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Federico Borsari is a Leonardo Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and a NATO 2030 Global Fellow. Gordon B. “Skip” Davis Jr. is a non-resident senior fellow at CEPA and served as Deputy Assistant Secretary General of NATO for defense investments..
Drones have quickly evolved from a supporting role in military operations to become an essential part of modern warfare – and they are in high demand around the world.
So, to ensure their own security, European governments must start paying attention and learning lessons from the use of drones in the war in Ukraine and other recent conflicts, notably in Gaza.
Drones enable widespread real-time situational awareness, enhanced targeting, and the suppression and destruction of adversary air and missile defenses. Today, drones, large and small, are used – and destroyed – in large numbers, and they challenge concealment and survivability on the battlefield. At the same time, counter-drone capabilities have become equally essential to protect troops and infrastructure.
According to Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, drones have played a key role in achieving air power objectives in the war against Russia, while counter-drone equipment has become increasingly increasingly important for force protection.
Additionally, rapid and robust drone delivery to meet the growing battlefield needs in Ukraine has led to a dynamic whole-of-society approach, contributing to innovative procurement, mass production, training operators, as well as a new approach to operations and reforms in the field. the structure of military forces.
Another more recent example of drone use today is the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. Hamas used drones to prepare its brutal assault on southern Israel by destroying high-tech Israeli communications, sensor networks and remote-controlled machine guns – all meant to serve as a first line of defense against infiltration from the Gaza strip.
But at the same time, in all of these conflicts, we have also seen that the hype around drones can be exaggerated and misleading.
Drones do not operate in isolation. They should be seen as a means of enhancing military effectiveness – not a “wonder weapon”. And their effectiveness depends on their integration into a broader military architecture that combines multiple capabilities in different domains, including space, cybersecurity, intelligence fusion and processing, and electronic warfare, among others.
In our research assessing the impact of drones on the modern battlefield, we found that they are becoming indispensable to modern military operations and that their role will only expand in the future, making it more urgent for NATO to adapt quickly.
The European Union and its member countries must also significantly accelerate the integration of drone and counter-drone technologies into their many defense documents and initiatives, including the EU Capabilities Development Plan and the Coordinated Annual Review of the EU in terms of defence. In parallel, EU countries should begin to expand their cooperative defense projects on drones and counter-drones, focusing on interoperability, scale and the exploitation of advanced technologies.
Of course, the block will not start from scratch. “Unmanned aerial vehicles” are already included in the EU’s 2018 Capability Development Plan review, and “unmanned aerial systems” (UAS) are included in its 2022 Coordinated Annual Defense Review. Recently , the European Defense Agency also concluded a two-year project focused on military drone interoperability standards, providing key recommendations that will help European countries better integrate and align their drone capabilities. Furthermore, the latest EU Capability Development Priorities for 2023 – an update to the Capability Development Plan – places greater emphasis on drones and their operational applications.
However, EU cooperative projects in the drone and counter-drone sectors remain modest (in the order of a few million euros) and only a few countries are involved. Furthermore, most countries still tend to prioritize national initiatives, while EU members’ investments in the development and production of drones and counter-drones have been limited so far.
Furthermore, quantity, quality and standardization currently fall short of the needs demonstrated by modern conflicts. While NATO collectively owns and operates five major high-altitude, long-endurance systems – the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) – there is no equivalent European capacity, collective or otherwise.
Given the volume of EU missions outside Europe, EU members would do well to have a much larger number of multirole drones (high-end medium to large systems, as well as small consumable systems) and counter-drone capabilities ready for deployment.
Additionally, given the wear and tear small and medium-sized drones experience in high-intensity conflicts, the replicability and affordability of these systems should be a priority. The latest capability development priorities, for example, emphasize the importance of medium and large drones, but do not mention the growing role played by small tactical systems (including commercial) and errant munitions, as seen in Ukraine and elsewhere. Overall, although large-scale production and more modular designs could help reduce the cost of larger drones in coming years, the latter’s high-end capabilities and sensor technologies remain relatively expensive. This means there is a need to make these platforms more viable through specific self-protection capabilities.
In this area, the EU already has significant ongoing projects focused on small and medium-sized drones. The most ambitious of these – the Eurodrone – is expected to deliver 20 medium-altitude, long-endurance multi-mission drones to four countries starting in 2028. And two other major EU-funded projects – the Low-Speed Tactical Unmanned Aerial System observation and the new generation Small remotely piloted aircraft – should produce prototypes of small, high-performance tactical drones for a limited number of countries.
However, the future of full production is unclear, as most European countries rely on their national drone fleets, ranging from mid-altitude, long-endurance drones to small to medium-sized tactical systems. Total numbers are currently limited, but increasing with a particular emphasis on multi-role functions. And yet, a largely uncoordinated approach and a disparate mix of platforms with their own proprietary telemetries and sensors have hampered interoperability, as well as the establishment of a common system. doctrinal framework.
EU funding and cooperative efforts to develop counter-drone capabilities are even more modest – although they are listed as a priority in the latest EU defense review. Currently, the only project of interest is a two-year, €13.5 million study and design initiative, which involves 14 countries and aims to pave the way for a common European counter-drone capability .
Inevitably, the growing impact of drones will require a re-prioritization of counter-drone investments by EU countries, focusing on cost-effective solutions like electronic warfare and directed energy weapons – notably lasers. and high-energy microwave weapons.
Despite efforts by NATO and the EU to encourage the acquisition and development of capabilities and to promote common standards and enabling capabilities, they currently do not have enough drones to wage a high-intensity fight against a counterpart adversary, to deter adversaries or to act in crises other than conflicts. Furthermore, both countries would be challenged to effectively integrate and use the capabilities they have in complex and contested environments.
Shortfalls in personnel and training, as well as limitations in processing and sharing intelligence between the EU and its allies, add to this lack of capabilities.
The EU and its member countries must therefore harness and prepare for the full potential of future drone warfare – which will require more resources, clear objectives and closer cooperation between governments, militaries and industry.
Specifically, the EU should comprehensively assess drone and counter-drone requirements, drawing lessons from recent conflicts, ongoing technological advances and anticipated future threats. And the upcoming Coordinated Annual Defense Review in 2024 represents a strategic opportunity for this assessment.
At the same time, critical enabling capabilities – such as artificial intelligence, big data, quantum technologies, and cyber and space capabilities – also require attention and investment. The EU and its members should capitalize on ongoing innovation efforts – particularly those related to commercial or dual-use applications of drones and counter-drone technologies – as the emphasis on joint operational experimentation and adopting more agile procurement processes will improve efficiency.
Finally, integrating drone and counter-drone capabilities into member countries’ forces requires a focus on human resources and talent management. This includes training, education, recruitment and retention.
But only if the EU can take these steps can drones play a vital and effective role in the future of European security.