Plans for a pan-European military research agency are being considered by industrialists and policy-makers in a bid to upgrade the European Union's defence capabilities and boost commercial competitiveness.
Concern that Europe is lagging behind in military-related fields has been exacerbated by the lack of appropriate satellite technology that hampered operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo.
A body similar to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) is one of the options being discussed. US universities bid for grants from Darpa's budget - £1.7 billion this year - "to develop imaginative, innovative and often high-risk research ideas". It is renowned for its lack of bureaucracy and its independence from the military research and development establishment.
Darpa has backed projects that produced the forerunner of the internet, unmanned autonomous vehicles such as the Predator and new generations of semi-conductors and software. Another possibility is to set up a military research framework programme.
In an interview with The THES , the EU's research commissioner, Philippe Busquin, said: "A more effective, better coordinated and more consistent use of European resources in the field of military research is necessary."
While he insisted that there were no firm plans to pump EU funding into military applications, nor a "federal, centralised model in the making", Dr Busquin acknowledged: "We are heading towards a common foreign and security policy, and this could feed into a joint defence policy."
Leading aerospace industrialists have warned the EU that without a more coordinated approach to research, Europe could lose its independence in space technology.
Dr Busquin said: "During the Kosovo war, our access to satellite data was severely reduced. During the war in Afghanistan, we were denied access to satellite mapping of that region so that our humanitarian aid teams on the ground lacked up-to-date maps.
"We are reaching a point where lack of a consistent aerospace policy at EU level and insufficient investment will make the EU aerospace industry lose its competitive edge, abandon markets, give up the capacity to impose technological standards and access to innovative know-how," he said. "If we do not face these challenges now, at the end of the day the EU will simply be cut off from the global aeronautics marketplace."
A key problem is the balance between ensuring confidentiality and promoting the dissemination of knowledge, an issue complicated by the involvement of diverse independent nations.
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