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Drones will be one of the research topics supported by a growing European Defense Fund.

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Europe hopes new R&D fund will boost meager defense capabilities and create opportunities for science

This summer, in a leafy, wooded area near Utrecht, the Netherlands, scientists were testing out battlefield haute couture: adaptive camouflage. Researchers with the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research mounted a swath of fabric on a stand and watched as its pattern shifted to match the greens and browns of the foliage. Cameras connected to the fabric picked up the scenery and hundreds of embedded light-emitting diodes mimicked it, like the skin of a chameleon. The team is testing other materials to weave into the futuristic camouflage, including polymers that absorb body heat and radio waves, making soldiers harder to detect with thermal imagers and radars.

Just as striking as the fabrics is the project’s funding source: the European Union, better known for trade rules and farm subsidies than military maneuvers. The camouflage work is part of a Swedish-led, six-country project that received a €2.6 million grant from the union’s Preparatory Action on Defence Research (PADR). The 3-year fund, worth €90 million, also supports research in artificial intelligence (AI) for bomb detection, laser weapons, railguns, and drones. It is a sign of much bigger things to come: Next year, PADR will be rolled into the new European Defense Fund (EDF), with a budget of €7 billion over 7 years, split between early-stage research and late-stage development.

That’s tiny compared with the $80 billion per year the United States spends on defense R&D. And it’s even small compared with the combined €5 billion or so spent on defense research each year by EU nations. But the European Union, which has no military resources of its own, hopes the EDF, by topping up joint national investments, will encourage its members to strengthen their modest defense capabilities. For European researchers, the spending is opening new opportunities—and stirring some qualms.

European governments slashed defense budgets in the 1990s, believing the danger of major conflict in Europe had ended with the Cold War. “It was a bit of a paradox, because of course, we had the Balkan wars,” says Zdzisław Krasnodębski, a member of the European Parliament for Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party who steered the EDF through Parliament. But recent events—particularly Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent war in Ukraine—have changed many minds, he says.

At the same time, the United States is withdrawing from its role as guarantor of European security, says Julia Muravska, a researcher at the RAND Corporation, a global defense policy think tank. The Obama administration shifted U.S. defense resources to the Far East, and both it and the Trump administration have announced troop withdrawals from Europe. Successive U.S. presidents have urged the 21 EU countries that are also North Atlantic Treaty Organization members to honor commitments to spend at least 2% of their gross domestic product on defense. But only three actually do: Latvia, Estonia, and Greece.

To address these gaps, European leaders are discussing ways to pool military resources, and French President Emmanuel Macron has even called for “a true European army.” The EDF aims to be another stimulant for collaboration. Every EDF project must include participants from at least three nations, and mandatory cofinancing for late-stage development projects will give the budget a “lever effect,” says Frederic Mauro, a Brussels-based lawyer specializing in defense. Even though the EDF is minuscule compared with U.S. spending, it “can make a huge difference at the European scale,” he says.

One unanswered question is whether researchers in non-EU countries such as the United Kingdom and Switzerland can apply for EDF funding, and on what terms. If legislators allow their participation, the rules will likely be stricter than for Horizon 2020, the European Union’s civilian research program, which already includes non-EU nations like Switzerland and Israel. Jean-François Ripoche, R&D chief for the European Defence Agency, which runs PADR, says the argument boils down to whether a foreign firm or institution can reliably contribute to EU military projects without interference from its home country. “In the defense business, it’s hard to do without talking to your own government,” he says.

Going great guns

Most EU nations, with the exception of France, spend very little on defense R&D. EU officials hope a new defense R&D fund, worth about €1 billion a year, will boost national spending.

€0. billion €1. billion €2. billion €3. billion €4. billion €5. billion €6. billion €7. billion 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 Chart Title EU total (excl UK & Denmark) France Germany United Kingdom Defense R&D spending (€ billions) 76543210 2005 2010 2015 EU total (excluding the United Kingdom and Denmark) France Germany United Kingdom 2018
(Graphic) C. Bickel/Science; (Data) European Defence Agency

PADR funding has gone to a mix of research institutes, including Germany’s Fraunhofer Society; engineering companies such as French giant Thales; weaponsmakers like MBDA; and smaller businesses, such as Space Applications Services, a Belgian research firm. Universities also participate: For example, the University of Siena leads another camouflage project.

Future EDF research topics will be specified in annual calls run by the European Commission, the EU executive branch, and approved by a committee of national delegates. AI will be a big topic, Ripoche says. He says EDF funding will also go to new materials, such as discreet metamaterial antennas that can be engineered into the surfaces of vehicles and weapons. Muravska says she expects “a healthy take-up” in the EDF by European academic researchers, “provided they are aware of it.”

But some scientists are uneasy. “Military research can feed into technologies which are then exported to countries with poor human rights records,” says Stuart Parkinson, director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, a U.K. advocacy organization. He adds that nuclear arms races could be stoked by development of ostensibly nonnuclear technologies, such as hypersonic weapons.

Reiner Braun, a board member of the Berlin-based International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility, says he wishes EDF money could be used for research into understanding and defending against poverty, climate change, and disease, which can also lead to conflict. “We need much more research for peaceful activities for supporting the sustainable development goals, for climate research, and for many other purposes, including the fight against the pandemic.”

European security should come through dialogue with Russia and multilateral disarmament, Parkinson says. But he recognizes that a weapons-free world remains a far-off dream. “I’m not saying we should throw the doors open and throw our weapons on the floor.”