The downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight in eastern Ukraine has highlighted how unmanned aircraft could help Europe when it comes to surveillance operations in warzones.
A passenger aircraft crashes in a fireball in eastern Ukraine. Rebels fighting government forces initially restrict access to the debris and remove evidence, including bodies, before investigators can get to the scene. Sending in surveillance aircraft is risky, given that a civilian plane was just blown out of the sky by an apparent missile strike.
Could an unmanned EU surveillance drone, purpose-built to operate in sensitive areas have helped in the vital early stages of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 tragedy, which killed 298 people, many of them European? Possibly, but EU leaders who have expressed outrage over what happened at the crash site lack the joint capability to deploy such advanced technology, and the future of a “Eurodrone” remains cloudy.
Remotely piloted aircraft equipped for spying and fighting are politically charged across Europe, in part by the civilian toll taken by America’s use of armed drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other conflict areas. The European Parliament wants member states to ban the use of unmanned aircraft in extrajudicial killings and to set up ethical standards for their use. In a non-binding resolution earlier this year, lawmakers also called for greater transparency in the use of EU funding for research and development of drone technology.
The EU already faces criticism for approving drone studies financed by the European framework programme for research and innovation, or what is now called Horizon 2020, despite bans on the use of such funds for military purposes. Critics say the drone studies have proceeded under loopholes that allow research into technology with civilian as well as military potential.
“The main problem with this type of research is that it is being done without public scrutiny, real debate and transparency and from this point of view more discussion about this and more openness [is needed],” said Raluca Csernatoni, a researcher at International Security Information Service Europe (ISIS Europe), a Brussels-based research group.
“We see that a lot of money is being directed at an industry that has problematic ethical consequences … There is a lack of transparency and democratic accountability,” Csernatoni told EURACTIV in an interview.
The Transnational Institute, a research body in Amsterdam, and the London-based advocacy group Statewatch, estimate that the EU has invested at least €300 million in drone research and that the European Defence Agency (EDA) and the European Space Agency have both carried out drone work that could have military uses that skirt European funding rules. “EU drone policy is being fashioned through entirely technocratic processes that remain largely invisible to the parliaments and peoples of Europe,” the groups said a joint report – Eurodrones Inc., published in February.
More broadly, there are concerns about interference with regulator air traffic and the potential for mistakes made by pilots who do not have the benefit of being on-site.
Behind the times
Still, momentum is growing for multinational cooperation on developing an EU long-range drone capability, a market now dominated by the United States and Israel. European officials publicly lamented the lack of surveillance drones during missions in Mali and Central Africa Republic, where French-led forces intervened in increasingly gruesome civil conflicts, as well is in NATO’s Operation Unified Protector, in Libya.
Eurodrones are also seen as bolstering the EU’s ability to monitor illegal migration across remote borders and the Mediterranean, or supplementing overstretched search, rescue and humanitarian operations within Europe and in projecting soft power to foreign countries.
Aerospace and defence representatives who displayed prototype unmanned aerial vehicles at last week’s international aviation trade show in Farnborough, England, told EURACTIV that development of an unarmed Eurodrone with the capability of flying search or reconnaissance missions for long hours could cost upwards of €1 billion. Home-built systems and machines would give Europe technological independence from foreign manufacturers, which they see as an added selling point at a time when Washington is accused of spying on Europe’s top leaders.
While many leading companies are working on advanced drone systems, they are also holding out for large-scale contracts that might involve pooled EU funding or a multinational procurement agreement.
What’s missing: cooperation
Dr. Marcel Dickow, a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, contends that joint development of EU drone technology “is the right one” but inhibited by the lack of governmental cooperation.
“The money is there – that’s not the problem,” Dickow said in a telephone interview. “The technology is there with the companies, so that’s not a problem as well. It just needs the political willingness to do it together because it’s not possible that a single nation can do that by their own.”
France, Germany, Poland and several other countries want to jump-start the process. Last November, they agreed to proceed with developing joint drone technology and asked the EDA to map out plans for a drone that could be built by 2020. Members of the lame-duck European Commission, including internal market chief Michel Barnier, have also pressed for more cooperation amongst EU countries to develop a home-based drone technology.
UN takes step into ‘21st century’
Drones come in many shapes and sizes and have broad uses – from amateur photography to mapping and monitoring large farm fields. The simplest ones can be launched by hand, but in all cases the flying is done by a remote pilot guiding the aircraft through cameras and – in more advanced military and surveillance models – satellite positioning.
In May, the United Nations announced the deployment of surveillance drones to its largest peacekeeping mission, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. “We’re operating in the 21st century and we cannot continue just using tools of 50 or 100 years ago. We have to be current with all the developments in the world,” Hervé Ladsous, the French diplomat who oversees UN peacekeeping operations, said in a statement.
The United Nations is opening a bidding process to address its specific needs for unarmed drones, a model that could represent a compromise for the EU given the sensitivity about using drones for armed missions.
“Drones can offer situational awareness in areas where you normally have access to it because it is too big and where it is not feasible for satellites,” said Dickow of SWP. “That’s a big advantage of drones and that [demand] is going to increase very much.”
For her part, Csernatoni of ISIS Europe sees many advantages in “Eurodrones” so long as the financing and development are transparent.
“You cannot forestall this process,” she told EURACTIV. “I am not against this, I am just pointing out the fact that more discussion is required, especially when military drones are being introduced into civilian airspace, or when they are being converted into civilian uses. Definitely more policy debate is needed.”