The European Defence Agency (EDA) defines these emerging disruptive technologies (EDTs) as “significantly changing the rules or conduct of conflict within one or two generations”, thus forcing militaries to adapt their planning and long term goals. NATO takes a slightly different tack, splitting the concept into ‘emerging’ versus ‘disruptive’ technologies, defining the former as reaching maturity during 2020-2040, and the latter as having a major, even revolutionary, impact on defence and security functions. 


“In the end,” says Panagiotis Kikiras, EDA’s Head of Unit Technology and Innovation, “no matter how you define EDTs, you end up with a pretty similar list of technologies.  And that creates a good initial basis for synergies among the different institutional players in Brussels and our Member States, as well as convergence between the EU and NATO.” 

For its part, the Agency has identified around a dozen EDTs as the most important for its constituent defence ministries. EDA is using its 2018 ‘Overarching Strategic Research Agenda’ (OSRA) and technology-specific groups of national defence experts (CAPTECHs) to shape how each EDT will be studied and developed. 

“The OSRA gives the agency what it lacked before: a structured process for delivering technology,” said Jean-François Ripoche, EDA’s Director for Research, Technology and Innovation. “Moreover, we now have a new EDT action plan, which should be approved in December 2021, thus setting out the framework for the technology groups’ work.” 

Of the EDTs identified by the Agency, six stand out for their strategic implications: artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics, robotics and autonomous systems, hypersonic weapon systems and space, new advanced materials, and quantum-based technologies.  Their significance – and examples of what the agency is doing to husband efforts toward their development – are explained below.

1) ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

With the possible exception of big data analytics, no other EDT has more cross-cutting implications for military operations than AI, which derives from the ability of algorithms to make optimal or quasi-optimal choices to achieve specific goals.  

Combining AI with other technologies and functions will yield new military capabilities that were previously found only in the realm of fiction. Using it to crunch big data, for example, will enable fast decision making and animate sensors, the testing and application of new materials, or the rapid-fire coordination of fleets of autonomous military platforms.  

Applying AI to logistics is already generating significant improvements to operational efficiency and military supply lines, and thus helping reduce costs. Building AI into a soldier’s suite of sensors, for example, would yield more effective reaction time in the field while enhancing communication and data flows at all levels of the chain of command.  

AI will inevitably shift into predictive battlefield assessments while vastly accelerating real-time situational awareness in all operational domains. That will add up to faster and better-informed decisions for military and political leaders. Meanwhile, future progress in machine-learning and quantum computing should further advance the speed and efficiency of nearly all military tasks, making AI the most versatile EDT. 

 

How EDA contributes  

EDA is laying the groundwork for Europe’s armies to exploit AI in many operational areas. Based on an EDA action plan, approved in December 2020, three major projects will be launched in the coming months. 

The first project will explore the concept and rules for an EU-wide pool of defence data, guided by the principles of sovereignty over data, security and trust, data interoperability, and the portability of data and services.  

The idea is that each Member States and its industry could contribute data that is anonymised and then made available to all others for purposes of research and simulation. Here we’re mainly talking about the development and testing of new algorithms”, said Kikiras, adding that the Agency will soon send a request for information to the industry, research, and defence ministry stakeholders for feedback on the four principles. Their views will be collected and reviewed by the end of 2022, after which the Member States will decide on the way forward.   

The second project will focus on analysing the requirements for defence-trusted AI. This pertains to matters of human oversight (known as the human-in-the-loop rule), the technical robustness and safety of operational AI, traceability and accountability, and the overall rules of data governance. 

The third project aims to map out the requirements for a unified EU framework to validate and certify military AI-based systems.  Harmonised certification would help confront threats in areas such as cyber security where fast-tracked solutions could be fielded more quickly such as enabling networks to self-configure/self-patch when detecting vulnerabilities. 

By its very nature, however, this project presents daunting challenges since any shift toward pan-EU certification – whatever the sector – cuts across huge numbers of institutional, regulatory, and industrial players. Fortunately, there are precedents to emulate.  

