Q&A: European Defence Agency

We talk to Erich Weissenböck and Benjamin Fuchs of the European Defence Agency. They explain how their organisation acts as the catalyst that allows member states to pool their expertise and mutually develop solutions for the defence sector.


Defence & Security Systems International: How does the European Defence Agency (EDA) provide a platform for information sharing and common projects?

Erich Weissenböck and Benjamin Fuchs: As an intergovernmental agency, we help our customers, the ministries of defence of the 26 participating member states, to improve their military capabilities and save money.

Not only do we offer a forum for information exchange, but we also facilitate collaborative opportunities for member states that want to cooperate in certain fields of defence capability improvement.

Our unique position allows us to amalgamate different agendas and find synergies, a situation sometimes referred to as the agency's 'comparative advantage'.

DSSI: Can you tell us about the agency's composition?

"The EDA facilitates collaborative opportunities for member states that want to cooperate in certain fields of defence capability improvement."

EW&BF: Although the EDA only has a staff of 115, all the relevant functions are represented: capabilities; research and technology; armaments; industry and markets; and contract specialisation.

We plan our work within the agency in coordination with participating member states. In addition, the EDA incorporates an integrated way of working, an approach facilitated by its small size, regular communication between directorates and a minimum of internal bureaucracy. Integrated development team meetings and project team meetings with the member states ensure that all parties get what they need.

The EDA's project teams provide the platform for member states to identify common interests in filling capability gaps, and generate research, development or procurement projects depending on the requirements of the member states.

DSSI: How closely are Nato, the European Space Agency and the European Commission involved with the EDA's work, and how does the coordination with these other agencies actually work in practice?

EW&BF: We work in close cooperation with all three; in fact, the European Commission funds the development of dual-use technologies through the Seventh Framework Programme.

The member states that participate in the EDA cooperate to harmonise national requirements, which contributes to operational implementation. Combat identification, blue-force tracking, command and control, and weapon deployment systems only make sense or gain value if they work in multinational tactical environments.

In all cases, cooperation and coordination takes place in top-level meetings as well as on a staff level.

DSSI: Does the involvement of additional bodies make project management more complicated or more collaborative?

EW&BF: Both are true, even though it very much depends on the particular case.

The EU has a wealth of expertise in technological matters. In some cases the participation of a body that is not usually involved in defence development or procurement issues at all may be required. This sharing of experience and ideas works both ways - we benefit from other perspectives and widespread expertise.

DSSI: Why do member states decide to use the EDA as a platform? What are the benefits?

EW&BF: European defence budget cuts require member states to spend money efficiently, and it is becoming unsustainable for each to carry out its own defence research and develop its own equipment. We act as a catalyst that promotes cooperation among member states, offering considerable expertise garnered from other projects, sharing best practices and fostering collaboration by pinpointing the requirements that member states have in common. The agency has a good overview of technological capacities in Europe. By promoting and supporting competition, we can help member states and their taxpayers get better value for money.

DSSI: How do your project teams work with member states to identify common interests in filling capability gaps, and generate research, development or procurement projects?

EW&BF: The set-up of project teams is open and varies by requirement.

"The EDA's project teams provide the platform for member states to identify common interests."

For example, the project team for the 21st-Century Soldier System progresses specific development initiatives or proposals generated by the work of the EDA directorates, or proposed by participating member states and other bodies. It covers a range of issues contributing to overall capability development such as training, concepts, manpower, infrastructure and so on, as well as equipment or systems acquisition-oriented projects, including urgent operational requirements.

The core of the project team consists of capability planners from ministries of defence, but depending on the issues at hand the EDA and national participants may come from research and technology, armaments or industry and markets. For conceptual questions, we may also ask for a representative of the EU military staff. The discussion is based on contributions from the member states and the EDA's input. Anyone can make proposals for cooperation on filling capability gaps, and we support this process as best we can, whether it regards an off-the-shelf piece of equipment or an entire soldier system with dozens of sub-components.

DSSI: What has the EDA got to offer that bilateral exchange cannot deliver?

