BRUSSELS — The European Union is considering a number of options to boost its air-to-air refueling capacity so that it is not reliant on the US, as was the case for recent operations in Libya and Mali.
The options are a big part of “Development of EU Military and Civilian Capacities,” contained in a report by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, which is due out in September, ahead of an EU leaders summit in December.
Speaking to journalists ahead of an EU defense ministers’ meeting on April 23, a senior EU official set out two of the options being considered to boost air-to-air refueling capacity . One European Defence Agency (EDA) project is designed to cut the delays that occur for tankers to receive clearance to do the refueling.
“With Italy, the European Defence Agency is promoting a multinational approach to tanker clearance, using the Italian 767 tanker as a test case. A flight trial will take place in September. We’re looking to identify similar clearance processes for other tankers,” said the official.
A longer-term option is to develop a multirole tanker transport fleet. A roadmap will be presented to EU defense ministers on April 23. The aim is to agree on a concept of operations before the summer break and to move toward a memorandum of understanding for an acquisition phase.
The ultimate aim is for an initial delivery of aircraft by 2020. The Dutch are leading this project with eight other EU member states plus Norway, with Denmark actively following it. It will be up to EU member states to decide on the platform and on a contracting authority, which is unlikely to be the European Defence Agency because of the size of the project.
“A key issue is the basing of the aircraft,” said the official. “Will it be in the same place or not?” The official noted the huge potential economies of scale if the aircraft, simulators and logistics were all in one place.
The EDA is also preparing the launch of pioneer projects with potential civil applications, initially in cyberdefense and remote piloted aircraft systems (both the small and medium altitude long endurance types).
“Add ons might be needed for the military remote piloted aircraft systems (RPASs) but they are broadly similar,” said the official. “RPAS could also be used to deal with natural disasters. FRONTEX (the EU’s border security agency) is very interested,” said the official. An EDA joint investment program on RPAS is due out later this year. Estonia is leading a “cyberranger“ project whereby existing facilities will be used to train and educate EU personnel in cyberdefense.
With regard to the second strand of Catherine Ashton’s EU report, on boosting the EU’s defense industry base, the European Commission will present a state of play on the work of its taskforce in this area. The EDA is promoting the role of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) here as big drivers of innovation and growth, said the official.
“Some member states have a big industrial base. A lot don’t. All have SMEs,” he added.
The EDA is also working with six EU member states on pilot projects to help them tap into about €450 million (US $587.3) of EU structural funds to facilitate technology research and innovation. The funds could potentially be used for dual use (civilian and military) projects.
The official also stressed the importance of the EDA steering board of EU defense ministers next week.
“There is a steering board in November but this is quite late for the Council [EU leaders’ summit in December] as much of the preparation will have already been done,” he said. This is a vital opportunity for defense ministers to ensure that their proposals are taken into account in Catherine Ashton’s EU report, he said.
Pooling and sharing will be another big discussion point at the EU leaders’ summit in December. In November, EU member states will assess the relative success of the code of conduct on pooling and sharing that they agreed on in November 2012.
“Around 75 percent of equipment purchases are done on a national basis,” said the official. The idea of the code of conduct is to embed the notion of cooperation in member states’ planning and decision-making processes.