We will turn to the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) to see how they developed their methodology and principles of validating and certifying AI and then apply them as appropriate to military AI,” observed Kikiras. “It’s not just about the process of validation, but infrastructure as well – the facilities and how you test against reference AI models. For example, when testing an intelligence-gathering swarm of drones, what reference models to use? These are some of the issues that need resolving.” 

One encouraging development is a recently completed two-year study by EDA and the European Space Agency (ESA) known as “Cyber-Defence for Space” that analysed the cyber threats to ground and space infrastructure.  Its results were presented in early November, along with recommendations for creating cyber-operational centres services for cyber threat intelligence for space, utilizing AI technologies.

2) BIG DATA ANALYTICS

Though a field in itself, the exploitation of big data is heavily tied to AI and especially machine - learning, both of which require increasingly large streams of data to make the most accurate decisions. Data analytics, of course, has been around as long as computers have, but what has changed is how pervasively it is now collected and analysed, which is where AI enters the picture.

Big data’s sheer metrics present special problems for militaries, which need to collect, process, analyse, distribute and act upon operational data across the entirety of their organisational structures, with little or no margin for error. For most modern armies, that inevitably points to the so-called cloud – the nexus of servers that could be hosted outside the traditionally closed C4 networks. Since most militaries do not have the full internal computing power or manpower to handle the amounts of operational data they generate and need, it means that computing paradigms like cloud computing could be utilized to effectively mitigate this problem.. And that raises fundamental issues of trust, security (including availability, integrity) and accessibility.

 

How EDA contributes  

Recognising early on the challenges raised by migrating military IT services to cloud computing infrastructure and services, EDA launched a four-year study project in 2019 known as CLAUDIA (“Cloud Intelligence for Decision Making Support and Analysis”).

Wide-ranging in scope, CLAUDIA’s various work packages focus on crucial ways the cloud can be used for military operations such as simulation and C2, ‘tactical cloud’ infrastructures to enable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks, scenario generation, or big data analytics to support decision-making.

Via one of its pilot projects, CLAUDIA has already demonstrated the cloud’s potential for countering hybrid warfare by analysing cues in open-source data. Its current work strands, launched in January 2021, are focused on tactical cloud infrastructure and distributed simulation. Lying ahead will be work to: test so-called fog computing (i.e., analytics via devices at the tactical edge of operations), potentially link national military simulators into a federated system, and explore the concept of modelling and simulation as a service.

Ultimately, based on CLAUDIA’s overall outcome, a future operational tool to support the intelligent management of open and classified data sources to enhance decision making could be developed for the Member States and EU Council.

3) ROBOTICS and AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS

Militaries’ increasing reliance on robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) is destined to change how wars are fought, in fundamental ways. Autonomous platforms that support human soldiers are already in the field, transporting heavy loads, ferrying supplies back and forth, functioning as battery re-charge stations, and providing support for medical evacuation.

Such are only the most obvious examples, though. Robotics and autonomy also entail man-machine interfaces such as exo-skeletons that are now augmenting the strength, endurance and situational awareness of soldiers. Moreover, the exponential pace of robotics research in simulating human behaviour could eventually reduce or eliminate altogether the need to deploy humans on the frontline. This would completely alter the threshold for military intervention since the political price of soldier casualties would no longer be a factor.

Elsewhere, there is vast research into the applications of ’swarming’ technology where fleets of small, relatively cheap systems are deployed for a diversity of tasks, from reconnaissance to communications to defensive tactics. A key advantage of swarming is that adversaries cannot easily intercept or neutralise the large numbers of devices involved. Their use will greatly accelerate the speed of war – and the need for faster defensive/offensive tactics and decision-making.

 

How EDA contributes  

Given the importance of robotics and autonomous systems, EDA and its Member States are devoting considerable time and money to researching and developing the technologies and their future applications.

The agency has many projects with an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) angle, particularly when it comes to swarming. A project it completed in 2020, for example, demonstrated cooperation between air and ground autonomous systems, and there’s now interest among EDA countries to carry this forward.

