Defence innovation has become a topic in many if not all EU countries. What makes the French AID special? What are the main characteristics of the French defence innovation model?
Yes, I agree that ‘Innovation’ is an important strategy for many defence administrations in the world and for probably most of our EU partners. In 2018, Florence Parly, the French Minister for the Armed Forces, stated that our armies are fully up to date and that our defence and security systems are efficient thanks to their innovative design, based on French expertise. This rationale led to the creation, on 1 September 2018, of the French Defence Innovation Agency (AID) with around hundred people, aiming at orientating and supporting innovation from low Technology Readiness Level (TRL) basic research to higher levels with participative projects of end-users, including the militarisation of ideas and technologies coming from the civilian world.
The basis of the French defence innovation model is a holistic approach of innovation: the AID is in charge of orientating the innovation policy – which is chaired by a Defence Innovation Committee - but also of detecting, experimenting and adapting the innovation to be able in the end, both to accelerate and deploy it.
Some call it the ‘French DARPA’ in a reference to the US super-agency of innovation. Is this the ambition?
The DARPA is a historically famous illustration of a defence innovation approach. But the French AID action differs from the DARPA for at least two reasons. First, on the financial aspect, the DARPA budget is about $3.5 billion a year while the AID’s budget has been recently raised to €1 billion for 2022. Second, their roles are not the same either: the Defence Innovation Agency is in charge of the coverage of all the domains of innovation in the defence field, while the DARPA is sharing this responsibility with several innovation structures, some of which are related to the different services (Army, Navy or Air Force…). The organisations chosen by France and the USA can therefore not be considered at the same level as France has made the choice of one Agency federating innovation for the whole ministry, compared to the DARPA mission which is to prevent technological or strategical surprise, and therefore push the effort and the innovation exploration to the extremes without looking for an immediate return on investment. DARPA and AID are answers to different expectations and therefore are not guided by the same criteria for success.
France counts many large, historical defence companies which suddenly must work with new tech start-ups from outside the military bubble. How to make this work?
The French ‘historical’ defence companies have already understood the need to grab innovation from sources that are external to our traditional ecosystem. Regarding this aspect of innovation, the governmental mission carried out by the AID is to broaden this detection and facilitate its incorporation so that it could benefit both to the start-ups and the main defence companies. Since the beginning of the Agency, we have been scanning more than 750 promising companies. In the future, some of them will provide us with technologies or capabilities in order to help our forces succeed in their missions. These products can be stand-alone equipment or part of more ambitious projects lead by major companies. The aim is not to compete but to complete.
At the creation of AID, Minister Parly said it would be “turned towards Europe”. To what extent do you reach out to European partners for cooperation?
Innovation in France is following the philosophy of procurement and cooperation and remains a priority. We, Europeans, know that the most efficient way to spend our defence budgets means sharing topics from the very early stage of new technologies in order to be able to share the R&D costs and equip ourselves in the future in the same way. This can also be seen as a mandatory condition for interoperability and a responsibility we endorse for the good use of public money.
The increasing effort of the European Commission to foster cooperation with the PADR (Preparatory Action on Defence Research), the EDIDP (European Defence Industrial Development Programme) and now the European Defence Fund (EDF), has been receiving a very enthusiastic support from France. These are not vain words: every week of this year, there have been exchanges between experts of the Agency and our European colleagues in order to define and select EDF 2021 then 2022 topics, more particularly for research. Let’s not forget the increasing number of multilateral projects led by the European Defence Agency, based on Member States hard work within the EDA research domains working groups (CapTechs), and there are numerous other examples.
Instead of 27 national defence innovation strategies, would it not be more efficient to just have a joint European one?
Having one unique and shared strategy is an obvious target but we need to be aware that all the European countries have not been starting their innovation approaches at the same time and do not share the same schedule or ambitions.
It is therefore very important to create the favourable conditions for an innovation dialogue and to be able to produce a unique strategy, the innovations structures need to form a strong network. European countries will surely get most benefits and advantages in innovation if they provide a round table where their specialists can join and exchange about their priorities, projects and opportunities. Such discussions will eventually transform into cooperation projects and in the end into a global and coherent strategy shared between all the Europeans participants.
Provided by the different members and cultures, the numerous ideas will probably be heterogeneous at the beginning, so they will have to be collected and synthesised: the European Defence Agency is expected to play a role in this process while pursuing its mission of supporting the Member States.