Today, the notion of innovation is widely used in research, economics, politics and other areas. While there is a common understanding that innovation means the generation of new ideas and/or knowledge, there is much less of a consensus on what can or should actually be considered ‘innovative’. Moreover, the meaning of innovation changed throughout the years: whereas  innovation could have a negative connotation  up to the early  20th century, it is nowadays seen as a key factor for long-term economic growth and international competitiveness.


Enhancing military capabilities 

Innovation can be defined as the creation and application of new products, services and processes. This includes the creation of a new technology, product, process or service, as well as the application of an existing technology to a different problem or domain. By introducing innovative technologies originating from other domains into the defence sector, both the initial investment risk and the lapse of time between the ideation and the delivery of a new military capability can be minimised. Nevertheless, innovation is not only meant to create new concepts but also to generate added value for end-users. Innovation in the defence sector should thus first and foremost aim at enhancing military capabilities.

In this context, innovation can be considered in different ways. A disruptive innovation is one which radically changes the way of operation (‘of doing things’), and therefore has a significant impact on market, on economic activity of firms, and as far as the defence sector is concerned, on the way in which armed forces operate. It uses enablers (technical or otherwise) and new paradigms to reach a level of performance that, over time, exceeds by far the limits of traditional, evolutionary advances. In contrast to disruptive innovations, incremental innovations enhance or improve the performance of existing products, services, processes, organisations or methods. 

Successful defence innovation obviously requires both disruptive and capability-based incremental innovation in order to provide Member States with the defence capabilities they need in the future. As shown in the graph below, defence innovation naturally stems from the need to confront new emerging threats when available solutions are insufficient and lay bare  strategic capability gaps. Future scenarios must be identified at the long-term vision and strategy stage which is also when future technologies should be successfully earmarked for their potential to disrupt the status quo and address emerging challenges.

While it may seem contradictory to mingle innovation and processes, best practice indicates that a structured process is a prerequisite to drive innovation and that without processes, there is only little chance of collecting great innovative ideas to be further developed. Nevertheless, although a  predictable, repeatable innovation process is needed, the process in itself should be as light as possible so as not to inhibit innovation. Furthermore, in recent years, we have been experiencing a shift in innovation drive. The times are long gone when defence research was at the onset of key technological advances (GPS, Internet,…). Nowadays,  civil and commercial markets drive innovation in most underlying technologies. 

The EDA should engage with non-traditional defence R&D communities and innovators to speed up access to emerging and potentially disruptive research and  identify areas for additional investment to fully address future defence capability needs. The Agency’s Capability Technology Groups (CAPTECHS), which form a network of experts from participating Member States  dedicated to a particular technology area, are key in this respect.

To support innovation and the incorporation of new topics and technologies into the defence domain, a toolchain has been developed by the EDA, covering all the steps from technology identification and project ideation to the enrichment of the Overarching Strategic Research Agenda (OSRA):

  1. ‘Technology Watch’ is a new initiative launched by the EDA to allow all R&T experts to look for new information and to share it with their peers. In addition, a specific technology foresight methodology was developed to enable the long term identification of emerging technologies;

  2. Technologies identified by the CapTechs are addressed by the Technology Watch tool and the technology foresight workshops. This second step brings together the expertise of all participating Member States for the purpose of technological assessment, to identify bestpractices and implement tailored processes to be used when evaluating the interest of a technology;

  3. The final step of the process is the selection of the most promising technologies to be included into the OSRA process.

The list of innovative technologies presented here is structured on the basis of the estimated timespan the technologies in question may take to mature enough to be included in defence platforms and systems. 

We distinguished between the five following time horizons:

  • Short term: maturity to be reached within the next 5 years

  • Short to medium term: maturity to be reached between 5-10 years

  • Medium term: maturity to be reached between 10-15 years

  • Medium to long term: maturity to be reached between 15-20 years

  • Long term: maturity anticipated after 20 years.

This list is based on the analysis of the long term technological trends identified for the Capability Development Plan as well as of the disruptive technologies identified by the EDA’s CAPTECHS during the OSRA process. 

Dr. Panagiotis Kikiras

The European Defence Agency’s Head of Unit for Innovative Research

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