In the near future there will also be more studies and projects on swarming for combat support services such as using drones to deliver ammunition or medical supplies in the field,” said Kikiras. “Several of our Member States are interested in this idea as a potential multi-nation project.

EDA is developing an action plan to define first the technological needs and challenges of autonomous systems and then a comprehensive proposal to develop solutions. “This should be an excellent tool for identifying ways increase cooperation with EU and NATO entities to avoid redundant efforts, while promoting the complementarity of all the activities that link to autonomous systems,” he said, adding that the action plan will support common concepts and requirements regarding standardisation and interoperability of autonomous systems.

The action plan’s output will also increase the coherence of RAS-related activities of EDA’s capability technology work groups by boosting synergies between them, allowing for a better allocation of resources. “The Impact of the OSRA will be quite evident here. When a TRL is low – 1 or 2 – it helps the CapTechs avoid duplication in their initial work,” he said.

4) SPACE and HYPERSONIC WEAPONS SYSTEMS

By many accounts, there is a silent new Cold War taking place in space and the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere as China, Russia, and the United States race against each other to enhance the usage of space for military tasks, while developing hypersonic weapon systems (HWS). Defined as surpassing the speed of Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound) or 6125 kph, hypersonic delivery systems have direct implications for Europe’s security and defence. Along with AI, quantum computing, autonomous systems, the technology will be a game-changer for future warfare.

HWS is an area of capability you must achieve if you want strategic autonomy,” said Kikiras. The technology will vastly increase the speed and effectiveness of air-launched strike missiles, for example, and the maneuverability of re-entry glide vehicles. By most estimates, recent advances in new materials and propulsion systems have shortened the expected deployment of HWS to the foreseeable future, i.e. within the next 10 years, making HWS emergent and disruptive in the fullest sense of the concept.

As for space, new platforms and ground-space links are needed for situational awareness, defensive planning and C2. EDA is working closely with its Member States and partner organisations to coordinate capability development in both areas.

 

How EDA contributes  

EDA’s on-going hypersonic research flows from an October 2020 foresight workshop on hypervelocity systems that brought together experts from 12 Member States, plus partner countries Norway and Switzerland. The group confirmed that countering hypersonic threats raises serious technical issues. For example, detection is partly hampered by the Earth’s curvature, which points to highly compressed timelines for detecting, tracking, and countering targets. This requires developing innovative radars and other sensors, new algorithms capable of estimating a target’s position, and new types of interceptors.

The workshop determined that space-based tracking systems that use geo-stationary or low-Earth orbit systems are probably the most suitable option for detecting hypersonic threats. That means research must focus on the following areas: new materials and thermal effects management, advanced flow physics, thermodynamics, aero-thermodynamics and extreme ruggedisation, advanced computational fluid dynamics, guidance and control systems for hypervelocity vehicles, and propulsion technologies.

The experts also noted that Europe needs new specialised facilities to test hypersonic technologies. While the USA and China each have three wind tunnel sites for Mach 6 velocity testing, Europe has none. Thus a priority goal should be joint European test facilities among EDA countries. Based on the group’s recommendations, EDA is now preparing a study to investigate Europe’s technological gaps, and will draw up technology roadmaps in 2022, with follow-up research projects focused on missiles and munitions, electro-optical sensors, radar technologies, new materials, and guidance, navigation and control.

As for efforts to protect Europe’s space sector, one of EDA’s recently concluded research projects points to the defensive potential of clustered imaging radar satellites.

Known as MIRACLE II (Micro-Satellite Clusters II), the 41-month project involved only two countries (Italy and Norway) and a modest budget of EUR 2.9 million, but it developed new concepts and technologies for clusters of imaging radar satellites. This showed that micro-sized platforms offer a new approach for deploying imaging sensors at reduced cost. Previously this had only been achieved with electro-optical sensors.

MIRACLE II’s architectural concepts for the satellites demonstrated how to maximise operational performance for spatial/temporal coverage and resolution, low vulnerability, and timeliness – all with direct application for Europe’s militaries.

