Article by Ben Hayes for the Economist’s “European Voice” newspaper, published 2 December 2010.

The robot armies at our borders

The EU is entering a new, and disturbing, phase in its efforts to police its borders.

In a hi-tech upgrade to ‘Fortress Europe’, the EU is developing drone planes, satellite surveillance systems, unmanned ground and marine vehicles, even combat robots, to be deployed to ‘defend’ Europe from migrants.

The policy is the result of a convergence in the EU’s ‘industrial competitiveness’ strategy, which has identified the global ‘homeland security’ market as one in which Europe should prosper, and an EU approach to migration control that places the prevention of refugees and undocumented migrants from crossing borders above any other objective, principle or approach.

In this upgrade, the defence sector, the surveillance industry and quasi-autonomous EU bodies such as Frontex and the European Defence Agency are joining forces.

More than €50 million in EU funds from the security research component of the Commission’s seventh framework programme for research (FP7) has already been allocated to the adaption of military surveillance techniques to Europe’s borders – and the programme is still in its infancy. Defence giants such as BAE Systems, Finmeccanica, Thales, EADS, Dassault Aviation, Sagem and Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) feature in numerous consortia. At least six EU-funded projects envisage the use of ‘drones’ (or unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs) for border control; others promise an array of surveillance and detection technologies.

They have names such as Seabilla, Sectronic and Talos, and ‘24/7 blue and green border situation awareness’ is their objective. Talos – a €20 million partnership between PIAP (a Polish producer of combat robots), IAI (the state-owned manufacturer of Israeli drones) and others – is field-testing “a mobile, modular, scalable, autonomous and adaptive system for protecting European borders” that will “take measures to stop the illegal action almost autonomously with supervision of border guard officers” – combat robots (or ‘Robocops’ perhaps?) in plainer terms.

It would be comforting to dismiss this research as a meeting of science fiction and science fancy, but the US has already deployed an equivalent – Predator drones – along its border with Mexico, part of an $850m (€624m) investment that also includes a ‘virtual fence’.

The determination to create a similar virtual fence in Europe is very real. The European Council has endorsed the European Commission’s Eurosur proposals for a hi-tech European border surveillance system and Frontex is now investing in fixed surveillance and border-drone technology (expressions of interest are currently being invited for UAV demonstration projects).

The European Defence Agency is also involved, by funding manufacturers to develop collision-avoidance systems and other measures needed to ensure the drone programme does not fall foul of rules on the use of drones in civilian airspace. At least seven member states are exploring how they might use drones for civilian security purposes.
There has been little comment so far about these plans in general or, specifically, about Europe’s intended deployment of drones, a technology now synonymous with ‘targeted assassinations’. The UN, though, has spoken forthrightly about the US’s drone programme: Phillip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, has accused it of giving the CIA a “licence to kill” and encouraging a “Playstation mentality” that devalues human life.

The hi-tech vision of the EU’s military researchers might be a less discomforting prospect if there were some assurance that the drones and other systems would simply be used to detect and rescue those on the overloaded and ramshackle boats and rafts in which so many perish.

But a sense of comfort is impossible, amid reports – for example – of European naval patrols “deliberately overturning” boats carrying migrants and of EU-sponsored Libyan patrols opening fire on Italian fishermen.

The EU’s interventions may already be making the sea more dangerous; drones and other robotic tools will add to the risks of a Playstation mentality developing along Europe’s borders.

The EU stands on the cusp of a shameful investment in a dystopia.

Ben Hayes is a project director for the civil liberties group Statewatch.

You can view the original article on

Europe’s leading drone manufacturers have joined forces in yet another EU-funded R&D project on the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or ‘drones’. The OPARUS project brings together Sagem, BAE Systems, Finmeccanica, Thales, EADS, Dassault Aviation, ISDEFE, Israel Aircraft Industries and others to “elaborate an open architecture for the operation of unmanned air-to-ground wide area land and sea border surveillance platforms in Europe”. The consortium has received €11.8 million in EU funding.

