European Affairs

Until now, there has been little substantive debate in Europe at ministerial level  on whether Europe should develop its own military drone arsenal, and if so ,  how they should be used.  The global drone industry currently is dominated by the United States and Israel.  Companies like Northrop Grumman, Boeing, AeroVironment, General Atomics and Israel Aerospace Industries have captured the lion’s share of the market with products like the Predator (U.S.), Reaper (U.S.) and Heron (Israeli)

“Europe is slightly behind the U.S. is developing drones,” says Clara O’Donnell, research fellow at the Centre for European Reform and an expert on the transatlantic defence market, perhaps  using “slightly” as a euphemism for the more accurate “substantially.”  The European companies who do make them or intend to make them include British-based BAE Systems, German-based EMT, France’s Dassault and Thales, Italy’s SELEX Galileo. In addition, Cassidian, the German-based defence arm of the European consortium EADS, is developing the ‘Talarion’ drone that can be used for military and civilian purposes.   To date, European production of drones  has focused on the smaller, less expensive models used for surveillance purposes. European firms also produce key components that are installed in UAVs such as the imaging technology

The larger and more sophisticated UAVs are made in the U.S., O’Donnell notes. That said, there is strong interest in Europe to develop a longer-range UAV designed for air-to-air combat, which could ultimately replace fighter jets. French, German, British and Italian firms are moving toward  developing these plans,  but they are still in the embryonic stages, O’Donnell says.

The idea that Europe should collectively develop its own drone product has political and financial merits. With the continent continually struggling to forge a common defence policy, drones would be a natural place to join forces.  Indeed, Europe should take inspiration from the commercial aviation sector:   four decades ago, the largest European nations came together to create Airbus, which has since become a global leader in aircraft manufacturing.

Airbus’ parent company EADS recently came close to a major expansion into the defence domain via its proposed merger with BAE Systems.  But those negotiations collapsed in October amidst reports that German Chancellor Angela Merkel pulled the plug on the deal because she was concerned that it would lead to Franco-British dominance of the market.  Germany’s defence minister from 2009-2011, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, was highly critical of that decision at a recent talk he gave at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “We talk a lot about pooling and sharing in the European defence sector and then suddenly a window of opportunity fleetingly opens,” he said, adding that he was “surprised” it was Germany that nixed the deal.

According to Peter Wilson, a Washington-based defence consultant, “Germany’s objection to the merger was strategically a disaster.” Had the merger gone ahead, “it would have been possible to consolidate their different programs on UAVs,” Wilson says.  Europe needs to create an Airbus-scale project if it is serious about developing new technologies, he believes, although he is sceptical this will actually happen.

The Centre for European Reform’s O’Donnell shares Wilson’s scepticism. “There is no agreement in Europe on how to proceed” on the technology development side, she says.  France and the UK, Europe’s top defence spenders, are in talks to develop Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) UAVs and, in the long term, an Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) to replace fighter jets. Meanwhile, France is also discussing with Germany a potential joint project to develop a new generation of MALE UAVs. The UK is wary of involving itself in a large Airbus-style multinational project, whereas Germany and Italy are nervous about a Franco-British plan, not wanting to be excluded. “A key question that Europe needs to address is whether it should develop one product or several products,” she says. It may not be in Europe’s interest, for example, to manufacture multiple products that compete against one another in the global market. Defence consultant Peter Wilson points out that the Americans are unlikely to help Europe develop its own drone industry as they are happy for Europe to keep buying drones from American companies. But former German defence minister Guttenberg disagreed and noted that the merger would ultimately have been in the U.S. strategic interest as “it would strengthen the European military pillar.”

It is quite clear that European militaries’ demand for drones is growing. With the U.S. implementing its so-called ‘pivot’ policy of deploying more military resources to the Asia-Pacific region, Europe is being asked to assume greater responsibility for providing security in its neighbourhood,  in Africa in particular.  Acquiring more drones will be necessary for Europe to fulfil that task. This was made abundantly clear during the NATO mission in Libya in 2011, where the U.S. ended up having to deploy its UAVs for intelligence-gathering and strike purposes because its European allies lacked capability.

