Europe’s efforts to build its own unmanned aerial vehicle, known as the Eurodrone, got a boost with new funding from the European Union this summer, but that will not save the project from obsolescence. Large drones are going global, rapidly becoming more weaponized and diverse, but European countries are still muddling through with the development of their own indigenous, long-endurance drone.
Even with the additional $115 million that was announced in June through the EU’s European Defense Fund, the large, fully European-made surveillance drones will only be available for delivery to customers by 2029. That is almost 35 years after the first deployment of U.S.-made Predator drones in the early 1990s.
Long-endurance drones remain scarce in Europe, and those that are in operation are imported. As of this year, only five European countries—the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany and Greece—operate rather small fleets of various versions of either the American MQ-9 Reapers or Israeli Herons. European countries continue to depend on American and Israeli technology for large, long-endurance drones that are operated via satellite links; carry large payloads like sensors, cameras and weapons; and require significant supporting infrastructure. This technological dependence limits European autonomy of action.
Advanced drones are neither cheap nor easy to operate, and their development is technologically demanding. Germany, for instance, learned these lessons the hard way, as it already has had to cancel two programs: the EuroHawk in 2013, due to flight certification problems, and the PEGASUS project in 2020, again due to the lack of sufficient flight certification. Similarly, Poland had planned to build its own large armed drones through the Zefir program by 2022, but ultimately opted to buy the drone technology from abroad instead. Since the 2000s, the European defense market has been littered with abandoned multinational drone development projects.
The Eurodrone has so far managed to survive, but it has experienced cost overruns and delays caused by disagreements over technical requirements among the four participating countries—Germany, Spain, France and Italy—and over shares in the project among the main industry players: Airbus, Dassault and Leonardo. The long-awaited $8.2 billion production contract is due to be signed in October.
Although some analysts have praised the new European Defense Fund as “the beginning of European defense,” pouring in more money will not automatically solve Europe’s problems with capability development, just as a cooperative project does not automatically lead to better and more affordable capabilities.
The efforts of Europe’s main industry players at developing an operational long-endurance drone suffer not only from their lack of competitiveness on the global drone market, but also due to domestic politics and industrial rivalries. Although the EU’s new industrial policy aims to shape the European defense market, it is still fragmented by 27 national borders that reinforce industrial nationalism.
The “arm or not to arm” dilemma is also a major inhibitor to the development and use of drones. The United Kingdom has the most extensive experience with armed drones, with British Reapers actively conducting drone strikes in Afghanistan from May 2008 until the end of 2014. More recently, they have also been striking Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.
Although France has been using Reapers since 2014, only in December 2019 did it launch its first drone attack, in Mali as part of Operation Barkhane against armed terrorist groups in the Sahel. This made France the second European country to deploy armed drones.
The Eurodrone, if it does indeed become
operational in 2029, will struggle to compete against
better-established, battle-proven platforms.
In Germany, the co-governing Social Democratic Party, or SPD, is not ready to support armed drones, even though its coalition partner, the Christian Democratic Union, and the military have inquired about the capability, mostly for self-defense when deployed in foreign missions. The SPD’s narrow victory in Germany’s recent federal election, which makes it the most likely party to lead a new coalition, suggests the Bundeswehr may have to wait a bit longer for its Heron TP drones, leased from Israel, to be armed.
In any case, the outcome of the German drone debate will be important for joint European armaments projects, in which Germany collaborates closely with France. These include not only the Eurodrone, but the Future Combat Air System, which aims to deliver a sixth-generation fighter jet paired with its loyal wingman drone. While Germany so far has insisted on producing unarmed drones, France wants to arm them. This has had consequences for the platform design and technical specifications, which resulted in developing two more expensive versions of the Eurodrone.
In the meantime, Turkey and China have entered the global drone market to pursue their own “drone diplomacy,” a field traditionally dominated by the United States and Israel. While American MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones have proven useful in strikes against terrorist groups in low-intensity asymmetric conflicts, Chinese and Turkish drones have found their way into less permissive environments, like open wars in Syria and Libya, with the Bayraktar TB2 and Wing Loong II emerging as export hits.
These drones are attractive thanks to their lower price and combat experience. China has become the largest exporter of armed drones in the world, mainly because Chinese drones are cheaper than their American or Israeli equivalents and because Beijing does not impose legal restrictions or human rights concerns regarding their use.
Mid-market Turkish drones, which are generally priced between the cheaper Chinese ones and the more expensive Israeli and American models, made international headlines during the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in the fall of 2020. With Turkish backing, Azerbaijan captured most of the territory in the disputed enclave from Armenia, as its drones decimated and demoralized the unprepared Armenian forces from the air. Turkey also used drones to hit targets in northwestern Syria during its operations there last year, and Turkish drones have been used against rebel forces in Libya as well.
In addition to Azerbaijan, Morocco has acquired Turkish Bayraktars. And in a rather surprising move, Poland this summer decided to acquire 24 Bayraktar TB2 armed drones from Turkey, making Poland the first NATO country to purchase drones from a source other than the U.S. or Israel. In Europe outside NATO, the Ukrainian navy received its first armed Bayraktar TB2 drone last July, to Russia’s annoyance.
Chinese Wing Loong drones have flooded the defense markets in the Middle East and North Africa, including Nigeria, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Surprisingly, China has already made drone sales in Europe as well: Serbia became the first European country to acquire Chinse CH-92A armed drones in July 2020.
China has been eager to expand its presence in the European drone market by sharpening its technological and manufacturing know-how. The recent illegal purchase of a military drone manufacturer in Italy, in which the Chinese buyers tried to mask their identities by using an intermediary, is just one recent case of Chinese industrial espionage. This predatory acquisition of Alpi Aviation, which produces tactical drones for special operations forces, was meant to obtain sensitive technologies and know-how by reshoring the business to a high-tech hub near Shanghai once the purchase was complete.
In the absence of an indigenous European platform, European countries continue procuring drones from abroad and even expanding their existing fleets. The French have formed a second Reaper squadron; the United Kingdom is getting Protectors, the most recent version of the American Sky Guardian; and even the EU’s own border control agency, Frontex, is procuring large unarmed surveillance drones from Israel’s Elbit for border monitoring. Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland are at various stages of the procurement process for their first large American or Israeli drones.
The future European drone alternative, if it does indeed become operational in 2029, will struggle to compete against better-established, battle-proven platforms. Its importance will likely amount to generating know-how and serving as a stepping stone for the Future Air Combat System, which involves the same Eurodrone countries and industry participants from France, Germany and Spain. (Italy preferred to team up with the United Kingdom for the Tempest fighter jet project.) At the end of the day, though, persistent dysfunctional patterns in the European defense aerospace sector leave doubts about whether any next-generation drones will bear a “Made in Europe” label.
Dominika Kunertova is a senior researcher in the Global Security Team at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich.
Editor’s Note: The top photo is available via the CC BY-SA 2.0 license.