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Drones are changing warfare — the EU needs to catch up – POLITICO


Federico Borsari is a Leonardo Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and a NATO 2030 global fellow. Gordon B. “Skip” Davis Jr. is a non-resident senior fellow at CEPA and served as NATO’s deputy assistant secretary-general for defense investment.

Drones have rapidly evolved from playing a supporting role in military operations to becoming an essential component of modern warfare — and they are in high demand across the globe.

Thus, to ensure their own security, European governments need to start paying attention and learn from the use of drones in the Ukraine war and other recent conflicts, including Gaza.

Drones enable widespread real-time situational awareness, improved targeting, and the suppression and destruction of adversary air and missile defenses. Today, small to large drones are being employed — and destroyed — in great numbers, and they are challenging concealment and survivability on the battlefield. Meanwhile, counter-drone capabilities have become equally essential for protecting troops and infrastructure.

According to Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, drones have played a key role in achieving air power objectives in the war against Russia, while counter-drone equipment has become increasingly important for force protection.

Additionally, the rapid and robust delivery of drones to meet increased battlefield needs in Ukraine has led to a dynamic whole-of-society approach, contributing to innovative procurement, mass production, operator training, as well as a novel approach to operations and reforms in the military’s force structure.

Another, more recent example of drone use today is the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. Hamas used drones to prepare its brutal assault on southern Israel by knocking out Israeli high-tech communications, sensor networks and remote-controlled machine guns — all which were meant to serve as the first line of defense against infiltrations from the Gaza strip.

At the same time, however, in all these conflicts, we have also seen that the hype surrounding drones can be exaggerated and misleading.

Drones don’t work in isolation. They should be regarded as a means of enhancing military effectiveness — not a “miracle weapon.” And their effectiveness depends on their integration into a wider military architecture that combines multiple capabilities across different domains, including space, cyber, intelligence fusion and processing, and electronic warfare, among others.

In our research assessing the impact of drones on the modern battlefield, we’ve found that they are becoming indispensable for modern military operations, and their role will only expand in the future, raising the urgency for NATO to rapidly adapt.

The European Union and its member countries similarly need to significantly ramp up the incorporation of drones and counter-drone technology into its numerous defense documents and initiatives, including the EU capability development plan and the EU coordinated annual review on defense. In parallel, EU countries should begin expanding cooperative defense projects on drone and counter drones, focusing on interoperability, scale and leveraging advanced technologies.

Of course, the bloc won’t be starting from scratch. “Unmanned aerial vehicles” already figure in the EU’s 2018 Capability Development Plan revision, and “unmanned aerial systems” (UAS) are included in its 2022 Coordinated Annual Review on Defence. Recently, the European Defence Agency also concluded a two-year project focused on interoperability standards for military drones, providing key recommendations that will help European countries better integrate and align their drone capabilities. Furthermore, the latest 2023 EU Capability Development Priorities — an update of the Capability Development Plan — features an increased focus on drones and their operational applications.

The European Union and its member countries similarly need to start incorporating the expanding role of drones and counter drones into the next EU capability development plan and the next EU annual defense review | Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

However, cooperative EU projects in both drone and counter-drone sectors remain modest in scale (in the low millions of euros) with only few nations involved. Also, most countries still tend to prioritize national initiatives, while EU member investments in drone and counter-drone development and production have been limited to date.

Moreover, quantity, quality and standardization currently fall short of the needs demonstrated by modern conflicts. While NATO collectively owns and operates five large High Altitude Long Endurance systems — NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) — there is no equivalent EU capability, collective or otherwise.

Given the volume of EU missions outside of Europe, EU members would do well to have a far greater number of multirole drones (high-end medium to large systems, as well as smaller expendable ones) and counter-drone capabilities ready to deploy.

Furthermore, considering the attrition that small and medium drones suffer in high-intensity conflicts, replicability and affordability of these systems should be prioritized. The latest Capability Development Priorities, for example, emphasizes the importance of medium and large drones but doesn’t mention the growing role played by small tactical systems (including commercial ones) and loitering munitions, as seen in Ukraine and elsewhere. Overall, while scale production and more modular designs could help bring down the cost of larger drones in the coming years, the latter’s high-end capabilities and sensor technologies remain relatively expensive. This means there is a need to make these platforms more survivable through specific self-protection capabilities.

On this, the EU already has important projects focused on both small- and medium-sized drones underway. The most ambitious among them — the Eurodrone — is expected to provide 20 medium-altitude long endurance multi-mission drones to four countries starting in 2028. And two other EU-funded projects of note — the Low Observable Tactical Unmanned Air System and Next Generation Small Remotely Piloted Aircraft — are set to produce prototypes of capable small tactical drones for a limited number of nations.

However, the future for full production is unclear, and this is because most European nations rely on their national drone fleets, ranging from medium-altitude long endurance drones and small-to-medium tactical systems. Total numbers are currently limited, but they are growing with a particular focus on multirole functions.And yet, a largely uncoordinated approach and a disparate mix of platforms with their own proprietary telemetry and sensors have hindered interoperability, as well as the establishment of a common doctrinal framework.

Drones don’t work in isolation. They should be regarded as a means of enhancing military effectiveness — not a “miracle weapon.” | Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images

EU funding and cooperative efforts to develop counter-drone capabilities are even more modest — although they are listed as a priority in the latest EU defense review. Currently, the only noteworthy project is a two-year  €13.5 million study and design initiative, which involves 14 nations and aims to pave the way for joint European counter-drone capability.

Inevitably, the expanding impact of drones will require the reprioritization of counter-drone investment by EU countries, focusing on cost-effective solutions like electronic warfare and directed energy weapons — including lasers and high-energy microwave weapons.

Despite efforts by NATO and the EU to encourage procurement and capability development and to promote common standards and enabling capabilities, however, they currently don’t have enough drones for a high-intensity fight against a peer adversary, for deterring adversaries or for acting in crises other than conflict. Additionally, both would be challenged to effectively integrate and employ the capabilities they do have in complex, contested environments.

Deficiencies in personnel and training, as well as limits on intelligence processing and sharing among the EU and its allies, add to this lack of capabilities.

The EU and its member countries thus need to embrace and prepare for the full potential of future drone warfare — which will require more resources, clear objectives and closer cooperation between governments, militaries and industry.

Specifically, the EU should comprehensively assess drone and counter-drone requirements, learning from recent conflicts, ongoing technological advancements and anticipated future threats. And the upcoming 2024 Coordinated Annual Review on Defence represents a strategic opportunity for this evaluation.

In parallel, essential enabling capabilities — like artificial intelligence, big data, quantum technologies, and cyber and space capabilities — also need attention and investment. The EU and its members should capitalize on ongoing innovation efforts — especially those related to the commercial or dual-use applications of drones and counter-drone technologies — as emphasizing joint operational experimentation and adopting more agile procurement processes will enhance effectiveness.

Lastly, integrating drone and counter-drone capabilities into member country forces requires a focus on human resource and talent management. This includes training, education, recruitment and retention.

But it is only if the EU can take these steps that drones will come to play a critical and successful role in the future of European security.

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