EW&BF: The more openly member states discuss their issues, the higher the chance of finding commonalities and opportunities for cooperation. We often notice that member states are working on the same problems. Potentially, all participants can benefit from the opportunities we offer. Meetings in which all member states gather can bring significant benefits. It may be that, through the EDA, two member states succeed in identifying a common capability gap during a meeting, resulting in a bilateral project; but even in those cases the respective nations may still request our continued support, which we are happy to deliver.

DSSI: Is there ever a danger that sharing the feedback of so many voices means that good ideas are often compromised, with parties forced to settle for the middle ground?

EW&BF: We have thorough discussion processes and the results are very encouraging; not least because these exchanges of opinions can lead to a harmonisation of capability requirements. In the majority of cases, participating member states deploy their soldiers in the same operations; why then should their requirements differ? The nations decide on which projects they want to participate in for themselves. The member states contribute themselves, they shape the projects, and it is they who decide what to do and how to do it.

DSSI: How do you avoid duplication?

EW&BF: Our communicative, integrated way of working has been very helpful in this respect. As far as soldier modernisation activities are concerned, we are fully aware of the activities of the Nato Army Armaments Group, but our scope is different. In most cases, national points of contact represented in the Nato and EDA forums are the same, and wasting resources by duplicating is not in their interest. On a staff level, our mutual relationship is very good indeed. In the end, the most important thing is that our soldiers receive the equipment they need to do their job as quickly and cost effectively as possible.

DSSI: What are the major project milestones in the near future?

"The member states that participate in the EDA cooperate to harmonise national requirements."

EW&BF: Nine member states (Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Romania and Sweden, under the leadership of Spain) are jointly developing the Combat Equipment Dismounted Soldier System. The project is about to enter the R&D phase, with nine feasibility studies planned. These will cover: energy (power supply and energy harvesting); survivability (biosensor information, body temperature stabilisation, lightweight ballistic protection, head protection and adaptive camouflage); the human factors (human factors interface); and observation (precision targeting and observation under reduced visibility).

First results could be available by the end of 2011.In addition, a study on 3D positioning for indoor navigation - which would allow soldiers to reliably cross urban environments without a satellite link - will be used to improve and harmonise soldiers' capabilities. A technology demonstrator will be available later in 2011.

We also support some member states with their urgent operational requirement of a light mortar. This is not about a new development, but we offer a platform for information exchange, and provide our industry and market expertise. A related workshop will take place later in the year.

DSSI: Can you detail the research history and planning that has taken place with regards to the 21st-Century Soldier System?

EW&BF: On 20 September 2006 the EDA's decision-making body directed the agency to define the level of required interoperability between the different soldier systems developed by the 26 participating member states, to identify commonalities across the capability areas with a view to proposing possible short and medium-term cooperations on subsystems. This was the birth of the project team for the 21st-Century Soldier System.

The aim is to harmonise military requirements for the next generation, beyond 2015. Several sub-projects have emerged from the project team since then, with the Combat Equipment Dismounted Soldier System established in summer 2007 being the most prominent and the 3D positioning for indoor navigation project the most recent. Related results from other areas are also being discussed and integrated in ongoing work - for example, studies from the Joint Investment Programme on Force Protection, a cooperation between 20 member states that touches on ballistic and CBRN protection, situational awareness sensors, sniper and gunfire detection, decision-aiding tools and communication links in urban areas.

DSSI: What are the main challenges of dealing with the nine member states that are jointly developing the Combat Equipment Dismounted Soldier System?

EW&BF: We started with infantry capability experts, which resulted in common staff requirements and laid the basis for subsequent work. The process proceeded with the research and technology experts, identifying 14 capability gaps and modulating them into the nine feasibility studies.

The most difficult part was securing funding, which was aggravated by the economic crisis. This challenge threatened to cause delays to our project, but is close to being solved. At the end of the day, this project is more about saving money than about spending it.

To illustrate: a member state pays for one feasibility study, but will receive nine. They recognise that they can work more effectively by sharing information with each other, using the EDA as a platform to operate more efficiently by sharing the burden, which makes us confident about the future.

This article was first published in our sister publication Defence & Security Systems International.