Materials Research in EU Defence in times of pandemics

06 Jul 2020News

Materials Research in EU Defence in times of pandemics

Materials Research in EU Defence in times of pandemics

Opinion Article by Giuseppe Daquino, EDA Project Officer Materials & Structures Technologies*

In recent times, the world has been deeply impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, touching many aspects (social, political, industrial, economical, etc.) of human society.

The pandemic has shown that there is no country in the world that can consider itself immune or untouchable by such threats. It also demonstrated how closely countries are entangled and how a deviation from normality in one place can have effects in completely different places, albeit with different levels of intensity. If this is valid worldwide, it is even more so on a smaller scale, including at EU level.
Therefore, recent developments have shown how important it is for EU countries to better cooperate at all levels. The European Union is facing an unprecedented challenge that can be tackled only if all EU countries act together and in a coordinated manner.

Materials Research in Defence is certainly an important element of EU Member States’ joint efforts to collaboratively develop European capabilities able to respond efficiently and effectively to the threats laid bare by the pandemic.
In this context, the 2nd AuxDefense2020 international conference was rightly adapted to an online event, allowing participants to showcase their most recent materials research activities in various domains, such as sensoring, ballistic and blast protection, smart textiles, energy supply devices, lightweight materials.
The conference is an ideal forum to discuss and learn from each other on how materials research can provide a valuable contribution to EU Member States’ effort with the objective of becoming better prepared for future similar situations.

The European Defence Agency’s (EDA) Materials Capability Technology Group (in short, Materials CapTech) has developed a Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) to identify the technology areas where this working body can provide a valuable response to existing European defence capability needs. For this reason, the SRA covers several policy areas where materials research is considered crucial by all participating EDA Member States.
These policies are developed in 10 so-called Technology Building Blocks (TBBs), namely technology incubators embedding homogeneous lines of technology developments in response to the European Capability Development Plan (CDP, a regularly updated list of capability development priorities jointly agreed by all EDA Member States) and its related Generic Military Task List.
All the TBBs have been deployed in extensive roadmaps, focusing on technology developments visualised in the short and medium term, projecting a time window up to 2030. Needless to say, some of these development lines are expected to continue further beyond this time window, depending on the actual capability needs and the related geo-political scenarios.

Some of these policy areas are de facto related to the pandemic to respond to the effects and/or to prevent contagion. In fact, it has become evident that there is a need to achieve adequate levels of confidence in the Security of Supply (SoS) across Europe, including on securing sustainable long-term sources for key technologies and guaranteeing partner governments’ willingness to facilitate their supply. This concept was recently quoted within programmatic talks and articles of senior EU officials**: “The crisis has revealed areas where Europe needs to be more resilient to prevent and better withstand future shocks. These include health protective equipment and medicines of course, but also more broadly key technologies, certain critical raw materials (such as rare earths), security and defence industries and the media.”

A central factor of SoS is the access to Critical Raw Materials (CRMs). Improving the recovery and recycling of CRMs could bring significant benefits to the EU, by reducing dependency on imports from Third Countries. Recycling materials may increase security of supply for companies and sectors, as well as lowering material costs once a secondary raw material is functioning.
At the same time, there will be some challenges for industry. CRMs are distributed across a variety of consumer products and can often be found in small quantities in each of these products. Recycling of these materials therefore requires the establishment of sophisticated take-back systems, with a dedicated separation process enabled by advanced technology.

In turn, the enhancement of Europe’s non-dependence is clearly beneficial for its response to the pandemic, because in case of heavy disruption of CRM extraction in Third Countries, the European Union will be sufficiently resilient to deal with the economic and societal shocks.

From the Materials CapTech’s perspective, making use of circular materials in different components, structures and systems, as well as the adoption of advanced design/architecture that enhances the recycling of critical materials used in devices to respond to the pandemic (e.g. CRMs), are essential in the future vision of a less dependent European defence sector. This is fully in line with the recent statement by European Commission Vice-President Margrethe Vestager: “In the rebuild, it will be very important how we can leapfrog our strategic priorities of being a climate neutral continent and making the most of technology***".

As a matter of fact, from a materials perspective, European non-dependence and environmental policies are entangled. Their connection will become more and more evident within the implementation of the EU Green Deal. In practical terms, some critical raw materials are also regulated or going to be regulated by REACH for their environmental impact. This policy entanglement could be tackled with the definition of a roadmap, covering the full supply chain, building a lean model to respond to pandemic or environmental constraints and in line with the circular economy. A position paper was written by the Materials CapTech in 2018 based on this vision.

New emerging materials for the improvement of existing and the development of new platforms are needed for future operations. Some of the characteristics to be improved are lightweight, resistance to degradation and other functionalities.
This may be due to the availability of new materials, production methods or procedures, or due to the need to find replacements because of REACH regulations, ITAR restrictions, material scarcity (e.g. CRM, Rare Earth Elements).

Among the target improvements for Europe’s capabilities are, in particular, better operability, more sustainability and reduced maintenance.
A relevant example within this policy areas is the use of nanotechnology and graphene-based materials and fluids to create new materials for different civil/military applications. The technology area is civil driven (e.g. Graphene Flagship), but with dual use possibilities in most areas, and military specificities in some of them. In response to the pandemic, graphene-based sensors or graphene-based membranes could be effective tools. In fact, membranes can be applied to protect personnel/soldiers against CBRN threats and keep food fresh for a long time.

Last but not least, smart textiles are a new generation of materials and systems with very interesting multifunctional properties (e.g. camouflage, moisture management, electronics integrated in textiles). These properties, together with the possibility of integrating the materials and systems in uniforms/platforms have drawn the attention of civil/defence stakeholders.
As a matter of fact, there are still technical gaps that should be filled, in order to achieve a fully operational system that can provide soldiers with a set of integrated functionalities, as well as the necessary comfort and usability to guarantee a proper performance in crisis situations.
Multifunctional smart textiles are a remarkable technology advancement enabling a safe and immediate answer to the challenges put forward by the pandemic. The list below (far from being exhaustive) mentions the most relevant technological aspects:

  • Early detection and warning of potential CBRN threats
  • Improvement of the monitoring of the healthy status of the personnel/soldier
  • Improvement of the performance of the personnel/soldier
  • Improvement of the gathering and processing of information/communication
  • Improvement of the personal protection in hostile environments

As we face challenging times ahead of us, materials research in defence can definitely provide a valuable contribution to making the European Union stronger and better prepared to deal with pandemics.


*Content is view of author and does not necessarily reflect the position of the European Defence Agency

** J.Borrell, T. Breton “For a united, resilient and sovereign Europe”, https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/80567/united-resilient-and-sovereign-europe_en

*** M. Vestager, Interview at Friends of Europe on 27 March 2020 about COVID-19, its impact on the Single Market, bailouts and citizens, https://www.friendsofeurope.org/events/shaping-europes-digital-future-an-industry-markets-and-digital-nexus/#about

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