The main testing ground for drone technology to date has been Afghanistan, where NATO has had a huge presence for more than a decade. In terms of Europeans using drones, the UK employs several Reaper models primarily for surveillance purposes to protect its troops from being attacked, although Reapers are also capable of being armed for strikes. The German defence force uses drones for surveillance and in August this year confirmed that it has plans to buy armed drones, possibly the U.S-made ‘Predator-B’.  France, which will have completed its military withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2012,  is deploying surveillance drones to West Africa.   France wants to help the government of Mali retake control of northern parts of that country which have fallen into the hands of Al Qaeda-affiliated militants who have established a base there amidst the turmoil created by the Arab Spring.

Non-NATO countries are very much part of the equation too. According to a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), 76 countries now have some form of UAV program.  This global proliferation raises the spectre of states and actors who are hostile to the U.S. and Europe employing drones against the West. Iran is energetically investing in drone technology.   Iran provides material support to Lebanon-based Hezbollah, an organization which the U.S. and some European countries have listed as a terrorist group.

With the U.S. and Israel already major exporters of drone technologies and Europe hoping to follow suit, the export potential of drones is another reason why Europeans need to co-ordinate their export controls better to stop them falling into the ‘wrong’ hands. The EU has some authority in this area, having developed over many years a code of conduct for arms exports, a Regulation on the export of dual-use equipment and a Directive aimed at making it easier for European firms to export military equipment to other EU countries. However, O’Donnell says that “the EU member states still have a lot of discretion when it comes to trade with non-EU countries.”

­­­­While there is a flurry of drones-related activity on the industrial and military side, there is still very little doctrine, or agreement, on how they should  be used.  According to Anthony Dworkin, Senior Policy Fellow at the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), “there is not much public debate in Europe about this yet.   And what discussion exists is behind closed doors.    Dworkin said that some divergences of view among European countries were already apparent. For example, Germany insists it will not share intelligence with the U.S. if the latter plans to use that information for drone strikes. By contrast, the U.K. has taken a more nuanced stance, neither confirming nor denying such intelligence sharing and avoiding on-the-record comments about the legality of drone strikes. In general, Dworkin said that European governments were uncomfortable with the U.S. view that it is legitimate to strike Al Qaeda and its affiliates anywhere in the world – in other words, outside of clear conflict zones like Afghanistan.

In a June 2012 New York Times article, German Green MEP Reinhard Bütikofer was quoted as saying “of course, we should be asking questions about the use of the drone in the context of international law.” Bütikofer regretted the “moral detachment” that governments in countries like Germany who do not currently have armed drones have developed on the issue.

However, the issue is starting to appear on the general public’s radar where a similar transatlantic fault-line can be observed. According to a June 2012 survey from the Pew Research Center, 62% of the American public supports drone strikes, while 59% of Germans, 63% of French, 76% of Spanish and 90% of Greeks oppose them.

The ECFR’s Dworkin pointed out that there is already an EU-US forum that meets twice yearly where drone use is discussed by foreign policy legal advisors. This forum was set up by John Bellinger, the legal advisor at the U.S. State Department from 2005 to 2009, to deal with thorny legal questions such as detention and rendition of captured terrorist suspects. “I would like if this forum became more results-oriented,” such as by focusing on agreeing to a standard for the use of force against non-state actors, Dworkin said. Asked what that standard should be, he argued that “it has to be based on there being an imminent threat” and that the notion of ‘imminent threat’ needed to be tightly circumscribed.

Drones have many non-military uses that also raise some challenges for regulators and policymakers. For instance, they are becoming increasingly popular with law-enforcement agencies who use them for surveillance purposes. Here, the police can bump up against privacy concerns.   Park services can deploy them to check if forests are being illegally logged or endangered animals illegally hunted. Emergency service providers can use them in natural disasters to get aerial images of damaged areas so they have a clearer picture of what the most urgent needs are. But even in these less-contested areas, regulators have difficult issues to contend with, such as how to allow drones share the same airspace as commercial airliners without increasing the risk of mid-air collisions. Drones may only just be starting to register on the public’s radar, but their proliferation with so many government agencies for so many diverse purposes means that we will be hearing a lot more about them in Europe.

Brian Beary is a member of the Board of Advisors to the European Institute’s “European Affairs” journal.