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Belgium and Sweden: The New Members to Join the PESCO Project “ESSOR” (European Secured Software Defined Radio)?

27 April 2021

The European Secure Software Defined Radio (ESSOR) is a PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) project. PESCO was established in 2017 to deepen defence cooperation among the Member States of the European Union. (Art. 46.2, Lisbon Treaty)Its aim is “to jointly arrive at a coherent full spectrum of defence capabilities available to Member States for national and multinational missions and operations”. (PESCO Europa, 2021) Since its establishment, PESCO has been undertaking new projects, and on 6 March 2018, a list of 17 projects was adopted by the Council, then a second list of another 17 projects was adopted on 20 November 2018, and finally, a third batch was adopted on 12 November 2019. That brought the number of projects currently undertaken by PESCO to 47. The ESSOR project was part of the first batch. (Council of the European Council, 2019) Those projects cover areas such as training, land, maritime, air, cyber, and joint enablers. The European Secure Software Defined Radio is part of the “Cyber, C4ISR” area. The C4ISR stands for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance.

The ESSOR project is tasked with developing and providing common technologies for the radios of European armies to ensure the interoperability of EU forces in joint missions and operations. It provides a Software Defined Radio (SDR) architecture for military communications purposes. The goal of the SDR is to facilitate the waveform portability among disparate platforms and promote the reconfigurability of the radio in front of a large range of waveforms. The project also provides a High Data Rate networking wideband Waveform (HDR WF) to develop and produce the SDR in Europe. (OCCAR, 2021) It is, in other words, a military communication system that secures and enhances the transmissions of information regardless of the different radio platforms used. (Consilium Europa, 2020)

There are currently six countries involved in the ESSOR projects: Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Italy, and Finland. Those six might soon be joined by two new members: Belgium and Sweden. The ESSOR project is led by OCCAR (Organization Conjointe de Coopération en matière d’Armement/Organization for Joint Armament Co-operation). OCCAR is an international organisation whose purpose is the “management of cooperative defence equipment programme”. (OCCAR, 2021) Its portfolio currently includes 13 armament projects, ESSOR being one of them. The OCCAR Member States are Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom, as such, four of its Member States are part of the ESSOR programme, and Belgium might soon be the fifth. 

The ESSOR project was launched on 1st January 2009 to guarantee interoperability between the European armies and the American standard SCA (Software Communication Architecture). The ESSOR architecture was relying on the SCA to facilitate its waveform portability and improve its compatibility. (OCCAR, 2021)

When created over a decade ago, it was the first phase of the ESSOR project, called Technology Demonstrator Programme (TDP).  Its main objective was to conceive a software-defined radio architecture and a high-speed waveform for military use. It was a joint venture between Finland, France, Italy, Poland, Spain, and Sweden. The TDP goals were to develop and implement a SDR architecture, and a military High Data Rate Networking Wideband Waveform (HDR WF) compliant with the architecture created. It aimed to harmonise communication systems within the European countries, especially in the case of coalition operations. (Forces Operations, 2020)

Later came the Operational Capability 1 ‘OC1” that started in 2017 and is still ongoing. It was seen as “the first step to build a new generation of interoperable European SDR capability.” (OCCAR, 2021). It also defines enablers for the public release of its architecture and its potential worldwide operational implementation. The ESSOR project is “the first and only Programme where an interoperable common waveform has been jointly developed and ported on different national platforms.” (OCCAR, 2021, 24-25).

OCCAR Director Matteo Bisceglia announced in his annual business plan that Belgium and Sweden could join the ESSOR plan in 2021. Both countries would have a real interest in signing up for the project. Sweden was already involved in the first phase of the project but wished to remain behind for the second and current phase of ESSOR (OC1). As for Belgium, it had also declared its intention to join the project when ESSOR was attached to PESCO in 2018. The Netherlands and Portugal also expressed such intentions.

If Belgium ratifies the protocol, it will have to allocate the necessary funds for the continuation of the activities on the one hand, and on the other hand, define the local company with the appropriate skills to join the a4ESSOR (alliance for ESSOR) consortium. (Forces Opérations, 2021) For example, when Germany joined ESSOR, it paid €80 million, and the company Rohde & Schwarz was selected as the competent group to join a4ESSOR. It is still too early to determine which group will be competent in Belgium, but one could expect Thales Belgium, a Belgian subsidiary specialising in tactical radio communications and is involved in the deployment of the “CONTACT” radio on part of the current Land Component vehicles. (ESSOR, 2021, 3)

a4SSOR is a joint venture that develops the ESSOR project after being granted the contract by OCCAR. After Germany joined, a new contract with a duration of 63 months was made. (Bittium, 2020) The President and General Manager of a4ESSOR, Lino Laganà, viewed German adherence as a big step towards a common European defence infrastructure. He stated that “Secure communications are key to the interoperability of armed forces, which is why a4ESSOR has been developing high-quality and highly-secure communications capabilities which are easily deployable on several manufacturers’ radios thanks to SDR technology and our ESSOR architecture.” (OCCAR, 2020)

The ESSOR OC1 phase is sponsored by the national government of the six countries that are part of it.  The main subcontractors are Bittium for Finland, Indra for Spain, Leonardo for Italy, Radmor for Poland, Thales for France, and Rohde & Schwarz for Germany. (Merklinghaus, 2020)

In November 2020, the ESSOR project had received €37 million from the European Commission. Indeed, the Commission and OCCAR signed a financial accord on the project and €20 million were granted in 2019 and another €17 million in 2020. It was allocated as an industrial development programme in the defence area by the Commission implementing a decision on the financing of the European Defence Industrial Development Program and the adoption of the work programme for the years 2019-2020. This will directly benefit the companies’ part of the consortium a4ESSOR (Thales, Indra, Leonardo, Bittium, Radmor and Rohde & Schwarz). (European Commission, 2019)

Thanks to the new funds allocated, the ESSOR programme will extend its reach to other waveforms and thus guarantee the interoperability and security of communications during joint operations between allied.

Further steps are planned for 2021, barring a postponement due to the pandemic, as the adherence of Belgium and Sweden as new members. The current six participants will work to extend the project even more to become a “future global standard, potentially even outside the military domain”. (Forces Opérations, 2020) Indeed, interoperability of communications within the European armies is important and between civilian and military operators. Indeed, they happen to operate alongside each other in European Security and Defence Policy’ crisis management operations or support of civilian security missions, e.g., in case of border control or disaster relief. (European Defence Agency, 2009)

In conclusion, it can be said that this project has many facets, from the identification of technical specifications to the framing of good industrial solutions, while having major implications for interoperability between the armed forces of the Member States. Currently, there is no other European programme with this magnitude that has achieved that level of maturity. And this project will continue to grow, especially with Belgium and Sweden joining the project soon. The Netherlands and Portugal have also shown interest in the programme and may also follow in the future. 

Written by Anaïs QUINTART, Legal Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre


Art. 42(6), Lisbon Treaty on European Union

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