Without an AI boost, Europe's defences face obsolescence

Frankly Speaking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt warns that Europe is failing to give artificial intelligence (AI) the priority it deserves as a game-changing defence technology.

European defence autonomy may still be a long way off, but at least it’s coming into sight. The stimulus of backing Ukraine against Russia’s invasion has seen an unprecedented new commitment to defence spending. It won’t, however, be nearly enough if European armaments makers continue to trail behind in AI.

Debate rages around the world on the risks and rewards of artificial intelligence, but the military are in no doubt that AI is a game-changer; many warn it will consign conventional weapons systems to the history books. Burdened as they are by the need to supply matériel to Ukraine, European defence contractors also have to overcome their weakness in key areas of digital technology or risk their armed services becoming hopelessly outdated.

Although Ukraine’s battlegrounds hark back to the trenches and tanks of the last century, they also offer a glimpse of warfare methods yet to come. Drones and cyber systems point to very different future conflicts for which Europe is ill-prepared.

Europe’s defence companies are preoccupied with skills shortages and outdated procurement methods rather than looking to an AI-dominated future

Needless to say, the United States is in the forefront of this facet of the AI revolution, followed by China, Russia and smaller fry like Israel and South Korea. Twenty years ago, the US unveiled its X-45 prototype of a semi-autonomous un-crewed stealth aircraft capable of both surveillance and strike missions. To the dismay of many in the Pentagon this and its still more redoubtable X-47B successor was axed because airforce generals feared they threatened their new F-35 fighter.

But this AI trailblazer shaped American thinking, and the Biden administration lost no time in resurrecting AI as a major defence resource. It has created a powerful new task force to coordinate R&D and tap Silicon Valley’s strengths to develop new weaponry. From highly sophisticated battlefield communications to instant intelligence gathering, the US has been showing the way ahead.

Europe is struggling to meet its promises to supply Ukraine with artillery shells and earlier-generation tanks, armoured vehicles and aircraft. Thirty years of ‘peace dividend’ since the Cold War ended have taken a heavy toll of defence budgets and industrial capacity, even if these are being slowly ratcheted up. Europe’s defence companies are preoccupied with skills shortages and outdated procurement methods rather than looking to an AI-dominated future.

The EU is trying to address the financial costs of aiding Ukraine through its €2 billion European Peace Facility, but that reportedly needs to be doubled or even quadrupled to meet the stated goals. Inter-governmental squabbling over burden-sharing is crowding out collective research projects and there’s a Berlin-Paris stand-off over an EU defence industrial policy. Germany’s need for quick results after decades of neglect is leading it to back air defence systems that rely on US and Israeli technologies, while France wants to develop a ‘European solution’.

Drones are today seen as a strategic European error

Meanwhile, AI scarcely gets a look in, despite the fact that defence analysts report drone warfare as increasingly vital in Ukraine, with AI inputs key to battlefield intelligence and communications. Europe has only two specialist AI defence companies of any consequence, and they are still struggling for procurement footholds. There’s Helsing, based in Germany and financed by one of Spotify’s founders, and France’s Preligens. Both need massive private investment as well as government contracts, but because of the war they face tougher competition than ever for these from ‘national champions’ like Rheinmetall and Thales.

The EU is, of course, becoming a leader in the regulation of AI. The European Parliament is showing the way towards global rules that could protect humankind against AI’s most unwelcome effects. But this laudable concern could also handicap moves within the EU to establish a well-funded AI defence project.

Europe’s security shortcomings can be traced back to some poor political and industrial decisions. When considering the opportunity-cost of a determined AI catch-up, policymakers should reflect on the EU’s failure to invest adequately in drones. Dismissed in their early years by some as ‘model aircraft’, drones are today seen as a strategic European error.

As jihadist terrorism spreads to destabilise more and more of western Africa, French airforce generals warn that it was the dire shortage of surveillance drones that did much to defeat their ‘Operation Barkhane’ in the wildernesses of the Sahel. As a result, Europe risks widespread unrest in sub-Saharan Africa because of its neglect of a seemingly minor new defence technology.

The views expressed in this Frankly Speaking op-ed reflect those of the author and not of Friends of Europe.

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