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Tubes from an RM-70 multiple launch rocket system, seen at a defense industry exhibition in Poland last year

Jaap Arriens/Sipa USA/Newscom

European Union, worried about rising tensions, plans to boost military research

After decades of keeping a low profile in the military arena, the European Union is flexing its muscles. On Wednesday, the European Commission proposed a new, €13 billion fund for military R&D. Its main beneficiaries are expected to be major European companies, such as Airbus, Leonardo, and the Thales Group, but universities and research institutes will be able to apply as well.

All but six of the European Union’s 28 members states are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has guaranteed their security for decades. But in a climate of rising international tensions—including Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and a series of terrorist attacks—the European Union is keen on taking on a more important role, especially in defense R&D. “Both Europeans and our partners in the world expect the EU to be more and more a security provider, in our region and beyond,” Federica Mogherini, the commission’s foreign affairs and security policy chief, told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday. “We are ready to fulfill our responsibilities.” To achieve this, cooperation “must become the norm, not the exception anymore,” added industry commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska.

At the moment, most defense research in the European Union is funded at the national level or through specific agreements between governments. To illustrate what it calls “fragmentation and inefficiencies,” the commission says 178 different weapon systems and 17 types of main battle tanks are in use across the European Union, compared with 30 and one, respectively, in the United States.

The European Defence Agency (EDA), launched in 2004, has taken some cautious steps to encourage joint research projects. It uses an “à la carte” approach: Countries can pick which projects they want to take part in, conditions are negotiated for each project, and governments can contribute different amounts in cash or in kind. So far, EDA has managed about 200 research and technology projects, worth about €1 billion combined.

In contrast, the proposed European Defence Fund (EDF) would spend money straight from EU coffers through competitive calls for proposals, managed by EDA. The commission has proposed allocating €4.1 billion to cross-border defense research and €8.9 billion to development between 2021 and 2027—a whopping 20-fold increase for the research part of a 3-year, €90 million pilot program named the Preparatory Action on Defence Research (PADR). (More than one-third of PADR’s budget has gone to Ocean2020, a maritime surveillance project that includes research on drones and unmanned submarines and involves 42 partners from 15 EU countries.)

National interests and secrecy have long prevailed in defense; Mogherini acknowledged that EDF would have seemed “unthinkable” in the past. And some are uncomfortable with this new role for the union. About 700 researchers have signed a petition against any form of EU spending for military research, which they write “will only worsen global tensions.”

Stuart Parkinson, head of Scientists for Global Responsibility in Lancaster, U.K., one of the organizations behind the petition, says the money could be put to better use in civilian research in areas such as environmental protection, sustainable development, energy security, and satellite navigation. “R&D in all these areas could help tackle the roots of conflict,” Parkinson wrote in a note in February.

Others have cautiously welcomed the new fund but remain vigilant about possible knock-on effects on Horizon Europe, the European Union’s next main research program, with distinct rules and a separate budget which could be worth €94 billion in the period 2021–27. The commission’s plan for EDF says projects “may benefit from the results of civilian of dual use research projects funded under Horizon Europe, for example within the domains of air and waterborne transport,” and vice-versa. Such links should not threaten the clear separation between the two programs and should remain purely voluntary, says Mathilde Reumaux, a senior policy officer at Science Europe, a Brussels-based group of research funding agencies and science organizations, who promises to keep “a close eye” on EDF.

Frans Kleyheeg, international business director for defense safety and security at the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) in The Hague, sounds a more positive note. (TNO is taking part in Ocean2020 and other PADR projects.) The commission can increase its investment in both civilian and military research at the same time, says Kleyheeg, and EDF could even set an example for Horizon Europe by encouraging more research with concrete market applications, as it focuses its funding on technologies that can be bought by governments or industries.

The details of EDF will now be negotiated with the European Parliament and member states, who have to sign off on the plan.