Speech by Jean-Marc VESCO at the EuroISME annual conference in Athens

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On 10 May, our co-founder Jean-Marc Vesco shared his vision for an ethical and sustainable European defence industry at the annual EuroISME conference held at the Hellenic Air Force Academy in Athens, Greece. Read his full speech below:


Before getting to the heart of the matter, I would like to thank the distinguished EuroISME community,

– Firstly, for expanding its membership to include a private organisation that is committed to providing the tools to build a lasting peace, while at the same time providing the weapons to win the military battle.

– Secondly for giving me the opportunity today to share my intuition, my questions and my doubts about an ambition that my team and I had in 2015 to act and support the European defence industry in designing and manufacturing weapons systems that comply with ethical rules and EU law.

In order to set the context for my intervention, I would like to start with a quote that, in my opinion, expresses the dilemma we currently face within the European defence community.

First of all, I would like to propose a short trip in the last and unfinished novel by Albert Camus, The First Man. In fact, he sets the scene for a discussion between two men on a subject that is at the heart of our thought here at EuroISME:

In 1905, the hero of the novel is involved in a border conflict between Algeria and Morocco. While on patrol with his comrade, they discover two sentries dead and horribly mutilated. A discussion begins and one of the protagonists explains that when a man defends his country.

“There were certain circumstances in which a man was supposed to do anything and destroy everything. »

But the other replies:

« No, a man doesn’t let himself do that kind of thing! That’s what makes a man. »

This need to remain within the limits of what is acceptable, as defined by the laws and ethical and moral rules, is, I believe, the Arianne thread that must guide the actions of men and women who have the heavy responsibility of defending their nations. It is also what assures them that their actions will never betray the cause for which they accept to die or to give death.

This has been for me a rule of conduct that has guided and helped me throughout my thirty years of career. I cannot imagine changing my code of conduct even though I am no longer required to hold the sword and shield, because I am still responsible for helping to forge that sword and shield.

To further illustrate the context of this issue, please allow me to refer to an article by Dr Marie des Neige RUFFO, a member of EuroISME, published on C&V Consulting’s website. Dr. RUFFO demonstrates that the weapon systems produced by the industry must allow the application of the principles of international humanitarian law, human rights and just war behaviour to make possible the respect of the principles of jus in bello.

Of course, whatever weapon you make, in the end, the human being will have the freedom of action to use it in a fair or unfair way.

Looking back at what I experienced and saw in operations in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans between 1991 and 2006, I can attest to that:

– Some people do not need sophisticated weapons to commit unimaginable atrocities.

– On the other side, even if they are not equipped with the appropriate weapons, other people accept to sacrifice themselves in order to stay within ethical limits.

Therefore, to be in line with European standards and values, the military, decision-makers, researchers and industrialists involved in building up the so called « the European defence ecosystem » should aim to:

– prevent those who will always believe that the end justifies the means,

– and help and protect those who will always remain consistent with the ethical values for which they fight.

I must be transparent and therefore admit that there is still a long way to go and many obstacles to overcome in order to achieve a European defence ecosystem that brings together all the stakeholders in a coherent and efficient manner.

This brings me to the heart of my intervention.

My aim is not to provide solutions to complex issues, but to contribute to the discussion and to observe the actions being taken. To achieve this, I would like to present some of the questions that we often ask our networks with the aim of supporting the development of a European defence industry that complies with the ethical principles and regulations of the European Union.

I will then give an example of a European initiative to ensure ethical compliance within the parameters of the programme financed by the European Defence Fund.

Finally, I will conclude with presenting a more ambitious European initiative whose legislative and regulatory framework will either facilitate or block for several years to come the creation of a defence industry that meets the expectations of European citizens.

As I said earlier, for Armed Forces to win the battle and still be able to keep the peace, the defence industry must act in accordance with the ethical behaviour defined by EU laws, rules and values.

This means that the scope of ethical compliance covers the entire life cycle of weapons, from design to withdrawal.

– On the one hand, it’s essential to integrate ethical compliance into the design of a weapon system at an early stage.

– On the other hand, we must ensure that the supplier of the weapon system acts in accordance with the laws and regulations that define the values for which we fight.

In order to further develop the description of ethical compliance that we are working on, let’s have a look to the following questions:

– Is it relevant and acceptable to buy weapons from suppliers who don’t comply with environmental, social and governance laws and regulations, which are the concrete expression of the values we protect and fight for?

– Is it acceptable that some industrial companies design and produce weapons that are unable to neutralise threats without preventing collateral damage?

– Is it acceptable that these weapons are sold by or to nations that don’t share our values?

– Is it acceptable for our defence capabilities to depend on nations that can deny access to them?

If we don’t answer these questions and, above all, if we don’t anticipate the ethical compliance of our defence industry, we will feed the typology of a defence ecosystem that prevents a just war and we will deprive ourselves of our freedom to defend the ethics of our values.

One could say that the answer to these questions, or rather the way in which the majority of European citizens would answer them, constitutes a consensus.

However, it is much more complex to define and implement the laws and rules that would make this answer legally acceptable.

This is due to the fact :

– that each EU Member State has its own ecosystem, often different from other European ecosystems

– that cultures and social contracts vary widely across Europe

– that our will to build a strategically autonomous Europe of defence is an idea that divides Europe or is even not shared.

