This article was published in the Financial Times
Time to Create a Eurodrone Industry
14 October 2010
Sixty years ago Europe created a common steel industry. Twenty years later came the first truly common European product, the Airbus. Today the time is right for another: the Eurodrone.
These pilotless planes are transforming warfare. Their strikes against Taliban chiefs win headlines, but they are just as important for reconnaissance, identifying where improvised explosive devices are planted and reporting on enemy movements. Civilian applications far outweigh military use, with surveillance of seas combating piracy, trafficking and pollution. Overflights of pipe-lines, floods, and wilderness can be undertaken without the costs of piloted planes.
In short, the drone industry has huge potential. Yet once again Europe is surrendering mastery of a future industry to other world regions, principally the US. European defence industries are confused and chaotic, so it is up to European governments to form a Eurodrone industrial company based on the Airbus model.
The model should be that of a Kalashnikov, a robust, simple to make and easy to use design to which other specifications can be added needs arise. This will require some surrendering of national military-industrial prerogatives. But just as the Airbus successfully replaced failed national aeroplanes like the Comet or Caravelle, a Eurodrone could showcase Europe’s ability to produce a world-class model for worldwide export.
To work, such an idea must overcome a system of European defence procurement that is unwieldy, and defence industry companies who are addicted to state subsidies, slow and inefficient. Despite a pressing need for good military equipment aimed at modern needs, European defence industries are fragmented and incapable of providing in quantity, quality and in a timely fashion what armed services need.
At a UK-France summit in 2004 French President Jacques Chirac noted that “the most conservative elements in both our countries are first the military, and second our defence industries.” Despite moves during September for closer Anglo-French military cooperation, hopes of building a common tank, or aircraft carrier, or even a rifle are as far away as ever. Defence procurement always makes the best the enemy of the good. Warplanes, for example, even if jointly developed take years to develop and build with ever-changing specifications and are out of date when they finally become operational.
Already drone production in Europe is going in the same direction. Both France and Britain have had to buy US drones as the French and British equivalents are not good enough. Italy and German are developing their own systems, adding extra confusion. Israel has the most advanced production capability, having needed drone surveillance for some time. Ad-hoc joint ventures with Israel exist, but a formal Eurodrone Industry would allow a deeper cooperation.
This proposal requires leadership. France and Britain are the obvious candidates. But current talk of Franco-British defence cooperation is driven by budget pressures, and there is still little sense that Paris and London are prepared to give up part of their sovereign control over defence procurement to create truly independent, autonomous new sectors of the defence industry. To be sure, this reflects diverging views on Atlantacism and cooperation with the US defence industry, but it is a major barrier nonetheless.
Despite these obstacles a Eurodrone may still just be possible. The drone industry is young, and is at an advantage because of its numerous civilian applications. At present, however, the public and private money invested in drones is dispersed across many small segments of national industries. But given that European governments are the paymasters of their defence industries, they can now decide to carve out their respective drone sectors and create a new continental industry.
The opportunity is there to create a new drone company that brings together Europe’s research, development and production capability. If Britain and France create it, Germany and Italy will follow, and the Eurodrone can become a world class product. If European drone production remains as it is, the US will dominate the world market, with Israel in second place. Yet if Europe acts, as it did with Airbus, it could be number one.