This is having an adverse effect on the long-term sustainability of the industry. In addition, the trend towards importing equipment off-the-shelf will inevitably degrade European nations’ front-line operational capability as the deep, system-level understanding of domestically designed and developed products declines.
Reductions in defence research and technology (R&T) also have a proven negative impact on the European economy. A European Defence Agency factsheet published last year reported that for every €100m cut in EU defence industrial spending, there is a €150m fall in EU GDP, a €40m fall in EU tax revenues and a loss of 2,870 jobs, 760 of which would be highly-skilled employees.
From Da Vinci to GPS
Throughout history, defence R&T has seeded novel concepts that spill over into the civil sector – examples include Da Vinci’s trebuchet, Marconi’s radio, Whittle’s jet engine, Liquid Crystal Displays, lasers and GPS. All were defence developments that became mainstays of civilian life. Defence innovation can generate completely new civil market sectors, from telecommunications to aviation.
The civil technology sector is now far bigger, and has become far better at exploiting technological advances to meet the pace of customer demand. In some areas, the pace of investment in the civil market means the latest technology is more likely to come from the civil sector than from defence R&T.
Does this mean that defence R&T is no longer important, or that all technology in defence will come solely from civil developments? This seems unlikely. Almost by definition, defence has to be at the cutting edge of technology, since new threats and challenges are always emerging. More civilian-originated technologies will find an application in defence, but there will always be a need for new defence-specific technologies. What’s needed is correctly balanced investment.
We have to ask if more needs to be done to generate symbiotic benefits by enhancing links between defence and civil R&T. It needs to be recognised that dual use cuts both ways; defence into civil, as well as civil into defence. This is accompanied by a clear focus on reduced time to market and increased economic benefit. It should also be acknowledged that although civil applications of defence technologies might not always be immediately apparent, their impact can be substantial.
Economy driven pedigree
Dual use’s strong pedigree has almost always been driven by economics, in particular since defence platforms tend to be low volume and civil sharing is often encouraged.
Countless examples of this already exist; solid-state gyroscopes that were originally developed for military use are now widely used across the automotive industry, the spin-out commercialisation of novel military materials such as carbon fibre, the spin-in of civil developed sensors to enhance military capabilities.
These have brought significant funding challenges, but have provided enhanced capability in a more timely manner than developing them on an independent basis.
The latest EU research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020, is its biggest ever, with nearly €80bn of allocated funding. This programme encompasses dual use, but in the direction of civil into defence, meaning a willingness to support civil technologies that may have defence applications.
Defence R&T is not completely excluded from Horizon 2020. However, there is a view that more should have been done earlier to raise awareness of the economic benefits of defence-driven innovation, using this huge investment to seed the next spill-over technologies. Keeping Horizon 2020 as a civil-focused investment programme raises the question of whether Europe is failing to support a proven, world-class exporter and a large part of the European economy.
The EU should take a more coherent approach to R&T investment by embracing the foresight that defence has in initiating new technologies and the ability of the civil domain to exploit and mature them.
In the spirit of this invited paper, the author has purposely taken a controversial standpoint. This does not reflect the opinion of the author’s organisation.
This article is part of Friends of Europe’s upcoming discussion paper on the future of dual-use technologies in Europe.
The full discussion paper will be available in early September. Read the other articles here.