Today, more than ever, the European Union faces a plethora of challenges. Rising EU skepticism and populism coupled with citizens’ growing fears for their internal and external security require a fundamental debate on the future of Europe.

Defense has to be a centerpiece of this debate. Eighty-two percent of respondents to a Europe-wide survey have confirmed they want greater involvement in the EU in the fight against terrorism; 66 percent want the union to intervene more in security and defense policy.

Outlook 2017: Perspectives from global thought leaders

Since the European Union’s new Global Strategy was presented by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini in June 2016, efforts by several EU nations to develop a stronger, more integrated and more efficient European defense have gained new momentum. The Global Strategy’s Implementation Plan on Security and Defense, the European Commission’s Space Strategy presented in October as well as the European Defense Action Plan to be tabled at end of November ​will further add to it.

In this endeavor, defense research and technology (R&T) is not just a side issue but an essential prerequisite for its achievement.  

The European Global Strategy insists on the need for Europe to develop an "appropriate level of strategic autonomy" in order to be able to guarantee the security of the EU and its citizens. We have to be clear about this: If Europe’s ambition is to reach such a level of strategic autonomy and if it wants to retain the ability to develop the military capabilities it will need in the future, then it has to invest in future-oriented defense and research technology programs. Not tomorrow, but now. Member states’ national defense research expenditure, which is declining, therefore needs to be boosted and complemented by collaborative, EU-funded defense research.

First steps in this direction have already been taken and the European Defence Agency (EDA) — whose main missions are to facilitate European defense cooperation, support capability development, and strengthen the industrial and technological base of the European defense sector — is actively involved in all of them. Since its inception, the EDA has been a hub for cooperation in defense R&T with more than 180 projects launched worth more than €800 million (US $849 million). Intergovernmental as well as national R&T will continue to be important, and that’s why we have to revert the descending trend.  

In 2016, we entered a new dimension: defense research funded by the EU. The EU’s first pilot project on defense research, which marks the first time the EU budget is used for defense research, is run and managed by the EDA on behalf of the European Commission. Its implementation is well advanced and the three contracts it foresees were signed Oct. 28. It is crucial insofar as for the first time, it is testing the conditions for defense research in an EU framework. More importantly, it also paves the way for the next milestone on the road toward dedicated EU defense research: the launch of the so-called Preparatory Action on CSDP-related research. It was decided by the European Commission with one main objective in mind: to demonstrate the added value of EU-funded research in the defense sector.

Set to start in mid-2017 and running over a three-year period (2017-2019), the Preparatory Action (PA) will thus be a genuine test bed, or the "acid test" to put it bluntly, for proving the relevance of European defense research and laying the foundations for a fully fledged EU defense R&D program in the Multi-annual Financial Framework 2021-2027. A good start is essential for the success of the whole undertaking; that’s why 2017 is so crucial for the future of European defense research. Here, too, the EDA is set to play a key role as the implementing agency for the management and implementation of the research projects as well as for the future exploitation of the outcome of the PA projects.

How to make of the PA a success? Certainly not by producing research that is not driven by member states’ capability requirements. Therefore, the key aspect in assessing the EU added value of the PA will be the actual uptake of the technology research by the industry and the ministries of defense. European defense research has to produce new strategic capabilities for European armed forces and increase the competitiveness of the EU defense technological and industrial base. The PA’s primary operational aim is thus to produce successful research cases, which can underpin the development of military technologies and which would normally not be conducted by member states acting alone. The PA work program therefore needs to rely on the priorities identified in the Capability Development Plan so that it can genuinely address the expressed and foreseen capability needs of the member states. 

Defense R&T is an essential prerequisite to develop the capabilities of the future and thus to provide for our citizens’ security. Commitment by the European institutions, member states and industry is required to put one of the EU global strategy’s core messages into action: "Union funds to support defence research and technologies and multinational cooperation and full use of the European Defence Agency’s potential are essential prerequisites for European security and defence efforts, underpinned by a strong European defence industry."

The year 2017 will give all European stakeholders plenty of opportunities to demonstrate that they take defense research serious, and with it Europe’s future in defense.

Jorge Domecq is chief executive of the European Defence Agency (EDA), an intergovernmental agency of the EU Council.