A Harfang UAV at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan

Further evidence of the EU’s unswerving commitment to the introduction of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or pilotless ‘drone’ planes) into European airspace has emerged in recent weeks. The European Commission, however, is yet to issue as much as a single communication explaining the EU’s UAV programme or setting out policy options for the member states.  So much for openness and transparency.

At present, drones/UAVs are only permitted to operate in ‘segregated airspace’ for military operations because of fears about public safety. Manned aircraft operating in commercial airspace are subject to stringent air traffic control safety regulations; those promoting UAV’s have yet to convince regulators of their safety (see the second comment in this post for a list of notable accidents). Last week the UK Civil Aviation Authority grounded an unlicensed Merseyside Police drone following the Force’s boast that it had been used to track down a car thief.

The European Defence Agency (EDA) has just awarded a contract to the European defence giant EADS and its subsidiary Astrium, Europe’s largest space company, to lead a six-month feasibility study demonstrating the safety of UAVs in civil airspace. EADS, the self-proclaimed “leading manufacturer of UAVs in Europe”, will use a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV in the attempt to convince regulators, while Astrium will provide the satellite-based services “needed to operate the UAVs safely in civil airspace”. EADS and Astrium already use this technology in Afghanistan, where the French air force have deployed one of their Harfang UAVs.

According to ASDNews, the consortium will meet key European civil and military stakeholders during the study in order to “receive their endorsements on safety and regulatory policy, and on future applications”. ASDNews also predicts that upon completion of the study, the EDA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will jointly fund a full demonstration programme. One wonders when, if ever, the European Parliament or the member states will be formally consulted?

“The outcome of this study will further reinforce our capability to propose leading-edge and secured solutions to our customers” said Bernhard Gerwert, CEO Military Air Systems, an integrated Business Unit of EADS Defence & Security. Like the European Defence Agency, FRONTEX is also doing its bit for UAVs and will host an event in Spain for manufacturers this coming June.

See previous posts on this topic:

During their campaign for a ‘yes’ vote in the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, the Irish government, the European Commission and the EU Council went to great pains to stress that “the Treaty of Lisbon does not provide for the creation of a European army” (see for example EU Council Conclusions of 29 June 2009).

The Lisbon Treaty does, however, provide for an EU military command, EU military operations and EU military procurement. Lisbon also integrates the nascent EU military apparatus into a new integrated foreign policy framework covering external and diplomatic relations as well as military and non-military EU crisis management operations.

According to Defence News, the European Defence Agency has just launched a joint investment program in “unmanned underwater systems” (robotic submarine vessels) worth about 60 million euros over the next three years. A ‘European Air Transport Fleet’ is also on the EU’s shopping list. Fourteen of the EU’s 27 defence ministers have signed a letter of intent to establish a European Air Transport Fleet “based on the A400M military transport plane and other aircraft such as the C130″. Initially the idea is to make existing aircraft available through the EU to those countries that do not own them themselves. In the longer-term, France and Germany would like to develop a 32- to 35-ton “future transport helicopter” for EU forces.

As the EU continues to take gradual steps toward outright militarisation, so the calls for the EU to use its military muscle grow louder and more frequent. The Royal Institute for International Affairs of Belgium, for instance, argues that now the EU has agreed on the ‘means’ of security and defence, it needs to start defining the ‘ends’.

“[The EU] won’t have an influence on a global level, nor will it be independent, be a reference for stability or a key factor for peace, unless [it] is able to secure its own defence by its own means in an autonomous and sufficient way”, is another familiar argument.

The European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR) also argues that a “More Assertive Europe Is Needed” or it risks “irrelevance on the global stage”.  According to the ECFR, the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States has had its day and Washington is now looking instead to Brussels. Feeling confident enough to speak for the Obama administration, the report claims that “Washington is disappointed with Europe and sees EU member states as infantile: responsibility shirking and attention seeking.” What is needed, argue the authors of the ECFR report, is “a shift in European behavioral psychology… Europe needs to develop habits of discussing big strategic issues as Europeans in the European Union”.

See “Towards a post-American Europe: A power audit of EU-US relations” (dated 2 Nov. 2009) for the full ECFR report.

The European Commission has published a Communication and Staff Working Paper on the development of GMES, the satellite-based, earth observation ‘system-of-systems’ for Global Monitoring for Environment and Security.

The 10 page Communication covers ‘next steps’, ‘ownership and data policy’ (with the Commission suggesting that it should own the EU’s space infrastructure), ‘governance’ (with the Commission in charge), ‘procurement’ and ‘international cooperation’.

The 8 page Staff Working Paper adds a little more detail, including costings. The current ‘development phase’, which runs from 2007-13, has set aside €2.245 billion (€624 million from Fp7 and €1.621 billion from the European Space Agency budget).

The Commission proposes that the next ‘operational phase (2014-2020) will need some €4,230 billion (all of which comes on top of the national space budgets of the member states). Forbes magazine, however, suggests that the “cash-strapped member states are reluctant to increase E.U. space funding“.

The European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC) reports that RapidEye, “the only geospatial solutions provider to own and operate a constellation of five identical Earth Observation satellites”, has signed a framework agreement with the European Space Agency (ESA) to provide “satellite imagery for monitoring and change detection in areas prone to natural disasters”.

See: http://www.earsc.eu/news/rapideye-to-supply-satellite-imagery-to-the-european-space-agency-monitoring-of-high-risk-emergency-areas

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