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Annual Conference hears inspiring panel discussions

Following the various keynote speeches (see other related news on the opening speeches, the ministerial debate as well as the fire side chat with EIB Vice-President Kris Peeters), attendees of EDA's Annual Conference on 7 December also enjoyed two lively, interactive and highly interesting panel debates, each of them focusing on a specific aspects of defence innovation.

Moderated by EDA Deputy Chief Executive Olli Ruutu, the first panel entitled ‘How to foster defence innovation? featured Emmanuel Chiva, Executive Director of the French Defence Innovation Agency (AID), Vice Admiral Louise K. Dedichen, Norwegian Military Representative to NATO, Timo Pesonen, Director General of DG DEFIS at the European Commission, Kusti Salm, Permanent Secretary at the Estonian Ministry of Defence, and David van Weel, Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at NATO. In this panel, representatives of national governments and European institutions discussed the potential and requirements for greater innovation in European armed forces, from new technologies, concepts and processes to doctrines and decisions.   

“Political will is paramount” for bringing defence innovation forward at a time when we are entering a new era where we have “new battlefields” with space, cyber warfare, new materials, information manipulation, etc. and where we will see “technological disruption that will foster strategic disruption”, said Emmanuel Chiva.  From its creation in September 2018, the French Defence Innovation Agency has worked to support the French Armed Forces in this respect launching “more than 1,100” innovation projects over the first three years. As part of it, a Defence Innovation Lab was put in place to be able to challenge the start-ups and SMEs and the wider civilian eco-system. “You need to work with them, the smaller ones, but you also need to work with the larger companies because the innovations put forward by the start-ups need to be integrated in existing operational systems”, Mr Chiva stressed. The French Defence Agency also set up a “unique point of entry“ or “one-stop-shop” for all defence innovators, especially the new and small ones for which it is very important to make thing simple because they don’t know how a Ministry of Defence works.  Working on national levels is good, but “now we need to move to a European level because the size of our Member States is nothing compared to Russia or China: “The idea is to spread this philosophy throughout Europe and benefit from European synergies (…) this is a collective mission”. All of this needs to be done in coordination with NATO’s efforts in this domain: “The objective is not to compete, but to complete”.

Norway is active in defence innovation at various levels, explained Vice-Admiral Louise K.Dedichen; at NATO (through the NATO Science Technology Organisation, STO), by participating in projects at the European Defence Agency (with whom it has signed an Administrative Agreement), through the European Defence Fund and through cooperation directly with Allies. Norway also joined NATO's Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (or DIANA) and is also considering to join NATO’s Innovation Fund, she said. On a European level, Norway participated and financed EDA’s Joint Investment Programme on CBRN where artificial intelligence is used in sensor technologies for detecting, for instance, biological threats: “This demonstrates that Norway has succeeded in its strategy to invest in defence research and development through EDA”. As regards the European Defence Fund, Norway contributes with 200 million to the EDF budget with no return guarantee, the Vice-Admiral said.

Timo Pesonen said the European Commission’s main instrument for supporting defence innovation was the European Defence Fund (EDF), which became operational this year. Even before that, through the EDF’s precursor programmes - the Pilot Project on Defence Research, the Preparatory Action on Defence Research (PADR), and the European Defence Industrial Programme (EDIDP) - the Commission has already actively supported defence innovation in the past few years. “We will continue on this part, and with the EDF we intend to spend around 150 million euros per year on defence innovation”, he said. This will be done in different ways. First, the Commission will continue to issue calls for proposals on disruptive technologies. “Up to 8% of the total EDF will allocated to this”, the Director General said. Second, from next year onwards, the Commission will also organise technological challenges, similar to those organised in the US. Third, the Commission adopted this year the Action Plan on synergies between civil, defence and space industries. Fourth, the Commission will support cross-border innovation networks and will test the relevance of technologies from the civil sector and spin them into defence. Fifth, innovation often lies within SMEs. “Therefore we will continue our special support to SMEs through the EDF (…) we have to make sure SMEs find their place in the supply chains of major defence programmes”. Sixth, the Space directorate of DG DEFIS has initiated specific actions to promote innovation in the space domain, with obvious benefits for defence too. “Last but not least, we will use new, innovative forms of funding”, including the usage of lump sums for project funding to reduce red tape, Mr Pesonen said. Of course, those Commission activities must be complementary to what other actors do in this field, including EDA. “We can only succeed if we do it together”, he said.

