May 29, 2013

Why and how the “Euro Hawks“ should or shouldn’t fly

The unmanned Euro Hawk plane is pulled to its parking position after landing at the air base in Manching, southern Germany, on July 21, 2011. After a non-stop flight from California in the US, the giant drone with a wingspan of 40 meters landed in Germany. The military surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft is able to stay up to 30 hours in the air and to fly in a heigth of circa 20 kilometers. AFP PHOTO ARMIN WEIGEL GERMANY OUT
The unmanned Euro Hawk plane is pulled to its parking position after landing at the air base in Manching, southern Germany, on July 21, 2011. After a non-stop flight from California in the US, the giant drone with a wingspan of 40 meters landed in Germany. The military surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft is able to stay up to 30 hours in the air and to fly in a heigth of circa 20 kilometers. AFP PHOTO ARMIN WEIGEL GERMANY OUT

The German government has decided to pull a plug on the so-called “Euro Hawk” project – development of the Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, based on the US-made RQ-4 “Global Hawk” system. The justification for that was that the project stood little chance of satisfying a critical requirement – a certified ability of the unmanned aerial vehicle to safely fly in non-segregated (managed) airspace, sharing it with piloted aircraft – at a reasonable cost and within reasonable time frame. Having sunk in almost 0.5 billion euros into the project and anticipating further delays and financial outlays beyond the original plan, the German government decided that, in the words of the defence minister, “the end in horror was better than horror without an end.”

The German government has decided to pull a plug on the so-called “Euro Hawk” project – development of the Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, based on the US-made RQ-4 “Global Hawk” system. The justification for that was that the project stood little chance of satisfying a critical requirement – a certified ability of the unmanned aerial vehicle to safely fly in non-segregated (managed) airspace, sharing it with piloted aircraft – at a reasonable cost and within reasonable time frame. Having sunk in almost 0.5 billion euros into the project and anticipating further delays and financial outlays beyond the original plan, the German government decided that, in the words of the defence minister, “the end in horror was better than horror without an end.”

