STUTTGART, Germany — The European Union wants to build its own microchip manufacturing capability to counterbalance the dominant Asian market and ensure enduring technological sovereignty.
Industry officials have separately called for a pan-European electronics strategy, but until a recent EU proposal becomes concrete legislation, the long-term effects on military programs may prove difficult to gauge.
EU leaders recently announced the European Chips Act meant to support increased research, design and testing capacity as well as ensure national investments are coordinated with those of the broader union.
“The aim is to jointly create a state-of-the-art European chip ecosystem, including production, that ensures our security of supply and will develop new markets for ground-breaking European tech,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during her Sept. 15 state of the union address in Strasbourg, France. The ultimate goal is to increase Europe’s global share of semiconductor production to 20 percent by 2030, per the commission.
Digital technology is the “make-or-break issue” facing the European market today, and “there is no digital without chips,” she said. While the global demand for semiconductors has exploded, the European share of designing and manufacturing those microchips has diminished, and nations have largely become reliant on Asian-made products, she noted.
The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a global microchip shortage that prompted other governments, including the United States, to introduce a domestic semiconductor strategy, as the chips enable systems in virtually every sector from the military to health care and from computers to clean energy.
Nations are developing interconnected, highly software-enabled platforms to operate in increasingly joint environments, and “digitalization” has become a buzzword across the global defense sphere. In Europe, those platforms include the Franco-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System program that would ultimately feature a next-generation fighter, unmanned drones, and a slew of sophisticated sensors and weaponry, all interconnected with each other.
Meanwhile, NATO has highlighted “emerging and disruptive technologies” as a key focus area for the alliance. Many of the technologies it cited will rely on digitalization.
The United Kingdom, Sweden and Italy are also co-researching and developing cutting-edge technologies to enable sixth-generation air combat platforms under their own initiative, dubbed Tempest by the British. Industry and government officials involved in that effort were asked about domestic electronics sourcing during a panel discussion at the biennial DSEI conference in London last month, which took place the same day as von der Leyen’s speech.
A conference attendee asked whether the British-led effort would rely on European-sourced and -manufactured parts, rather than Chinese or American electronics. Richard Berthon, director of future combat air for the British Defence Ministry, said his team will access the global market for parts “where it’s cost-effective, [and] where our sovereignty and security are not impaired.”
Berthon emphasized that the program office is taking security “incredibly seriously,” and that the entire Tempest enterprise “is all about ensuring that for the U.K., we’ve got the technology we need, the skills we need, that we can secure those, and we can sustain them over time.”
Another panelist, Saab Deputy chief executive Anders Carp, called for a “pan-European or pan-Western strategy” to help governments and their industry partners prioritize key technology research and development efforts. Saab represents Swedish industry participation in the British-led aircraft push.
The electronics sourcing conversation is broader than just one such technology initiative — or the fighter aircraft portfolio — and could encompass some other mix of trusted allies and partners, Carp noted. However it’s organized, “there should be some sort of strategy in place to look at how do we make sure that we don’t end up being reliant on someone ... that we don’t want to be reliant on, or may not want to be reliant on in the future,” he said in an interview with Defense News.
When it comes to the broader Tempest effort, industry partners are discussing these issues “at a headline level,” as the program’s design phase remains in the study stages, Carp noted.
Multiple European industry representatives declined to comment on the European Chips Act, citing the recent nature of the initiative. The EU has yet to announce when the European Chips Act might be formally unveiled or voted on.
Thierry Breton, the European commissioner for internal markets, laid out proposed elements of the effort in a Sept. 15 LinkedIn post, including building European-based fabrication plants and establishing a European semiconductor fund.
With 27 EU members, there will be divergent opinions involved in developing the legislation and “a lot of different interests on the ground level,” said Dan Darling, a senior analyst for Forecast International, a U.S. market intelligence firm.
The focus on domestic semiconductor sovereignty makes sense, but the EU needs to move from “a declaration of vision and intent” to actual momentum, he said. Europe is home to a plethora of defense electronics companies, and a domestic supply of resources is sure to trickle up eventually, he added.
That being said, European defense contractors have established business relationships with overseas chip suppliers — such as Samsung in South Korea and the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company — not the existing suppliers on their own continent, said Franz-Stefan Gady, a cyber, space and future conflict fellow at the London-based think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“At the moment, European advanced semiconductor manufacturers produce low-volume niche products with limited military applicability,” he told Defense News. Some such niche products could make headway in Europe, like those related to aerospace sensors, or security chips for crypto processing and other cybersecurity technologies.
But it’s unlikely European chipmakers would supply individual European nations’ defense industries over the next two decades, as the expense would be too great even with strong political will behind the effort, Gady added.
“There is no real market and very little genuine demand from the European defense industry for indigenous European products en masse, despite paying lip service to the concept of strategic autonomy,” he said.
Von der Leyen, who previously served as Germany’s defense minister, acknowledged in her speech that boosting sovereign semiconductor manufacturing capabilities will be a “daunting task,” but one required at this point in time to support both European competitiveness and technological sovereignty.
“Let’s put all of our focus on it,” she said.
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.