What sparks defence innovation in Estonia, was Kusti Salm asked. "There is no black magic", he said some very “basic things”. “Necessity, to start with. Estonia is a small country with very limited resources, and even now, everything is measured against these two parameters. We need to find solution with less resources”, he said. As an example, he mentioned the efforts put by the Estonian Ministry of Defence in developing and using unmanned ground systems for taking over military tasks, especially logistics tasks. “This has been identified by Estonia as a way to save people and increase war-fighting power”, he said, adding that this technology can then be linked to other platforms. The naval domain is another example. “In 10-15 years, Estonia needs to replace its fleet. Challenges at sea are growing fast, faster than our financial and staff resources. So we will look at unmanned systems and use modularity” to find innovative, efficient and cost-effective solutions, Mr Salm Stated. “So, we are actively seeking in two areas: one is unmanned capabilities, and the other one is modularity. The idea is that we can spread out to a number of smaller ships the technologies that would otherwise mounted on our large frigates”.  He also insisted on the importance of decentralisation for triggering innovation, as most innovations come from bottom-up. “For that we need to be ready to take risks and to also accept failure from time to time”, he said.

NATO’s work on emerging disruptive technologies (EDTs) went through three action-phases, namely “identify, understand, act”, said Mr van Weel. That’s the framework in which NATO works on EDTs, and which has already resulted in two specific strategies adopted last October: the Artificial Intelligence (AI) strategy and the strategy on data exploitation policy. NATO’s core instruments for promoting innovation are the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (or DIANA) and the NATO’s Innovation Fund. “DIANA will have small offices on both sides of the Atlantic, connecting both sides’ ecosystems but also the funding, and using existing accelerators and testing sites already existing in the nations”, explained Mr van Weel. The NATO Innovation Fund, for its part, will help to bridge the financing gap many innovative ideas face in their development process (“valley of death”). “The Fund, which will total 1 billion euros, will do these early seed investments in promising dual-use technologies which either come through the DIANA accelerator programme or are being brought up by nations that are participating in the Fund as being promising for the defence sector”. The hope is that both DIANA and the Fund will be launched at the next NATO summit to take place in Madrid next June, Mr van Weel said. He also insisted on the importance of innovation regulation and standardisation. The military needs to pay more attention to this than in the past when we left this to the civil innovators and market. “We need to be ahead of the curve in this domain”, said Mr van Weel.

Industry panel


The second panel, moderated by Pieter Taal (EDA Head of Unit Industry Strategy and EU Policies), was entitled Innovation capacity of the European defence industry and featured Peppas Antonios (CEO ETME), Domitilla Benigni (CEO and COO of Elettronica), Hervé Dammann (Senior Vice-President Europe, Thales) as well as Jan Pie (Secretary General, Aerospace and Defence Industries Association of Europe, ASD). The panel discussed how the industry is adapting to the new defence innovation environment which is increasingly based on synergies between the Ministries and Defence with the civil sector, and what the current and future challenges and opportunities are for the industry.

Tremendous technological changes and developments have been witnessed in the defence sector in recent times and most, if not all, innovations that pushed those developments are driven by the commercial market, said Jan Pie. Hence the need to manage the spin-in process of those civil innovations into the military domain “which is much easier said than done”, especially because the requirements in the defence sector are different from those in the civil domain. That being said, commercial innovations on their own will not be enough to secure our Armed Forces’ technological superiority in the future. “We will also have to continue to need develop defence-specific technologies as well”, he stressed. The Commission’s Action Plan on synergies between the civil, defence and space industries is a step in the right direction but “we need a systematic approach” to implement the action plan and to actually create these synergies, Mr Pie stated. Furthermore, synergies can never replace the existing investment plans in Member States which should not be dropped because of synergy expectations that will only materialise in the future.

Domitilla Benigni agreed that the relationship between innovation and defence has changed over the years, “but what has most changed is the speed by which innovation occurs, and also where the innovation coming from”, namely from the civil sector “which is clearly leading”. Only collaborative initiatives such as the proposed future EDA Defence Innovation Hub, Nato’s DIANA programme and the Nato Defence Innovation Fund can allow the innovation coming from start-ups and SME to break through and reach a higher level, she thought. It will require good-will and efforts from both sides, however. “If the introduction of civil innovation in defence has to be successful, both sides need to act. The defence sector musty be ready to accommodate the new civil technologies in its systems, but on the other side, the civil innovators should be ready to include into their own products the military requirements that are important for defence. Otherwise, this mix and collaboration will not succeed”.

For Peppas Antonios, the speed of innovative change is indeed of the essence: “The name of the game is how to marry the speed of civil innovation with the long processes still being used in the Ministries of Defence”, he said. Everybody, innovators and military end-users, have to move “out of their comfort zones”: SMEs and start-ups have to understand, have to change, have to adopt new processes and learn from the prime defence companies. On the other hand, the primes have to learn from the more agile civil companies, SME and start-ups”, Mr Antonios said.

Hervé Dammann insisted on the “continuous efforts” needed in terms of investment to bring innovation forward. There is also a human dimension: “we need to be able to attract the best talents”, he said, referring to a “war of talents” on the labour market where a new awareness must be raised that working for a defence or dual-use company is a good thing, a good job, he said. The importance of start-ups and SME and their role in the defence supply chain cannot be over-estimated, said Mr Dammann as cooperation with them has become indispensable: “We could not do otherwise”. However, it is important they specialise on very specific domains needed for defence, he stressed.