Unmanned Aerial Systems: Europe challenged by Israel

On past 8th July, Olivier Jehin reported in Europe Diplomacy and Defence on the conference on Unmanned Aerial Systems organized jointly by the European Defence Agency and the European Commission. This conference has illustrated the capabilities of Unmanned aerial systems to be of dual use, military and civilian. While the military use of UAV is well known through Afghanistan, the civilian side is not that much covered by media. On the EDA website, some detailed information can be found on this civilian use of UAS (here).

As all the necessary pieces of information are available on the net, being introduced in UAV (for instance, in French language here) is quite easy.

Today, we will have a look at one peculiar topic: Israel, small country of some 7,5 million inhabitants is challenging Europe and its more than 300 million people in a sector, that will represent in the next years a market of some more 10 billion dollars a year. Well, one might that this is just a niche, and that there are much more strategic domains where Europe stands at the cutting edge. May be. Nevertheless, what is taking place with UAS is a vivid symptom of the consequences of traditional European divisions and of its difficulty to gather and fight side by side on innovative issues.

The international market of UAS is shared in some four segments: micro-UAS, mini-UAS, medium and long endurance UAS. Usually, the cruise altitude and the weight of the payload grow with the wingspan and weight of the UAS. As well the bigger the UAS is, the more complex is its technology. The current situation is that:

-European industry owns significant capabilities on micro and mini UAS,

-For the time being, Europe has still some capabilities on medium UAS, but EU countries need Israeli assistance and partnership when they procuring something modern.

-Long endurance UAS are still at R&D level in Europe, while they are already produced at industrial level in Israel.

The other leading country in UAS issues is USA, but I would say ‘as usual’, especially in aerospace industry, one of the best-known fields of excellence of US industry. However, being outclassed by Israel, even if this country owns as well some first class capacities, is somewhat surprising. All the more surprising that Europe was really a leader in the field of UAS, until the late 80’s.

What did happen?

I see several reasons for Europe losing its rank. As well this can be regarded as an example of what can happen in some other domains.

-Usually the innovations driven by the military are then converted into civilian applications. However, European defence forces, strangled by the reduced R&D budgets concentrated their efforts on some key weapon systems, neglecting by the way some other niches, assessed as not critical for the coherence of their defence system.

-In addition to this, the same relatively poor R&D budgets were scattered between all the 27, every country being eager to develop or assess, or modify an equipment that they wanted exactly fitted to their very needs, instead of trying to mutualise. Just have a look on the infinity of Armoured Infantry Vehicles or light weapons.

-Then, which is more boring, the defence staffs have been for a while impregnated with the remnants of Cold War organization and equipment. As a weapon system needs usually at least 10 years between ignition and deployment, European countries have taken some additional delays to discriminate what their weapons and systems should look like in the future. I am not sure whether they have yet completely turned the page of Cold War.

-Furthermore, make UAS fly in Europe requires an adaptation of the current regulations, at least to make the skies more accessible to unmanned systems. In the name of air security, which is very often used as a pretext against changes, and because of the lack or reliability of European UAS, civilian airspace was kept largely closed. While UAS could fly over Israeli cities (in a country where life of the citizens has the same value than in Europe), the same ones where relegated in the empty areas or military training camps. Furthermore, the European airspace not being fully unified yet, every country will apply its own rules for the use of UAS, thus hampering the development of their use by making very difficult, in some countries almost impossible, the emergence of a European civilian market.

UAS are not at the core of European interests. However, this is a growing market, which could contribute to Europe’s welfare if regulations, markets and defence forces were somehow more integrated in their respective fields. Once again, including in the field of Defence, division is weakening Europe, and this is the reason why European Commission and European Defence Agency try to have Europe play at its level and not in the second league. In a word: it’s much better, even in UAS, to be compared to Spain than France.

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