Against a backdrop of increasingly severe budget pressures across Europe, hopes that sovereign governments would agree to jointly develop military equipment dimmed in December, when a defense summit in Brussels failed to produce specific actions on development of European unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and other cooperative programs.
During a two-day meeting of the European Council, 28 heads of state agreed to move forward, albeit slowly, on joint development of common roadmaps and requirements in key areas. In addition to a next-generation UAV, these include air-to-air refueling, satellite communications and new cyber- security projects.
However, while member states declined to make concrete commitments to jointly developing such capabilities beyond endorsing their general outline, the fact that all 28 EU governments agreed to discuss joint defense strategy is viewed as a sign of progress.
During the summit, which marks the European Council's first defense meeting in five years, member states agreed to a “strategic reassessment” in mid-2015 to measure progress on all four defense-capability areas promoted by the European Defense Agency (EDA) as ripe for collaboration.
“These are projects on which we can work now,” EU President Herman Van Rompuy said in remarks following the meeting.
On the subject of UAVs, member states have already endorsed development of a common staff target for a European medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) system, though government resources have not been committed to it.
“For now, the one thing that's been done is development of the military requirement, and the next thing is development of the technical description of what the system should be like,” an aide to the European Commission—the check-writing arm of the EU—said in an interview Dec. 19.
Once technical requirements are defined, however, “the member states will be asked to confirm their intention to participate in this project,” the aide said.
Earlier in 2013, defense contractors in France, Germany and Italy called on European governments to fund development of a pan-European unmanned aerial vehicle that would give EU nations a chance to catch up in the area of UAV development. The effort, initiated byDefense & Space in Germany, France's and Italy's , was a reaction to France's decision in May to purchase up to 16 U.S.-built Reapers to quickly shore up ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) gaps highlighted during the nation's intervention against Islamist rebels in Mali.
Italy and the U.K. already operate Reapers, with France and the Netherlands to follow suit.
Under the auspices of the EDA, in November France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain established a MALE UAV user community to exchange information and best practices. Under a separate EDA initiative, eight European countries—including Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, France, Italy and the U.K.—have pooled €50 million ($68 million) collectively to research integration of UAVs into European airspace.
“This is an investment program for research into how [UAVs] could be entered into non-segregated airspace,” a Commission aide said.
The Council also approved a goal of establishing a regulation for EU-wide UAV certification by 2016, a move that is welcomed by industry.
“Certification of defense equipment is a nightmare in Europe,” one senior European industry official said in Munich on the eve of the summit. “Some 20% of development costs are just for certification.”
He said while the outcome of the European Council summit was likely to prove a disappointment in some ways, the fact that governments are addressing the need for common certification rules by 2016 is promising.
“At least they are working on it,” he said.
In the area of satellite communications, five countries are joining to form a users group with the goal of developing a roadmap for preparing the next-generation of European communications satellites.
Germany, Spain, France, Italy and U.K. currently operate their own military communications satellite systems, a number of which are slated to reach the end of their service life in the next few years.
“A roadmap has been proposed on preparing the next generation of satellite communications, and for closer cooperation between the member states, but we're not there at the moment, where we have defined the requirements and the targets,” the Commission aide said.
In the area of air-to-air refueling, the council welcomed progress achieved to date, which last year saw nine EU countries plus Norway sign a letter of intent for considering pooled acquisition of a tanker aircraft. Led by the Netherlands, the new aircraft—possibly a Multirole Tanker Transport based on the Airbus—would be available for European users in 2020, the aide said.
Council members also discussed—but did not approve—joint funding of military activities, such as those led by France in the Central African Republic.
France has asked for EU financial assistance in the peacekeeping operation, a security mission that French President Francois Hollande has said is being conducted on behalf of European security overall.