Jorge Domecq discusses American reaction to the new PESCO initiative.

WASHINGTON — As European Union nations look to step up their defense-industrial projects, a trio of states on the Baltic Sea are looking to make a breakthrough in unmanned ground systems.

Estonia, Latvia and Finland are pushing to develop land-based drones under the EU’s Permanent Structure Cooperation framework, or PESCO, the nations announced Thursday.

Between €30-40 million (U.S. $35-47 million) has been earmarked for use from the European Defence Fund to work on the project, while each of the three countries will contribute additional funds. The start date for the planned project is the first half of 2019.

Launched in late 2017, PESCO seeks to help develop European-wide defense industries. Groups of nations can pitch the EU on different developments in order to secure initial funding from pooled resources. Although in its early stages, PESCO has been the topic of American concern over the potential of protectionist actions taken by the European defense market that could lock out American firms.

EU nations are now looking to carve out market areas that could benefit their domestic defense-industrial bases, something acknowledged directly by Kusti Salm, director of the Estonian Defense Ministry’s Defence Investments Department.

"The same considerable growth that we saw with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) 10-15 years ago can be expected in the near future for unmanned land platforms,” Salm said in a statement. “The project’s ambition is, in cooperation with partners, to develop a solution for unmanned land systems, which would become the European standard.”

The list of partners on that project could grow if Germany, France and Belgium sign on; all three nations have expressed interest, the statement said.

The system being considered appears to be designed as a semiautonomous companion for soldiers on the ground, which can reduce the load being carried and increase decision-making speed. In addition to an actual vehicle, the project would develop an autonomous control system, a cyber defense solution and an integrated network of sensors.

Ahead of the project, Estonia has started a research and development project, in cooperation with nine industrial partners, looking at how to raise the tactical level of unit combat capabilities for unmanned systems.

Although unnamed, it is likely Estonian firm Milrem will be involved in the project. The company has spent several years marketing its THeMIS unmanned ground vehicle, which has capabilities in line with what was mentioned in the government statement.

Salm noted that a “reliable system is not exclusively vehicle oriented. True innovation emerges from the autonomous control system, and integration with sensors and other manned and unmanned platforms.”

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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