We can indeed observe this today that:

– On the one hand, there is a tendency to legitimately require our defence industry to operate and produce systems that comply with the ethical, environmental, social and governance rules of the European Union.

– On the other hand, there is a tendency to favour the purchase of arms outside the EU from non-EU companies that are not subject to the same ethical and ESG rules.

In addition to the economic impasses for the European defence industry, it is important to bear in mind that persevering in not favouring an ethical defence industry is finally considering as acceptable what the ethics and values pushed by the European public opinion commonly consider as unacceptable.

As I said, this phase of the intervention is rich in questions and does not pretend to solve complex problems, but it invites us to go further in the reflection..

However, I would like to propose a first partial conclusion resulting both from the experience of these last years and from a conviction:

We cannot carry out a reflection on ethics by only improving the ethics compliance of operational concepts and human behaviour. The defence industry which forges the weapons of our forces is part of the ethical equation, and it must be irreproachable and protected.


For the second part of my contribution, and to make it more concrete, I would like to give you two examples of ethical compliance processes that we use to implement. One concerns artificial intelligence, the other the reliability of autonomous systems in a complex environment.

The first issue is being developed under the European Defence Fund programme as part of a consortium working on the development of algorithms that require little data to learn to model behaviour.

As a reminder, the European Defence Fund was set up by the European Commission and approved by the European Council and the European Parliament to make the European defence and Technological Industrial base more competitive in order to strengthen Europe’s defence autonomy.

In other words, the EU provides a budget for the development of defence R&D programmes that will enable EU armed forces to acquire capabilities without any restrictions on use or export, except those of EU member states, and thus if necessary to have a European alternative to Non-EU solutions. Around one billion euros is spent annually on this.

In the framework of the awarded EU R&D consortia, the European Commission has asked to assess the ethical compliance of the project. We are part of some of these consortia where we are responsible for ethics compliance from the design phase..

The other project could be developed within the R&D projects of the Belgian Ministry of Defence. For this project, we focus on a specific challenge, which is understanding how information can improve the ability of humans to trust a machine, without inducing overconfidence in the system and in accordance with ethics rules.

In other words, to achieve for a land vehicle the same performance as the autopilot and the instrument panel used by the pilot of an aeroplane, who entrusts the control of the commands, even in very delicate phases, to an algorithm, because he trusts both the algorithm and his ability to control its nominal functioning.

In both cases there is :

– On the one hand, an operational game changer in terms of the ability to increase complex situational awareness and understanding to support timely decision-making and reduce collateral damage while increasing effectiveness.

– On the other hand, there is the risk of a lack of trust to enable the autonomous actions required either to protect forces or to achieve military effects, including support and supply.

According to the best practices, the best way to meet this challenge is to manage the project by setting up an ethics advisory board composed of subject matter experts in multiple disciplines, including specialised experts from the defence forces.

It would be too long to go further into detail about the way we are managing ethics boards. But I would like to specify that among the best practices that we are implementing, we consider as key factors of success :

– Having independent subject matter experts

– Having a multidisciplinary board

– Implementing an agile development methodology within the project in order to have regular workshops between the engineering teams and the ethics board.

– Working on a risk assessment approach and a mitigation action plan to keep the solution concrete and achievable.

To conclude this second part, I would like to offer a second partial conclusion, again based on lessons learned and conviction:

No industrial consortium will be able to design, develop and produce an ethical weapon system without the regular support of an Ethics Advisory Board, which must necessarily include dedicated defence force experts.

I would now like to move on to the last part of my speech, which will also be my conclusion.

In order to give a concrete framework to this conclusion, I would like to refer to another initiative of the European Commission in the field of defence. This initiative of the European Union aims at inciting the mutualised purchase of armaments in the broadest sense by the EU Member States by subsidising the states that will favour European defence companies.

Today, there is an intense debate between those who want to restrict access to non-EU equipment and those who want to open up subsidies to non-EU equipment. Each of the Member States has good reasons in view of its national ecosystem.

However, the choice that will be made is a choice that cannot exclusively be justified by a questionable urgency, but must also take into account the long-term consequences and the legacy that we want to leave to our younger generations.

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but it is important to remember that at the moment the European defence industry has no choice but to face global competition and, consequently, if a company does not win contracts against its competitors, it stops making money and dies.

So if we impose rules on our EU companies that do not apply to their competitors, we automatically make them less competitive.

Similarly, if European states do not impose ethical rules on their defence companies, they will often be considered unattractive by the younger generations, who are increasingly looking for meaning and values in their professional lives.

This quest for fairness and ethics is also the quest of our European soldiers.

How can you imagine enlisting young people if you propose them the same course of action and the same poor ethics as those they might be fighting against ?

If we are now coming back to the previous partial conclusions, we found first that we cannot carry out a reflection on ethics by only improving the ethics compliance of operational concepts and human behaviour.

And then that no industry consortium will be able to design, develop and produce an ethical weapon system without the regular support of an ethics advisory board, which must necessarily include dedicated defence force experts.

That is why I strongly believe that if we have a broad approach of EU defence ecosystems the ethics will no longer be a brake but a key factor of success for the armed forces, ensuring competitiveness, sustainable development and social responsibility for our European Defense Technological Industrial Base.


C&V is an institutional member of EuroISME, the International Society for Military Ethics in Europe.

Find out more about EuroISME: https://www.euroisme.eu/