What are Airbus’ defence innovation and development priorities for the coming years and how important are collaborative European projects in your planning? 

We have to adjust our existing products to the era of digitalization and we need to ensure that our new developments are capable of translating all the accessible data into useful information. Large defence products with a high degree of complexity come with a high price tag. Those next steps into the future of European defence can only be mastered collaboratively, bringing together financial and technological resources. Projects like the European MALE drone and a common next generation weapon system can act as blueprints for the future in defence. Innovation is key to guarantee the sovereignty of Europe in the decades to come.

Germany and France have pledged to develop a European combat aircraft. What’s your assessment, can this be done? Under which conditions?  

This was a very forward looking step, which we welcome. The time is now, when our existing fighters are in their best years, to decide about the succession. If you look into the development cycle of an aircraft it’s simply too late to enter into discussions at the end of the current platform’s lifecycle. We see that both countries seem willing to break with the past and try to avoid individual solutions from the onset. I am convinced the project can be successful if both governments and industry thoroughly analyse the lessons learnt from previous attempts. What we should be clear about is that a next generation weapon system will always be more than a simple replacement of current platforms. It will be about connectivity, real time data exchange, commanding swarms of smaller drones – and all this in a highly digitalized environment. 

guaranteeing Europe’s security requires a strong joint effort by its member states. The Defence Fund can surely be one part of that.

MALE RPAS is another European programme in which Airbus DS plays a central role. What are in your view the main remaining challenges to make it a genuine success?

So far the project can only be labelled a success since all major European companies are closely working together on the project at our Military Aircraft Centre in Manching near Munich. The results of the definition study are expected mid-2018. Then two things will be critical. Firstly, a quick and robust commitment by the interested nations for further development. Secondly, the finalization of European standards for qualification and certification of drones in public airspace.

Multinational defence programmes, by nature, can be problematic, as the A400M has shown. Are there lessons to be learned from that experience for future European defence industrial projects? 

Past experiences show us that the problem is very often not the multinational approach itself, but the rules of engagement. Clearly many consumer products are manufactured in several places and then assembled in another one. More significantly, the concept is also proven in Airbus when producing commercial aircraft. But the selection of suppliers and locations should be an economic one and not driven by politics. Additionally the nomination of what we call a “lead nation” will be a decisive success factor. I am convinced that we need to tear down national borders and also to rethink our attitude towards ‘juste-retour’ demands for national work shares that often do not allow for efficient programme structures and the selection of best performing partners and suppliers. 

Cybersecurity is crucial for defence, today and even more so in the future. Is Europe, governments and industry alike, making the best of its potential in this domain? 

The first question must be: Is Europe capable of securing its own IT infrastructure? For many institutions and companies I am not so sure. Furthermore cybersecurity standards within the EU nations differ very considerably. As web-based solutions do not stop at national borders we need to achieve common industrial standards.

That’s why Airbus decided to build up its own defence shield first and only then to offer cyber security solutions to other parties. It is a testament to our capabilities that now several EU institutions trust in cyber-secured infrastructure from Airbus. We are doing our utmost to live up to our responsibility here. 

What is your assessment of the proposed European Defence Fund? Can it be a game-changer for boosting joint development and procurement of defence capabilities?

I am convinced that guaranteeing Europe’s security requires a strong joint effort by its member states. The Defence Fund can surely be one part of that.

SMEs fear that the European Defence Fund might first and foremost benefit prime defence suppliers, including Airbus DS. What would you respond to them? 

Look at the situation we have today. All primes rely heavily on their suppliers. Why should that change just because the money for the final product comes from another source? In addition, the consolidation of Europe’s defence industry can only be in the interest of the customer.

What impact do you expect Brexit to have on European defence? Politically, but also for Europe’s defence industry and future collaborative projects?

As a truly European company we deeply regret this process. Currently we can’t foresee the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and therefore have to be prepared for different scenarios. Of course we still hope that there will be finally a pragmatic solution where the UK will remain an important part of our supply chain and of our talent pool.

One of the EDA’s core missions is to facilitate defence cooperation and strengthen Europe’s defence technological and industrial base. In your view, what could the Agency do more, or perhaps differently in this respect? 

The EDA was at the forefront of the recent pooling and sharing initiative involving an increasing number of nations around the acquisition of multi-role tanker/transport aircraft. This has been a true success for the Agency, with the potential for more nations to join, and should therefore encourage it to replicate this process with other existing military capabilities. 

In an even less visible area, but nonetheless very important, the EDA should intensify its work on harmonizing military requirements, through Common Staff Targets and ultimately Common Staff Requirements, be it in future military Govsatcom, military Earth observation or Maritime Patrol Aircraft.

The EDA has also a card to play in the soon-to-be created EU defence research programme and also in the EU defence industrial development programme (EDIDP) which should focus on late-stage development, prototyping and demonstration activities for high end capabilities. For these new initiatives the Agency will undoubtedly need additional staff and experts. But in any case it can count on the complete support and cooperation of the defence industry , because the coordination should take place as early as possible, ideally even in the definition and selection of priorities.

Dirk Hoke

Dirk Hoke is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Airbus Defence and Space since 1 April 2016. He is a member of the Group Executive Committee. Dirk Hoke joined Airbus on 1 January 2016 from Siemens, where he had been CEO of the Large Drives Business Unit since 2014. He has held various executive-level positions at Siemens since becoming CEO of the Cluster Western & Central Africa in 2008. His career spans 21 years and five continents.