The heads of the defence portfolios of the European Union nations have just approved the creation of a Defence Innovation Centre to accelerate, test, evaluate and validate emerging cutting-edge technologies that are useful in the military and dual-use fields.
The decision to establish a structure focused on promoting innovation and disruptive technologies in the field of defence was taken by the ministers on 17 May, during their last meeting in Brussels, which was also attended by Spain's Margarita Robles.
The centre has been given the acronym HEDI (Hub for EU Defence Innovation), and will form part of the European Defence Agency, the EDA, an organisation created in 2004 to which all EU member states belong - with the sole exception of Denmark - and whose purpose is to support and finance the development of military capabilities
The implementation of HEDI is the ninth of the 12 priorities recommended by the Strategic Compass, a document approved by the EU heads of state and government on 21 March. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of Germany and Spain's Vice-President and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell are two of the driving forces behind it.
The EU wants its armaments agency to play a greater role in innovation and for companies and research institutions to embark on novel projects that result in disruptive products, processes or services of military interest. HEDI is Brussels' reaction to NATO's activation in 2021 of the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic, or DIANA, a fund to promote transatlantic cooperation in critical technologies and closer collaboration with industries and research institutions.
The EU wants to be no less than NATO and has created an instrument that will allow it to be both a "catalyst and amplifier" of new technologies, so HEDI will operate at the limits of the state of the art. In principle, its work will focus on six priorities already defined by the EDA in 2020: soldier systems, battle tanks, patrol vessels, counter-unmanned aerial vehicle systems, defence applications in outer space and military mobility.
To raise awareness of HEDI, the EDA plans to hold what it has dubbed European Defence Innovation Day on 31 May, where researchers and organisations dedicated to fostering innovation will come together in different workshops and forums to bear witness to the collaboration undertaken between the various European innovation actors working in the fields of defence.
But the EDA is not a newcomer to the innovation scene. It has been supporting such initiatives since 2018. Proof of this is that a few weeks ago it published the fifth call for proposals for the Defence Innovation Award. In its 2023 edition, it will finance with 30,000 euros the two best projects that serve to improve the tracking and identification of debris and objects positioned in orbit and thus predict collisions, avoid them and prevent the loss of satellites.
Nor is the interest in innovation suddenly sparked by the war in Ukraine. Florence Parly, France's defence minister until 20 May, when she was replaced by Sébastien Lecornu - President Emmanuel Macron's new head of the military portfolio - created the Agency for Defence Innovation (AID) in September 2018 and has been the driving force behind HEDI.
Organisationally, the AID is part of the Directorate-General for Armaments (DGA) and is tasked with providing the French armed forces with an effective system that covers all areas of innovation and opens the way to new technological avenues.
The head of the AID is Emmanuel Chiva, 52, a renowned biomathematical entrepreneur who has been working for more than 25 years on simulation applied to the military scenario, developing disruptive masking methods and artificial intelligence. The Agency's headquarters are located in the pharaonic headquarters of the French Ministry of Defence in Balard, in the south of Paris, which was inaugurated in November 2015 by François Hollande, then President of the Republic.
In Spain, the main official institution promoting innovation is the Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI), a public business entity under the Ministry of Science and Innovation, which is also responsible for channelling national and international aid for R&D&I projects. In 2020, it committed a total of 833.59 million euros to directly support 1,406 R&D&I projects.
Within the Ministry of Defence, the body responsible is the sub-directorate general for Planning, Technology and Innovation, headed by the Army Major General José Luis Murga. Its functions include programming and controlling the execution of armament, material and research policies that are of interest to national defence, in coordination with Spanish and foreign organisations.
Its main instrument in the area of innovation is the Cooperation in Scientific Research and Development in Strategic Technologies programme, better known as COINCIDENTE. Its purpose is to host civilian technologies developed under the National R&D Plan and to incorporate advanced technological solutions useful for defence.
The National Institute for Aerospace Technology (INTA) can be considered the main R&D&I organisation for defence. A public research organisation, it has three technological campuses specialising in aerospace, land and naval systems. On 20 May, the new director general of INTA, Air Lieutenant General Julio Ayuso - until then deputy director general of Coordination and Plans - took office, taking over from Lieutenant General José Maria Salom, who has been at the helm of the Institute since the beginning of 2018.
Very recently, Professor of Applied Economics Antonio Fonfría, who is well versed in the defence sector, has advocated "getting out of the mental box" and setting up an organisation equivalent to the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the US Department of Defence institution responsible for innovating and making emerging technologies for military use a reality.
Spain has "proprietary threats, which require our own solutions", Fonfría explains, "beyond those that Europe can provide or in which we can participate". He advocates changing the current innovation system, which is "tremendously fragmented, one for each Autonomous Community", and defining a "very long-term National Defence Innovation Strategy with sufficient funding".