The outcry came from many corners. There were those asking why the decision had been delayed for so long, even though the difficulties with meeting such a requirement had been known since the report by the German chief of defence in 2008. “So much taxpayer money has been wasted!”, they exclaim. Then there were those lamenting the lack of Germany’s ambition and willingness to develop and adopt an advanced capability which is becoming more and more critical to modern security and defence missions: unsurprisingly, given the nature of their strategic culture, the Germans are particularly uneasy about such aspects of “drone” technological evolution as arming them with missiles and using them to conduct precision strikes. And there were those (myself included) who fretted that the same fate would now befall a common NATO capability project – the Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) – which envisages procurement of a fleet of “Global Hawk” systems and where Germany is a participant and a financial contributor (as is Estonia).
The episode underlines a couple of points worth bringing up: one is related to the general nature and value of spending on research, technology, development, engineering (RTDE) and innovation; the other concerns the ways we pursue that to ensure the West’s security and defence. The good news is that spending on RTDE and innovation is seldom wasted fully and completely, contrary to what many linear-thinkers claim (but, admittedly, the “Euro Hawk” contracts were a bad mess, exacerbated by the behaviour of the contractor, Northrop Grumman, and the German authorities, desperate for certification and delivery). Even when the outcome of a particular project is a failure, there is a lot of knowledge, competence and skills acquired by the stakeholders (governmental, public and private organisations) which would not have been possible without that project in the first place. (In the case of the “Euro Hawk”, the reconnaissance system developed by the EADS is apparently a salvageable technical element, but there is much more than just “hardware” or “software” which could be used in the future).
It then becomes a question whether this knowledge and those skills are subsequently deployed to a positive effect (or the same mistakes are committed again), and whether a different approach and framework are attempted. Just ask the Canadians who pulled the plug on their own UAV project but then used the competence that resulted from it to become “intelligent buyers” of the UAVs in the international security and defence market. Or ask the developers of the Estonian UAV whose project outcome – a UAV prototype – had been left to collect dust in the military warehouse because the Estonian military considered it a failure. The developers then have successfully built upon the expertise, accumulated throughout the project, and currently produce the UAVs for the Georgian armed forces (with the EDF now coming round and considering purchasing them too) – not at all a bad outcome, at least from the Estonian “defence outreach” policy perspective.
Risks, failure and accidental luck are inherent to RTDE and innovation, especially if it is related to cutting-edge “frontier” science and technology (as in the case of inserting UAVs into non-segregated airspace), so those who think it is a risk-free linear journey from point A to point B should think again. So, let us hope the Germans leverage their negative experience to a good use for the NATO AGS instead of killing this important multinational project (even if “Global Hawks” might have to be replaced with some other UAVs). And this pertains to their technical, managerial and political experience as well as, more importantly, to a key lesson that purely national projects of this kind should finally be laid to rest, especially in Europe haunted by recession and defence budget cuts. The greater the number of countries contributing with their knowledge, competence and solutions (even of most specialised, “niche” sort), the better the odds of success are. The death of the “Euro Hawk” in its current form should be an opportunity for more “pooling and sharing” rather than less. This leads to my second point, and a piece of bad news.
The “Euro Hawk” predicament highlights that, in Europe and across the Atlantic, there are multiple walls which prevent the left hand from knowing what the right hand is doing, or from sharing what it has in its possession. The timing of the German decision is particularly ironic in the light of an important development milestone in actually enabling the unmanned aircraft to safely fly in non-segregated airspace. During the same week that the “Euro Hawk” figuratively crashed, the industry-led British project consortium, ASTRAEA, announced that a successful test flight was performed, whereby an aircraft with a suite of technologies on board (“sense and avoid” and navigation systems, robust satellite data links, autonomous decision-making software – all bundled together) flew safely and without any on-board pilot’s interference through the managed airspace between two destinations. This is touted as a breakthrough that will soon be opening doors for all manner of civilian, security and military applications of the UAVs, which are currently impossible due to their exclusion from non-segregated airspace.
But, of course, the “Euro Hawk” was a German national (and solely military!) enterprise heavily relying on the American suppliers which had been occasionally unwilling (or not allowed by the US government) to fully involve the customer in the development process. The ASTRAEA, in a meantime, was a British programme half-funded by the civilian authorities of various shades and stripes (the other half was put up by the private sector), with defence being one of the many stakeholders. The two nations pursued their ambitions in parallel (and through very different “business models”), without much co-ordination, synchronisation or collaboration between them. And, of course, the Americans, who most certainly have their own projects to resolve the very same challenge of inserting remotely piloted aircraft into civilian airspace, will never share most sensitive elements of their technology with the Europeans, thus prompting the latter to step up their talk of technological “non-dependence” and further driving the two sides of the Alliance apart.
As ever, the walls between NATO, the EU, their nations, and even between the civilian and military agencies in the nations are too steep for effective and efficient sharing of knowledge, technology and applications or for multilateral trans-atlantic solutions. Neither NATO nor the EU is succeeding in halting the parade (or charade) of national ambitions, pet projects and “techno-industrial nationalism” (Poland has just announced that, as part of its ambitious military modernisation programme, it will seek technology transfers and domestic development of as much of the weapon systems and platforms as possible). “Pooling and sharing” is yet to become a deeply ingrained practice, even if this helps cutting costs, reducing risks and enhancing the impact of innovation in security and defence. When it comes to technology sharing, collaborative innovation and capability development, the notion of “smart defence”, unfortunately, does not mean the entire West being one space of trust, dense relationships, inter-dependencies and non-duplication. NATO, the EU, the nations and individual organisations are still going about their own stuff without much synergy, launching and crashing – without any further benefit – many “hawks” along the way, pleasing only the Chinese, the Russians and our own “do it yourself” isolationists or “don’t do it at all” innovation-dummies.

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