Meanwhile IPS reports that FRONTEX has invited expressions of interest in a tender to demonstrate “Small UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and Fixed systems for Land border surveillance”.

Another article, by Dave Cronin, reports that the European Defence Agency (EDA) has now launched the SIGAT project (Study on the Insertion of UAS in the General Air Traffic), featuring EADS, Sagem, BAE and Dassault (see also previous post on the EDA’s drone programme).

Finally, Cronin’s article also notes that Sagem has entered into a “joint venture” with Elbit, the Israeli company which manufactured some of the most lethal weaponry ever used in Gaza.

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:

Great article from David Cronin for Inter Press Service published last month (16.12.2009) and reproduced in full here. Love the quote from the EU’s Institute for Strategic Studies at the end of the text. It’s fast becoming a rule that when the EU does something controversial it blames the member states, and when the member states are asked to account for such actions they blame the EU…

Warplanes similar to those used to bomb civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be flying in Europe’s skies within the next few years, under a scheme being prepared by Brussels officials.

Pilotless drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – are regarded as so lethal when armed that some top military personnel have advocated that they be withdrawn from the battlefield. David Kilcullen, an Australian general who has advised U.S. forces in Iraq, said during the summer that while drones had killed 14 Al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan since 2006, they had also killed about 700 innocent people in that country.

The European Defence Agency – an EU body tasked with boosting arms spending in the Union – is now embracing UAVs. Alexander Weis, the EDA’s chief executive, has told the European Parliament that he hopes to have drones flying on a test basis in Europe’s civilian airspace by 2012. Although UAVs are not now equipped to spot what is flying around them, Weis hopes that this problem can be overcome through the development of “sense and avoid” technology.

An EDA source said that the UAVs in question will not be armed and are intended primarily for surveillance purposes and for rescue missions.

But research undertaken at the EU’s behest indicates that no neat distinction can be made between drones intended for military and civilian purposes. A 2006 study requested by the European Commission from the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan concluded that the growing number of UAVs in Europe are being bought for military reasons but that they could be adapted to monitor public gatherings or for maritime patrol. Italy subsequently used UAVs as part of the security operation surrounding the summit for the Group of Eight (G8) top industrialised countries in L’Aquila last year.

Brussels sources say that the Pentagon is taking keen interest in the European Union’s work on drones. The U.S. is hoping that the EDA will pave the way for global standards allowing drones to be used in all airspace, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Following the Sep. 11 attacks, Donald Rumsfeld, then U.S. defence secretary, authorised the use of UAVs for targeted assassinations. While many defence analysts have praised the “accuracy” of UAVs in hitting their targets in a way that minimises civilian casualties, there have been numerous incidents where they have killed non-combatants. In August, a Predator drone killed Baitullah Mehsud, a prominent Taliban figure, in Pakistan. But it also killed 11 others, including his wife and both her parents.

Frank Slijper from the Dutch Campaign Against the Arms Trade told IPS that the use of drones by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan has “lowered the barrier” inhibiting other countries from acquiring these warplanes. “UAVs are the kind of stuff that are developing in a way that is at first controversial but then can be tried in another way.”

As Israel is a leading manufacturer of UAVs, it is expected that technology tested in attacks on the occupied Palestinian territories and Lebanon will be used by the EDA programme. Although drones were first used by the U.S. in south China and Vietnam in the 1960s, Israel was the first country to make regular and widespread use of them, particularly during the 1982 bombardment of Lebanon. In a report published in June this year, Human Rights Watch detailed how Israeli drones bombed several family homes, businesses and a United Nations school in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009.

Such carnage has not stopped some EU countries from buying Israeli-made UAVs. In March, the Dutch ministry of defence signed a contract worth 53 million dollars for drones from the Israeli firm Aeronautics. The weapons are meant for Dutch troops fighting in Afghanistan.

The EDA’s work follows a project on the development of drones being financed from the EU’s scientific research budget. Among the projects financed by that budget – worth 53 billion euros (77 billion dollars) between 2007 and 2013 – is one designed to devise a blueprint for flying UAVs in civilian airspace by 2015.

