European foreign and defence ministers will discuss how to deploy drones for civilian operations, ranging from disaster prevention to deterring human traffickers on the EU's borders, in a two-day meeting that opens in Brussels today (18 November) .
Drones, or Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) as they are known in the EU jargon, have been long identified as a shortfall in the European defence, which relies completely on American and Israeli technology in this field.
The war in Libya in 2011 exposed once more the limits of the European capabilities, especially for drones and air-to-air refuelling.
Last July, the European Commission presented a paper aimed at strengthening the EU defence industry which is facing serious risks of technological losses due to deep cuts in defence budgets. Drones were included in the paper as eligible for EU funding for prototypes and for research projects with a dual use, both civilian and military.
An October report issued by the EU High Representative for Foreign and Defence Policy, Catherine Ashton, reiterated the appeal to member states to develop drones with cooperative projects.
The unusually long conclusions of this Defence council will include progress in several areas, according to one diplomat.
The text will stress the importance of advancing the development of common European capabilities on drones and air-to-air refueling technologies, thought essential for European air forces in distant operations.
Several ideas will be discussed, including developing a specific research 'action' focused on defence, with a different budget line from Horizon 2020, the EU framework programme for research for the 2014-2020 period.
One of the ministers' first objectives will be to make sure that drones can receive EU research funds as dual-use capabilities, meaning that they can be used for civilian and military purposes.
The Commission and some member states intend to push for a clearer budget line for military research, which would include drones. But this option remains controversial.
On Tuesday (19 November), a meeting of the European Defence Agency steering board, composed of European defence ministers, will address shortfalls in drones development at the EU level “with the objective of laying the foundations for a European solution in the 2020-2025 timeframe,” according to a preparatory document for the meeting.
Any steps forward may herald a breakthrough at the EU Summit in December, which will deal with defence matters.
Such a development would be welcomed by the EU industry, which has openly supported a joint drone programme.
Last June, France's Dassault Aviation, European aerospace giant EADS and Italy's Finmeccanica said a joint programme would "support the capability needs of European armed forces while optimising the difficult budgetary situation through pooling of research and development funding.”
In a joint statement the three companies said they were prepared to work together on the creation of a European MALE (medium-altitude, long-endurance) drone, which allows surveillance of vast areas over 24 hours.
The Mediterranean opportunity
Debates on launching a joint drone programme are not new. But the prospect of high-level discussions, and a new push for improving border controls are increasing the potential for movement.
Ministers will today be briefed by the Italian Foreign Minister, Emma Bonino, on a proposal to launch a military mission in the Mediterranean Sea to tackle human trafficking. This follows the recent tragedy in which hundreds of migrants drowned off the coast of Lampedusa, attempting to reach Italy.
The services of the EU High Representative for Foreign and Defence Policy Catherine Ashton have prepared a list of future options, including a fully-fledged military operation.
An alternative may be further strengthening the activities of the EU agency for border management, Frontex, whose role is already under review by a specific task force set up after the Lampedusa tragedy.
Drones may come to be seen as a fitting solution, as they would greatly improve the capacity of patrolling borders, and also act to deter human traffickers.
- 18-19 November: EU foreign affairs and defence ministers meeting
- 19-20 December: European leaders' summit