Several defence ministries are participating in a project on „dual-use“ reconnaissance drones. Only the Spanish army reveals that they can also be armed for military use.
EU member states want to develop drones with „autonomous behaviours“ that can be used for civilian and military purposes. These „dual-use“ aircraft are to weigh around 150 kilograms and do not require a runway. Accordingly, they could also be flown by law enforcement and disaster control agencies as well as civilian rescue organisations for aerial observation. The military wants to use them with the army, the air force and the navy.
The project is called „Next Generation Small RPAS“ (NGSR) and is part of the Permanent Structured Cooperation agreed by the European Council in December 2017. With the exception of Denmark and Malta, all EU Member States participate in what is also known as PESCO. The initiative aims to improve military cooperation between member states. To this end, the governments commit to increasing their defence spending and investing more money in joint research and development projects.
23 initiatives with German participation
In three waves, the PESCO states initially agreed on 46 projects; in mid-November, 14 more were added. According to an overview, the German Defence Ministry and the Federal Foreign Office are involved in 23 PESCO initiatives. Some of these are coordinated by Germany, including a cyber and IT information technology coordination centre, the improvement of the European response to „crises“, a Europe-wide network of logistics hubs, the establishment of a European Medical Command and the series production of an eleven-ton „Eurodrone“.
The NGSR project described above is chaired by Spain, with Portugal, Romania and Slovenia participating alongside Germany. By 2023, the militaries want to define their needs and agree on ideas for the unmanned aerial vehicle. The range is to be up to 200 kilometres, and the drones will remain in the air for up to ten hours. Requirements include reduced radar, sound and infrared emissions. In 2026, the parties involved want to present a prototype that could then be built in series.
The EU drones should have a payload that is as modular as possible. The civilian or military users will then choose different surveillance technology that will be integrated into their own IT environment. One goal of NGSR is therefore also the standardisation of sensors, energy systems and radio and satellite communication.
It is still open which companies will be involved in the project. In Germany, such capabilities lie with Rheinmetall, among others; the armament group recently took over the insolvent company EMT for this purpose. For 20 years, the small engineering company has produced the LUNA for the German Armed Forces, the new version of which can weigh up to 110 kilograms. Optionally, the LUNA is also available with a vertical take-off system, which would fulfil the PESCO requirements for spot landings.
Other PESCO projects in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles include the development of so-called loitering munitions. These „Small Scalable Weapons“ (SSW) are missiles that circle above a target until an operator gives the order to attack. The „small, low-cost weapon“ is supposed to have automatic functions and be mounted on drones.
This would make the SSW suitable for the drones developed in the NGSR, which according to plans are also to be used in an armed version. The PESCO project description is silent on this, but the Spanish army, which is leading the drone project, has announced it. According to this, they are also to mark targets for attacks by other units, support ongoing attacks with a „fire correction“ and „carry out limited attack actions“ themselves.
The new EU drone could have VTOL capabilities, in Spain such aircraft are built by Embention, which cooperates with the US company Dronetech for the „AV2 Pelican“ (Dronetech).