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Annual Conference discussed Defence Innovation

The European Defence Agency’s Annual Conference 2021 entitled 'Innovation in European Defence’ was opened on 7 December with speeches by the Head of the Agency, HR/VP Josep Borrell, and the President of the European Council, Charles Michel. With Covid still around, this year’s conference was held in hybrid format with a vast audience representing the whole European defence spectrum (governments, armed forces, industry, EU institutions, NATO, think tanks and media) either connected remotely or physically present to listen to speeches and panel discussions and also actively take part in debates through Q&A sessions. 

Following a brief welcome word by EDA Chief Executive Jiří Šedivý, it was up to the Head of Agency, HR/VP Josep Borrell, to formally open the conference. In his opening speech, Mr Borrell expressed gratitude for this year’s choice of the conference theme because, he said, “our collective ability to innovate, both at EU and at national level, will determine the position of the EU on the global stage in the years to come”. However, the current situation leaves room for improvement as the EU and its Member States need to do “much more” in this field: “We need to do much more together and we need to do it now. We cannot wait. The choice for the EU is simple but a crucial one: either we invest in defence innovation or we will become irrelevant!”.

Mr Borrell insisted on the strategic importance of innovation, not only as an accelerator of economic competition but also as a key tool in the global competition that re-structures the international security environment. “Today, innovation is front and centre in the global strategic competition because it will restructure the international security environment (…) Those who gain a technological edge and set the standards today will dominate the future”, Mr Borrell said. This is also the case at the military level, with emerging disruptive technologies (EDTs), such as Artificial Intelligence. Often dual-natured, impacting both civilian and military domains, such technologies have the potential to alter the character of warfare, he explained: “To retain an edge over competitors and potential adversaries, we must use the potential of emerging technologies and develop high-end capabilities to equip our military forces across the full spectrum”.

“EU and Member States need to do more, together”

Being at the forefront of defence innovation requires that Armed Forces and Ministries of Defence have close cooperation with the civil sector which nowadays is driving both pure technological innovations and innovative uses: “With the rapid development of new technologies in the civilian sphere and their fast weaponization, today, more than ever before, innovation is shaping the global balance of power”

When comparing the EU and its Member States with other global actors, it is obvious Europe lags far behind in terms of investing in defence innovation, Mr Borrell said, “and the gap is widening”. For proof, “latest EDA data suggest that in 2020 EU Member States spent roughly €2.5 billion on Research & Technology – only 1,2% of the total defence expenditure, with a tendency for further decrease in the next two years, even though the related PESCO commitment sets the bar at 2% of the defence budgets”. Meanwhile, the US Department of Defence invests at least $14 billion each year in research and innovation, around 2% of the whole US defence budget, while Google spends on Research & Development almost 10 times more than what EU defence ministries spend together on Research & Technology. “We can no longer afford to sit on the side-line and watch the others doing. The EU and its Member States need to do much more on defence innovation. And they must do it more together”, he insisted. 

Towards a Defence Innovation Hub within EDA 

“EDA, as an intergovernmental Agency, has a crucial role to play in defence innovation” as technological innovation has been part of the Agency´s DNA since its creation in 2004, the Head of Agency pursued. Furthermore, there is the idea of establishing a Defence Innovation Hub within the Agency. “This is also one of the deliverables I have put forward in the context of the Strategic Compass”, said Mr Borrell: “By creating a network of defence innovation centres around Europe, this Defence Innovation Hub would promote synergies with the industrial sector; foster an ecosystem of Research & Development in defence and get innovative solutions closer to the military user. I hope this hub will soon be in place!”.      

And the Head of Agency to conclude: “Innovation in defence must be anchored in research & technology investments, but also in capability development, concepts and doctrines across all EU Member States (...) EDA is a great example of this integrated approach. Working together with the Commission and with Member States, EDA must ensure that defence innovation is not just an ambition on paper, but a reality!”.

Charles Michel: Support for Defence Innovation Hub within EDA


European Council President Charles Michel said in his keynote speech (via video message, see link above) that the EU’s strategic objective was to increase its ability “to act autonomously to safeguard our interests, uphold our values and way of life, and shape the global future”. “That’s why Europe’s strategic autonomy and our capacity to act alone, if so needed, is high on the agenda of the Heads of State and Governments. In this respect, the upcoming Strategic Compass is of utmost importance as he is meant to provide a vision for Europe’s security and defence policy in the future”, he said. Work on the Compass is progressing well, based on Mr Borrell’s initial proposal presented in November. Further input to the discussions is expected from the December European Council before EU leaders will then adopt the Strategic Compass in March when defence will again be a topic at the European Council.  

Europeans have also agree to work on a third EU-NATO declaration “because NATO is the cornerstone of Europe’s security and defence”, Mr Michel stated praising the “unique and essential cooperation” between the two organisations.  “We want to deepen this relationship and adapt it to today’s geo-political reality”, he said. However, Europe’s security and defence do not exist “in a vacuum” but are linked to its policies and achievements in other domains too, such as climate change or the digital transition. Through its regulatory power in those domains, Europe could strengthen its clout in the security domain too.  “We could take fuller advantage of our instruments if we used them in a more coordinated manner to achieve our strategic goals, for example in trade, development, neighborhood policy, climate policy, visa policy or humanitarian aid. Greater coordination means greater impact”“We, Europeans, must take our destiny in our own hands, cooperating with our partners when needed and acting autonomously when necessary, to be a credible and efficient global security provider and a soft geopolitical influencer”.

To achieve this, Europe needs more defence innovation, and EDA has a key role to play: “The next 10 years will be crucial for our capability development, and EDA has a unique role to play combining lessons learned from missions and long term technology trends and then integrating this concrete know-how into national defence plans (…) We must continue to link innovative technologies with their possible defence applications. And I know that we can count on you, the European Defence Agency and your unique experience and expertise. Your work is key to facilitating the uptake of defence innovation by our Member States”, Mr Michel stressed.  

And the President of the European Council to conclude: “We must also avoid duplication our efforts and wasting our resources. You, the EDA, can help link Member States’ national authorities with each other, and with EU institutions, agencies and bodies. You help identify defence-related technologies point to opportunities and provide a platform for cooperation. And you need a budget to fulfil your growing role. I am in favour of the creation of a European defence innovation network. I also support the creation of a European Defence Innovation Hub inside EDA”.

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