5) NEW ADVANCED MATERIALS

New materials and manufacturing processes carry wide disruptive and emergent technological implications for Europe’s militaries. Agile manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing are transforming military acquisition procedures, supply management and logistics planning, for instance, while new bio-responsive textiles and equipment for soldiers are already in the field or being tested.

Combining new materials research with other EDTs such as artificial intelligence, synthetic biology or nano-physics holds immense promise for pushing the boundaries of molecular structure and their properties in ways we can only imagine today. The end-results will be cheaper, stronger, lighter, more durable and higher-capability materials, including new forms and levels of energy generation and conservation for military application.

 

How EDA contributes  

In 2018 EDA launched its own-funded project known as “STILE” (Smart TextILEs in Defence), awarding companies from Portugal and Spain to carry out the development of STILE’s proof of concept and testing.

Based on advanced materials and sensor technologies, the consortium came up with a textile system that incorporates multiple user features and functions into the design. These include environmental, threat and physiological monitoring, flame retardancy and temperature regulation, wireless data exchange, and other functionalities. Rigorous testing in 2020 and earlier this year proved the system’s robustness. Moreover, STILE’s ‘dual use by design’ approach offers cross-cutting opportunities to private companies, while preserving its availability for the defence sector.

EDA is now preparing an even more ambitious goal: a long-term programme entailing nine new-materials projects whose output will have air, land, maritime and cross-cutting applications. Known as ICARO (“Innovative materials for CApability-driven Research for Outstanding European defence”), the programme will have an eight-year lifespan, a budget of EUR 60 million, and is set to launch in 2022.

ICARO’s conception and methodology are directly linked to EDA’s Overarching Strategic Research Agenda, and will draw in more than half of the Agency’s CapTech expert groups. The latter will be involved in ICARO’s research into low observation capabilities, lightweight structures, sensing technology, energy harvesting and management, and self-adapting and sell-assembly materials.

This is a very exciting field of research,” said Kikiras. “We’re talking about materials whose properties would enable them to switch quickly from one function, such as camouflage mode, to another such as energy harvesting. Each Member State will be able choose which of the nine project is most suitable for its needs, meaning the research can take place either nationally or in collaboration with other Member States, with all deriving benefits from the effort in one way or another.

6) QUANTUM TECHNOLOGIES

Quantum physics offers virtually unlimited and instantaneous computing power – once it is mastered. Despite large investments in quantum computers, particularly by the private sector, it is still early days before it can be fully exploited. However, its potential applications are many for the military: supercomputing, encrypted key distribution, crypto-analysis and decoding or used for surveillance and detection.

Quantum-based sensors are so sensitive to the tiniest disturbances at the magnetic levels, for example, that they will be used to locate and detect deployable objects underwater, meaning the days of stealthy movements by submarines and other vessels will be over. Satellite-based quantum sensors will do the same over the Earth’s surface.

 

How EDA contributes  

EDA’s Member States have universally acknowledged quantum technology as an emerging and disruptive defence technology. The Agency held its first workshop on quantum sensing for optronics in March 2019, followed by a technology foresight workshop on quantum technologies for defence in May of that year. Since then, EDA has organised a number of follow-on initiatives and projects to foster R&T activities focused on quantum technologies.

On-going projects include EDA’s three-year study known as QUANDO (“Quantum technology for Defence with application to Optronics”), which runs until 2023. It also launched the project, “Quantum Laser-based Multi-parametric Portable Sensor”, which covers the same period (2020-2023). Finally, with funding from the European Commission, it launched in 2021 the four-year project called “QuantaQuest” to identify key quantum-based technologies for secure communications and navigation in defence.

As Kikiras notes, “If you see how much money DARPA [the US Defence Department advanced research agency] has put into quantum computing without getting the commensurate results for all the effort, we’ve decided to shy away from that, because it still seems far away and it is currently led by the private sector. Instead, we are focusing on quantum sensing because it stands to delivers tangible operational results much faster.

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