, “Is a first step to test the waters for supporting defence research at EU level”, the Commission says. Military research is excluded from the EU's current research and innovation funding programme Horizon 2020.

Technology fields covered by the new pilot will include electronics, metamaterials, encrypted software and robotics. A new surveillance drone system is one example of a project the fund would back.

The new defence pilot and eventual programme will be "a very different animal” from Horizon 2020, according to a Commission official.

For one thing, it will be much more exclusive. “Not everyone who can access Horizon 2020 will be allowed in,” the official said.

Foreign universities and companies are likely be barred, even if they offer to bring their own funding.

Rather than research ministers, it will be defence ministers who get the biggest say over what gets funded. Universities and research organisations can expect to come after big military contractors such as Airbus and Thales, when it comes to setting funding agendas.   

Day-to-day running of the pilot will be in the hands of the European Defence Agency, not the Commission’s DG Research.   

These plans, to be debated with industry and submitted to EU leaders for discussion at their summit on December 15-16, do not please everyone.

A UK science ethics lobby, Scientists for Global Responsibility, fears the new military research could boost arms sales to countries with poor human rights records.

Meanwhile, Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of The League of European Research Universities, a 23-member association, says new money for military research should not beggar the EU’s science programme.

Deketelaere would like to see, “Similar funding rules to [Horizon 2020] to avoid new red tape, clarity on dual-use issues in order to avoid issues of research integrity or ethics, and clarity on who can apply.”

Pooling investment

In addition to a new military defence programme, the Commission said it intends to create and run a cross-border procurement fund for defence. EU governments could pay into and borrow from the fund, ensuring the means are always available for joint defence procurements such as helicopters, warships or drones. It is hoped the fund will mobilise about €5 billion a year and raise capital on financial markets through bonds.

By pooling money, the Commission aims to put a greater emphasis on rationalising resources. With 80 per cent of defence procurement run on a national basis, the Commission estimates a lack of cooperation between member states is costing €25-€100 billion a year.

“Today all the member states are investing in the same equipment separately,” said Jyrki Katainen, Commission vice-president. The fund will help standardise equipment, reducing the money wasted on duplicate systems.

“In Europe there are something like 151 weapon systems, which are not interoperable with each other, versus 27 in the US,” one Commission official observed. 

The Commission also proposes removing a ban on the European Investment Bank (EIB) investing in military research, though it will leave this decision up to EU governments, the EIB’s shareholders.

Turbo boost spending

Rattled by warnings from US President-elect Donald Trump that Europe should start paying its fair share, the German, French and Italian governments have led the charge for greater EU defence investment. They have been joined by a so-called "group of personalities" which includes politicians and representatives from companies such as Saab, Indra, and BAE Systems.

Although Europe as a whole has the second-largest military expenditure in the world, it is beginning to lag behind other major powers, with defence R&D decreasing at twice the rate of defence expenditure.

Only the UK, Estonia, Poland and Greece meet the NATO-required threshold of 2 per cent expenditure on defence. “If you count together all EU member state funding, defence is only 1.4 per cent of GDP,” said Katainen.

Last year, the US invested twice as much as Europe, while China has boosted its defence spending by 150 per cent in the past decade.

Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, used his State of the Union address in September to warn that EU governments can no longer afford to “piggy-back” on the military might of others. A special defence fund is required “to turbo boost research and innovation,” he said.

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