‘We need to be realistic: defence budgets will come under pressure from COVID-19’

26 May 2020 | News

New head of the European Defence Agency, Jiří Šedivý, took up the post in the midst of crisis. In a Q&A with Science|Business, he says the pandemic makes cooperation in defence research even more important

Jiří Šedivý

Jiří Šedivý. Photo: European Defence Agency.

Science|Business: How has the pandemic changed life at the European Defence Agency?

Jiří Šedivý: The crisis has some practical implications, of course, as we had to put precautionary measures in place, including teleworking, to protect staff, stakeholders and partners. The agency’s output, however, has not really been impacted thanks to adjustments in the workflow and the extensive use of written procedures and video teleconference calls. Overall, the practical repercussions on our work are limited. As for strategic planning, the crisis has created a somewhat more volatile general context. We will thus have to adapt to new situations and requirements as they occur.

Having said this, since my arrival as the agency’s new chief executive on May 4, I have been focusing on two specific aspects as a matter of priority. First: business continuity. Whatever the consequences of COVID-19 might be, they will not make disappear the need for our member states to strengthen the full spectrum of Europe’s defence capabilities, and to do it through cooperation. On the contrary: this crisis makes defence cooperation even more indispensable. Therefore, we must keep course, continue the implementation of the new EU defence tools (CARD, PESCO, European Defence Fund) and pursue the many collaborative projects we have launched at EDA together with our member states – currently more than 110 ad hoc R&T and capability programmes and projects as well as over 200 other activities.

Secondly, we try to mitigate the potential impact of the COVID-19 crisis on defence cooperation because chances are high that COVID-19 will lead to cuts in national defence spending. Our message is clear: more cooperation, more pooling and sharing of knowledge, resources and capabilities is the best response to the threat of shrinking defence budgets.

Q: Do you expect the crisis will squeeze resources over the coming years? What does it mean in particular for your defence research plans? Will the money allocated for this spending pot back in 2018 remain the same – or do you fear it may be reduced?

A: As I said already: we need to be realistic and recognise that defence budgets will come under pressure in all member states as a result of the massive economic and financial costs of COVID-19, whether we like it or not. But the collective answer should be to engage in even more collaborative capability planning and development as this collective approach is more cost-effective than national solo efforts. The same goes for defence research where national ministries of defence will face considerable problems to receive the same funding than in the past to finance their individual national programmes. The best response to shrinking national budgets for defence research is to join forces and resources and to engage in more cost-effective collaborations at EU level.

As far as the EU’s ongoing ‘test’ initiative on defence research is concerned - the Preparatory Action on Defence Research (PADR) managed by the European Defence Agency on behalf of the European Commission - it is currently in its third and final year and its overall budget (€90 million for the period 2017-2020) is safe. From 2021 onwards, EU defence research will be financed through the research window of the European Defence Fund. As you know, final negotiations, including on its budgetary envelope, are still ongoing. EDA is not not directly involved in these talks, so I cannot comment on them. However, I hope for adequate funding for this important collaborative tool because for the reasons I just explained, we need more defence cooperation in the future, not less.   

Q: How does the pandemic change the defence outlook in Europe for the next seven years? With the crisis exposing our reliance on IT systems, how much defence thinking needs to be in cyberspace now? Does this take on a bigger emphasis?

A: This pandemic will have significant long-term repercussions in many domains, most likely also on defence as I said before, but it is far too early to project Europe’s defence outlook for the coming years. What matters now is that we keep course, maintain our ambition and commitments, fully use the EU defence cooperation tools and integrate them into national defence planning and capability development. If that happens, I am optimistic about Europe’s defence outlook.

The pandemic revealed some of our vulnerabilities and dependencies, in the areas such as medical material and equipment, protection against biological agents, information exchange, medical evacuation, etc. In view of the EU´s long-term vision of strategic autonomy (the antithesis to dependency) mitigating the dependencies and enhancing resilience vis-à-vis revealed vulnerabilities will certainly be an important new accent in projecting our defence in the years to come. At the same time, we must continue to work on our high-end military capabilities: member states need to have the full spectrum of defence equipment (land, air, space and maritime) to be able to respond to external crises and keep Europe safe.

You mention our reliance on IT systems, their security and the need to introduce military thinking in cyberspace. The pandemic has indeed accelerated the adoption and use of new communications technologies, which, to some extent, allowed us to keep large parts of our society, economy and administration operational. The security of the systems and of their users is of course crucial. Here, a more defence-based thinking approach will be necessary to ensure safety and reliability of those new systems. At EDA, we are active since many years in supporting collaborative research and capability development in the fields of cyberdefence and satellite communications which - and the COVID-19 crisis has proved it - are key capabilities needed to support both the security and continuity of communications and crises response operations. Among the 11 European capability development priorities identified by member states in 2018, no less than three relate to cyber defence, space-based information and communication services and information superiority. With the current pandemic, their importance will grow further in the future. EDA stands ready to support more collaboration in these critical domains.

Q: Among the technology areas deemed important for Europe’s defence future, do any have overlap with pandemic preparedness? For example, some people suggest we need new screening capabilities at airports and other entry points, such as ports.

A: As you may know, EDA has developed so-called ‘overarching strategic research agenda’ with the objective to identify the technology areas on which the agency’s capability technology groups, the CapTechs as we call them, should focus their work on in order to propose innovative, technological answers and solutions for existing defence capability gaps in Europe. These gaps, I recall, were previously identified and agreed upon by member states in the European capability development priorities, the last update of which was approved in June 2018. Therefore, we can say that our overarching strategic research agendas really concentrate on those technology areas, which are considered crucial by all member states involved, something that has also been validated by the member states in December 2018.

Now, some of these technology areas are indeed related to the COVID-19 pandemic, even though they were selected before the pandemic emerged. I cannot go into any detail but they predominately deal with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) technologies and advanced materials and are aimed at responding to the effects and/or to prevent contagion. We are talking here about, for example, non-filtering air purifying technologies or air and maritime biocontainment and bio decontamination techniques.

Q: Why was Europe caught out so badly by COVID-19? With all the foresight planning/research done by policymakers, did countries – and defence minds – underestimate a pandemic of this magnitude?

A: I don’t think it would be appropriate and fair to single out Europe here. Nobody, globally, was well prepared to deal with a pandemic of this size. What is important now is to draw the right conclusions and learn the lessons from this crisis. One of them is that we need to enhance our defence cooperation, for budgetary but also operational reasons. Another lesson to learn is that we should improve our prevention and defence capabilities in the CBRN domain. The COVID crisis has, indirectly of course, brought to light the enormous disruptive potential of biological substances. Although biological threats have been on our armed forces’ radars for some time already – the common European capability development priorities agreed upon in June 2018 explicitly refer to the need to strengthen European capabilities in the CBRN domain – it nevertheless has highlighted the urgent need to do considerably more in order to be better prepared and equipped to deal with these kinds of threats in the future. Given the magnitude of this challenge (scientific and technological expertise, investment needed, etc.), this is a task that can only be successfully done together, through cooperation.

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