Estonian research and development in the field of defense has for the first time secured major funding from the European Union. Defense development projects have previously fallen to member states and contractors, Taavi Veskimägi writes.
The European Union agreed on a defense industry activity plan in 2017 following initiative from Estonia. Its aim is to reduce fragmentation of weapons systems, fill gaps in military capacity and boost Europe's competitiveness in defense R&D.
This will see the EU invest €500 million through the European Defense Industrial Development Program (EDIDP) in 2019-2020 and €8 billion through the European Defense Fund (EDF) in 2021-2027 in European defense research and development.
The Estonian Ministry of Defense played a significant role in achieving these agreements during Estonia's European Council presidency, with tangible results now manifesting three years on – Estonian research and development in the field of defense has for the first time secured major funding from the European Union. Defense development projects have previously been handled by member states and contractors.
The defense industry development program competition saw the participation of nine Estonian companies and research institutions involving five different projects. The winners included four Estonian projects that is a brilliant result considering the size of the Estonian defense industry.
The largest sum went to Estonian defense industry companies' project iMUGS (for unmanned ground vehicles and their guidance system), with a total budget of €32.6 million €30.6 million of which will come from the EDIDP. This is the first time the EU supports a project with participation of and that is curated by Estonian defense contractors.
iMUGS will see the development of the standard architecture for unmanned ground vehicles and their guidance systems in Europe. Estonian project participants are Milrem AS as the leading partner, DefSecIntel Solutions OÜ, GT Cyber Technologies OÜ, Rantelon OÜ and the Defense Forces Academy. Finland, France, Spain, Germany, Belgium and Latvia have also joined the project.
iMUGS works to boost the visibility and credibility of the Estonian defense sector in the eyes of European (and global) defense forces and industrial partners. It works to manage the structural risk described in the "Estonian research and development and innovation strategy 2014-2020" of Estonia remaining a subcontractor sporting low value added.
The Estonian defense industry is seen as the main contractor or the system integrator and technology partner that sports much greater value added that any individual bid.
It is believed that Europe will require over 3,000 unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) worth more than a billion euros in the next 15 years. The strategic goal of project lead Milrem Robotics is to supply half of Europe's need or 1,500+ vehicles by involving other Estonian industrial companies.
In addition, 15-20 percent of sales revenue from the sale of UGVs will be spent on research and development to help achieve the goals of the aforementioned strategy. One very important aspect of this is Estonia being involved in the general development of unmanned systems.
Because these are new battlefield systems, their adoption will require entirely new regulation to which the iMUGS program is contributing.
Systems developed as part of the project and adopted by defense forces will considerably boost NATO and Estonian defensive capacity. High-tech enterprise and participation in a Europe-wide cooperation program and supply chain is an effective component of deterrence.
Technology developed as part of the iMUGS project is tied to all NATO critical technological capacities and considerably boosts Estonia's image among NATO partners as a center of innovation and a valuable ally.
What is more, aspects of autonomy and machine cyberdefense to be solved as part of the project are not limited to unmanned vehicles and can be put to use in other military fields. The higher the level of local capacity, the safer we can feel in our country.
How to be successful at applying for European defense grants will be one of the topics of this year's Estonian Defense Industry Association's annual conference. Examples of EDIDP and EDF grants that launched iMUGS will be used as examples.
The Estonian Defense Industry Association was created in February of 2009 and covers over 100 companies that cover all important defense industry fields. The aim of the association is to create better opportunities for its members on the defense services and products market and serve as a strategic partner for the Estonian state to reinforce Estonia's defensive capacity and contribute to the economy.
Companies involved in the iMUGS project are also part of the Defense Estonia cluster aimed at joint research and marketing activity and finding innovative solutions in the field of defense. The Defense Estonia cluster project is co-funded through Enterprise Estonia (EAS) from the European Regional Development Fund.
Editor: Marcus Turovski