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22nd Mar 2019

Seven EU states create military drone 'club'

  • US-made drones have been used by the British military to strike hundreds of targets in Afghanistan (Photo: Steve Crane)

Seven EU countries have formed what France calls a "club" to produce military drones from 2020 onward.

The scheme was agreed in Brussels on Tuesday (19 November) at a meeting of the European Defence Agency (EDA), the EU's defence think tank, by France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain.

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The group-of-seven's defence ministers signed a "letter of intent" tasking the EDA to draw up a study on joint production of Medium Altitude Long Endurance (Male) craft, which can be used to strike military targets or for surveillance of migrant boats in the Mediterranean Sea.

The EDA said in a press release that "the objective of this community is to exchange information as well as to identify and facilitate co-operation among member states which currently operate or plan to operate RPAS [Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems]."

The think tank's director, Claude-France Arnould, noted: "In view of today’s constrained financial situation, this effort for defence must be fully efficient which implies co-operation and searching for synergies."

Another EDA official, Peter Round, told media: "This is the starting pistol for us to be able to start work on a European RPAS."

The French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said: "If Europe hopes to maintain a strategic capability, countries must pool their capacities and actions in a pragmatic way."

He called the group of seven a "club of drone-using countries."

The EDA decision comes ahead of an EU summit on defence in December.

It also comes amid a raft of existing European drone projects.

Three European arms firms - France's Dassualt, Franco-German firm Eads and Italy's Finmeccanica - agreed in June to launch their own European drone programme.

France, Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland are working on what they call a "euro-Ucav," or unmanned combat air vehicle, the Neuron, which made a test flight in December 2012.

France and the UK are working on a "stealth" drone called Telemos to fly in 2018.

On the civilian side, the European Commission is also developing drones to be used for surveillance in EU civilian airspace with Israel Aerospace Industries and with the Austrian-based firm, Diamond Airborne Sensing.

The EDA meeting on Tuesday saw eight EU states - Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK - sign up to a second scheme, the "Joint Investment Programme on RPAS for Air Traffic Insertion," to enable drones to fly alongside civilian planes.

Meanwhile, the EU's new Male programme is designed to compete with Israeli and US arms firms.

Israel and the US make the vast majority of the world's military drones and sell them to allies such as Germany, France, Italy and the UK.

Britain, according to a report filed by the UK defence ministry to the British parliament last month, used US-made "Reapers" to strike targets in Afghanistan 418 times since 2007.

The UN and robotics experts have voiced concerns about drone proliferation.

Noel Sharkey, a British scientist who advises the UK military, told this website last year that China has also developed a Male, the Pterodactyl, which it intends to sell worldwide.

But the concern has had little impact on a global drone market said by the US-based consultancy, the Teal Group, to be worth €5 billion a year and forecast to hit €9 billion by 2018.

The EDA meeting on Tuesday also called for "increased co-operation" by EU states on air-to-air refuelling, satellite communications and cyber defence.

Its press release noted, referring to EU states' reliance on the US airforce in the Libya and Mali conflicts, that: "Recent operations have demonstrated an important European capability gap in this area [air refuelling]."

Correction: The original story said Denmark is part of a group of eight countries which signed up to a Joint Investment Programme on RPAS for Air Traffic Insertion. In fact, Denmark is not in the group. But Germany is. Sorry

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