Science goes to war: western allies step up collaboration in military research

07 Apr 2022 | News

The war in Ukraine prompts a series of new R&D collaborations on quantum, hypersonic and other military technologies – but also stirs some academic controversy in Europe

The war in Ukraine moved directly into the lab this week, with western governments announcing a series of new measures to coordinate their military research, including on quantum technologies and hypersonic missiles.

But the shift isn’t without controversy, as some European academics urged the EU to keep its civilian and defence research separate.

The military build-up took several steps, with NATO announcing a coordinated, multi-country research programme, and the US, Australia and UK setting plans for expanded quantum, hypersonic and other joint weapons research. It followed a NATO leaders’ meeting last autumn in which the strategy was set; but the scale and scope of the detailed measures announced this week were massive.

DIANA launch

Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, announced this week that the UK and Estonia will host a joint military R&D programme involving research centres around the alliance. The Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) is expected to strengthen transatlantic cooperation on defence technologies and procurement.

The innovation accelerator will cover projects in artificial intelligence, big data, quantum technologies, biotechnology, hypersonics and space. “The goal of DIANA is to support deep technologies companies that contribute to defence,” said Estonian defence minister Kalle Laanet.

In the UK, Imperial College London will be the host organisation, coordinating what the UK government  called “deep tech test centres” for military technologies, and a “virtual marketplace” to connect start-ups with investors and procurers.

The project is part of a broader NATO initiative to boost military research cooperation, that will ultimately involve as many as 60 sites. On 6 April, Denmark’s DTU research organisation said it and partners had been chosen to set up a NATO testing centre in Copenhagen for quantum technologies. Further announcements on other sites to be included are expected in coming weeks.

AUKUS cooperation

About the same time as the NATO news, the White House announced on 5 April that US, UK and Australian leaders had agreed to “accelerate investments to deliver generation-after-next quantum capabilities.” The R&D focus, it said, will be on “positioning, navigation and timing”, in trials over the next three years. Quantum sensors can provide ultra-precise atomic clocks, to guide ships or missiles.

The AUKUS Quantum Arrangement, as they called it, is part of a broader defence pact last year among the three nations in response to growing western concerns about Russia and China. The initial step last year was an agreement by the US and UK to supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia – undercutting a rival French offer. But the latest discussions, as the Australian prime minister visited Washington, shows the three-way alliance widening to include other military technologies.

And separately from the overtly military news, on 5 April Finnish and US officials signed a joint statement pledging cooperation on a long list of quantum topics, including research, supply chains, education and values. The statement focuses on quantum benefits to the economy and society, and notably excludes mention of defence applications.

What role for Horizon Europe?

But the rapid-fire string of western announcements signals a seismic shift in how governments handle the delicate question of military versus civilian research. The European Commission is planning to expand the use of research funds for ‘dual-use’ defence technologies, but it’s unclear whether money from Horizon Europe, its €95.5 billion programme for civilian research, will actually end up being spent on developing weapons.

In a statement published 7 April, CESAER, a group of leading science and technology universities in Europe, insisted Horizon Europe should be focused on funding civilian research. “We call upon EU institutions to maintain the civilian focus in Horizon Europe and related programmes such as Erasmus+,” it said in a statement.

Diplomats in Brussels agree the nature of Horizon Europe is unlikely to be changed soon but predict its successor will not have a civilian exclusivity clause in its legislation and will fund a lot more defence research and innovation projects.

Last year, the EU launched a separate €7.9 billion programme for defence, of which €2.7 billion will be spent on research. In addition, EU member states also contributed €420 million to joint capability and research and technology projects run by the European Defence Agency (EDA) in 2021, an increase of €50 million compared to 2020.

A recent report by the OECD notes 0.15% of GDP across member countries is dedicated to defence R&D, representing only 7.5% of the NATO guideline for total defence expenditure as a share of GDP.

Quantum increase

Among the technologies under study, quantum ranks high. In 2018, under the Trump administration, a national quantum initiative got under way – and that has accelerated under President Biden. At the same time, the EU, China, Japan, Canada, UK and many other countries have been upping their own programmes.

A White House report last October estimated global government spending of $20 billion on the technology over the past decade, and $2.5 billion in private US investments into 100 American quantum start-up companies. Civilian applications have got most of the public attention, with hyper-speed computing promising to revolutionise chemistry, pharmaceuticals, earth-observation, artificial intelligence and other applications.

But, the report also noted, “a large-scale quantum computer would threaten most of the public-key encryption infrastructure currently protecting economic and national security communications.” On a more positive note, it said quantum sensors could protect navigation by making global satellite positioning systems less susceptible to attack.

As a result, the White House report said, it is “imperative” that the US strengthen its quantum collaboration “with allies and partners who share similar research values.”

For different reasons, the Finns have been moving to build their own quantum base, with some talk of trying to use the technology to create a new Nokia, the former world mobile phone leader that crashed a decade ago but was, for a time, the nation’s biggest company.

Last November, state-owned VTT Technical Research Centre flipped on the country’s first significant quantum computer in a Helsinki suburb – a 5-qubit model developed by a spin-out from Aalto University. They plan to have a 50-qubit machine by 2024, and are part of a network of 11 quantum research centres. For this, the Finns are betting on their past strengths in cryogenics – necessary for super-cooled quantum computing – and computing. 

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