Ben Hayes from the civil liberties organisation Statewatch said that it is “extremely worrying” that the EU’s scientific research funds are being used to support the arms industry.

Daniel Keoghan from the European Union Institute for Strategic Studies in Paris told IPS that promoting UAVs is “probably the most important” work being undertaken by the European Defence Agency in terms of developing new technology.

Keoghan said he could understand why the deployment of drones for surveillance would be a cause of concern for many citizens, but argued that the EDA is merely carrying out tasks assigned to it by EU governments. “If I was a civil libertarian, I would very much be focused on what governments are doing and why they think we need this technology,” he said. “The EDA is just a servant.”

To celebrate 10 years of the European Defence and Security Policy (and put its case for deeper integration) the EU has released this online PR brochure. The quote above is from Alexander Weis, Director of the European Defence Agency). Mr Weis has also just given an interview along these lines to AgenceEurope (available here).


See‘s “in the corridors” reports:

“That DG Enterprise will have to loose some of its big portfolio under a new Commission is an open secret. Now, rumors have it that security research will be transferred to DG Justice Freedom and Security. Or more specifically to DG Freedom and Security, as the old DG may well be split into one for  Justice and one for “internal” policy matters. That would set a different tone for security research in FP7 and its prospective cooperation with the EDA…”

My guess is still that some kind of new defence industry-oriented body will be set-up to oversee the EU security research programme, and ensure cooperation with EDA…

Speech by Javier Solana (EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, head of the European Defence Agency and Secretary-General of the Council of the EU) to the informal meeting of EU defence ministers in Gothenborg, Sweden, on 28 and 29 September 2009.

Points to note include:

particularly the work being carried out in the Baltic Sea region. There is a great deal that the
European Union can learn from this effort, in which Sweden is taking a leading role. It is in all our
interests to develop the collection and sharing of maritime information across borders and between
authorities and agencies, including customs, coast guards, police and fisheries.
I should like to thank all the Member States and all the institutions and agencies that are working so
hard in this field, particularly the European Commission, the FRONTEX border agency, the
Satellite Centre and the European Defence Agency (EDA). I look forward to the report on the
European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) aspects of maritime surveillance being drawn up for
the EDA by the five admirals or “wise pens” and I welcome the EDA’s work on the Future
Unmanned Aerial System.


I am very impressed by the ongoing and evolving cooperation in the field of maritime surveillance, particularly the work being carried out in the Baltic Sea region. There is a great deal that the European Union can learn from this effort, in which Sweden is taking a leading role. It is in all our interests to develop the collection and sharing of maritime information across borders and between authorities and agencies, including customs, coast guards, police and fisheries.

I should like to thank all the Member States and all the institutions and agencies that are working so hard in this field, particularly the European Commission, the FRONTEX border agency, the Satellite Centre and the European Defence Agency (EDA). I look forward to the report on the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) aspects of maritime surveillance being drawn up for the EDA by the five admirals or “wise pens” and I welcome the EDA’s work on the Future Unmanned Aerial System.

Everyone agrees that we will all benefit from pulling together all these efforts and sharing accurate information and situation awareness as part of a global, comprehensive approach that only the EU is capable of developing, in order to tackle the threats and dangers that face us all.

We should start with the four potential key areas that have been identified as providing added value, and then see whether we can progressively expand. These are: protection, transport, communications and information. Of course, we aim to ensure that dual-use technologies respond to military and civilian needs and provide more value for money.

The European Defence Agency (EDA) is exploring ways to connect Defence Research and Technology Investment with Technology Investment in the civil sector in order to increase interoperability.


We have discussed battlegroups at a number of meetings in the past. I should like to thank the Swedish Presidency for focusing the discussion today on some specific points. We devote a great deal of effort to maintaining our battlegroups in a state of readiness and we must ensure that we make full use of this potential, without reducing our level of ambition. Any battlegroup deployment must meet the operational needs of the moment. We want to explore ways of developing our flexibility so that our battlegroups can be deployed rapidly when needed for operational purposes.

Read the full speech here.