PARIS --- The boost in European defense is just starting to bring its first effects, with Germany opting last week for 60 Chinook heavy transport helicopters from Boeing — which brings us back to the long-standing issue of the lack of a European heavy-lift helicopter.
European governments and military leaders are eager to use recent additional budgets to address enduring capability gaps. These shortfalls, while seldom publicly discussed, now lie at the core of many European states’ defense procurement policies, after years of a steady decline in military budgets.
In Germany, the Bundeswehr Chief of Staff Alfons Mais voiced strong criticism against the status quo amidst the Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying its army was “standing there more or less empty-handed.” In France, around the same period, a parliamentary report thoroughly investigated the prospect of “high-intensity conflicts”, concluding that the French military was not sufficiently equipped to sustain this type of engagement over time.
It is clear that States with limited resources cannot reasonably expect to master the production related to all capabilities, and are necessarily led to source some equipment from foreign partners, or by working on joint developments. Some capabilities, however, are critical to their ability to defend their territory, to carry out military operations abroad, or autonomously support their armed forces. In short, they are critical to their sovereignty.
Addressing dependencies in the air domain.
Capability shortfalls cover both new, cutting-edge technologies and more common platforms and systems historically purchased on the global market.
In Europe, the recently-established Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) serves as a framework for a range of programs associated with the development of such capabilities, furthering the “European strategic autonomy” agenda.
In one major development, France, Spain, Italy and Germany recently agreed to pursue the development of the Eurodrone, officially meant to replace the MQ-9 Reaper – which can only be flown with US consent - to fulfill sovereign Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance mission requirements, starting in 2030.
Also in the air domain, the German-led Strategic Air Transport for Outsized Cargo and French-led Future Medium-Size Tactical Cargo programs address the reliance on foreign aircraft for military transport needs (mostly on Antonov’s An-124 for the former and Lockheed Martin’s C-130 for the latter).
Such programs are all the more critical now that the war in Ukraine has further compromised the future availability of An-124s for European militaries, which have become used to leasing the aircraft when necessary.
On top of these programs, another iconic sovereign program is the French-German FCAS project, which demonstrates that some European states are willing to retain the critical ability to design, build procure and operate new generations of highly complex and lethal weapons systems.
Addressing dependencies in missiles and PNT.
Other European programs aiming to bridge some of those capability gaps can be found in various other fields. Advanced munitions being regularly identified across European military headquarters as one of these critical lacks, next-generation missile systems are another instance of such bilateral and multilateral programs.
Within PESCO, France leads the effort to develop a 5th-generation “beyond-line-of-sight” antitank guided missile, based on MBDA’s already in use MMP mid-range missile, which is set to replace the ageing stocks of American Javelins.
MBDA is also at the heart of the French-British co-development of the Future Cruise and Anti-Ship Weapon, which will succeed the SCALP-EG and Exocet missiles, and the Harpoon, still operated by the Royal Navy.
Related to missiles, ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition & reconnaissance) as well as PNT (Positioning, Navigation, and Timing) capabilities remain sometimes reliant on foreign systems.
Whereas Russia regularly demonstrates its ability to take GPS systems down, European militaries still largely rely upon the GPS, which happens to be operated by the US Space Force. Building upon Galileo, the EU’s civilian GPS project set for deployment in 2024, the Galileo for EU Defense program is meant to pull European militaries away from such dependencies.
Still within PESCO, and also under French lead like the previous example, the TWISTER program will bring a space-based early-warning capability to European militaries, a vital need to face the proliferation of hypersonic weapons, among other uses.
Preparing for hypersonics and the future of deterrence.
Talking about hypersonics in relation to state sovereignty, it is impossible not to mention the heated discussion that has long been going on about the impact of such weapons of deterrence. Without entering the debate, one thing is clear: the combination of hypersonic missile technology fitted with nuclear warheads is already a reality and clearly weighs in the strategic balance.
France recently completed a successful test of its Renovated Mid-Range Air-to-Ground missile, the modernized version of its airborne nuclear weapon designed to remain superior to current state-of-the-art air defenses. But over time, with the progresses to come in air defense technology (with space probably playing a major role), nuclear weapons will need to step up in order to remain a solid deterrent.
While hypersonic nuclear missiles are already mastered by Russia, and China is on track to catch up with its neighbor, the US did not publicly communicate about the existence of such a program. French military chiefs, however, testified during hearings before Parliament that two options were explored for the ASN4G missile, set to replace the current one by 2035: stealth and hypersonic velocity.
France also has a hypersonic glide vehicle program, named the V-MAX, but its co-developers ONERA and MBDA had to delocalize the first test of its super-scramjet to the US. Questioned about this fact, French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly conceded that the Directorate General of Armaments did not have the infrastructure required for such tests yet, and was in the course of developing a first site of the type…
Investing in directed energy weapons, counter-UAV and counter-space capabilities.
Star Wars-like types of speeches claiming lasers will grill nuclear missiles from space in a more or less distant future are a bit of an overstatement, to say the least. However, as drone threats become more widespread among global players, and satellites take on an increasing role in the civil and military infrastructure, counter-UAV and counterspace capabilities are becoming critical focal points for all militaries. And in this field, directed energy weapons are set to provide central capabilities in the near future.
In France, Ariane’s laser-specialized subsidiary Cilas developed the HELMA-P, a 2-kilowatt laser-weapon designed to track and destroy small UAVs, successfully tested by the French Navy in 2021. Cilas is also leading the TALOS European consortium, backed by the European Defense Agency, to develop a 100-kilowatt laser beam able to counter rocket artillery and mortar as well as UAV threats. The system is reportedly on track to enter into service between by 2025.
Thales is also involved in the field with two contracts awarded by the UK MoD in 2021 to develop high-powered laser and radio frequency weapons to be installed onboard one of the Royal Navy’s Type 23 Frigates.
Earlier this year, German defense company Rheinmetall successfully demonstrated a 20kW High Energy Laser (HEL) against aerial targets. Power outputs of up 20-50 kW are planned for a first realization phase, with the aim to reach 100kW in the future. Meanwhile, the company is also working jointly with MBDA Deutschland on a High-energy laser weapon demonstrator in the maritime environment.
Finally, France stood out for its projected constellation of small satellites equipped with lasers which could disable, or at least dazzle, other spacecraft engaging in suspicious or hostile maneuvers towards French satellites.
One concept to rule them all: Multidomain warfare and quantum technologies.
Innovations of the type discussed here have the potential to render previous generations of weapons obsolete, and compromise even their most basic capabilities. One major strategic shift is the general use of increasingly autonomous systems, not only in the air or on the ground, but also in the maritime domain.
States with modern militaries are forced to keep up with these developments so as to maintain a sovereign military projection capacity. Many of these systems, however, will be increasingly reliant on massive flows of data, using sensors, space assets and new concepts like drone swarms all together, in research of better performances on the field.
Achieving real-time communication and joint exploitation of information by systems across all domains (air, land, sea, cyber, and space) lies at the core of what the US lately calls the “Joint all-domains battle” concept. AI is set to take on a major role in powering coordinated unmanned systems in support of human operations.
Many capabilities will be more and more entangled with the Internet of Things, creating vital needs in the field of cryptography, so as to keep these critical data flows uncompromised and weapon systems operational, reactive and reliable.
For this reason, states are investing large amounts in quantum computing, and post-quantum cryptography more specifically. Here again, France committed to heavy investments in this field, perceived as critical to sovereignty and military independence; but the European Defense Agency also has a solid backlog of R&T programs in this enabling capability.
Another proof that in practical military terms, ensuring an effective sovereignty is a daily battle.