PARIS --- BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation have revived the latent French UAV wars by publicly renewing their offer to jointly develop a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aircraft for their two governments as the deadline nears for France to decide how to meet another, more urgent short-term UAV requirement.
The French government is coming under increasing pressure from Parliament and the armed forces to acquire an armed UAV capability, and it must soon decide whether to buy the MQ-9 Reaper from the United States, upgrade and arm the Harfang UAVs that it currently operates, or both.
A decision on this short-term requirement would allow a more leisurely development of a future Medium-Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) unmanned vehicle that would enter service in the latter part of the decade.
Among the obstacles to France’s possible Reaper procurement is the fact that they would have to be operated by French crews based at Creech Air Force Base, in Nevada, and this would sit ill with long-standing French principles of military autonomy. The Royal Air Force was authorized to set up a Reaper squadron in the U.K. only in mid-May; this will allow Britain for the first time to control its UAVs from its own territory, and not the U.S., from 2012.
While attention is focused on France’s short-term requirement, two industry groups are jockeying to win the contract to develop the more lucrative follow-on MALE program: BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation, with their newly named Telemos, and the Cassidian unit of EADS, which is offering its Talarion. Both groups understand that winning this program would set them on the way to dominate Europe’s UAV industry – and thus its military aviation - and this explains the intense maneuvering that is going on behind the scenes.
The ultimate prize, as current thinking goes, is the future contract to develop and produce an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) that could be integrated with current fighters like Rafale and Eurofighter when they go through their mid-life upgrade, around 2030. This is especially significant since it would give European fighters a competitive edge over their foreign competitors because UCAVs would escort manned fighters and assist them in reconnaissance, coordinated strikes, suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) missions and more. But that is decades away.
“We currently operate four Harfang UAVs and two ground stations,” Gen. Patrick Charaix, deputy commander of the French air defense forces, said in a recent interview. “They are getting older, and this makes it harder to keep them operationally effective….We are nearing a critical threshold, and we must absolutely do something about it.”
Charaix added that a European-designed MALE UAV will not be available before 2020, “and there is a consensus that we cannot wait that long to acquire a capability that we already urgently need today….There are two alternatives for the next step: buy Reapers, like Britain, Italy and, soon, Germany, or to buy upgraded Harfangs in greater numbers.”
But Eric Trappier, Dassault Aviation executive vice-president, International, says that “even if France goes for an off-the-shelf procurement of an American system, our project should be launched so that, down the line, we will have an off-the-shelf system for the future.”
BAE Systems, Dassault Push Telemos UAV
The current BAE Systems-Dassault team formally submitted its unsolicited proposal to the British and French governments in July 2010. Each country would invest about 500 million euros, with some industry funding, to finance the development, production and operation of a small initial batch of a MALE aircraft they have now christened Telemos.
A key point is that the two companies’ agreement is exclusive; in other words, BAE will work on MALE UAVs only with Dassault, and vice versa. Since it is highly unlikely that the UK government would finance a company other than BAE, the team appears to have gained a head-start by virtually stitching up British funding.
While several European countries plan to procure UAVs at some point, and indeed are buying off-the-shelf systems or funding some technology demonstrator programs such as the Neuron unmanned combat air vehicle, Britain and France will play a leading role by virtue of their defense cooperation treaty, signed on Nov. 2, 2010, which commits them to cooperate in the field of unmanned aircraft.
Specifically, their joint Declaration on Defence and Security Co-operation states that “we have agreed to work together on the next generation of Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Unmanned Air Surveillance Systems….We will launch a jointly funded, competitive assessment phase in 2011, with a view to new equipment delivery between 2015 and 2020.”
It adds that, “In the longer term, we will jointly assess requirements and options for the next generation of Unmanned Combat Air Systems from 2030 onwards….We will develop over the next two years a joint technological and industrial roadmap. This could lead to a decision in 2012 to launch a joint Technology and Operational Demonstration programme from 2013 to 2018.”
The only thing that is missing is the funding, but in this Britain and France differ little from other European countries, whose governments are trying to determine how best to meet their requirements and at what cost. Italy, for example, favors a wide-ranging international project similar in scope and philosophy to the F-35 Joint strike fighter, while Germany is currently focused on introducing its Heron UAVs, which have just attained Initial Operating Capability in Afghanistan, and probably buying or leasing Reapers.
EADS, Cassidian Counter with Talarion
The Cassidian unit of EADS counters that it has already carried out a risk-reduction study for a MALE UAV jointly funded by the French, German and Spanish governments, and has designed the Talarion to incorporate the three countries’ stated requirements. Furthermore, EADS has invested over 500 million euros of its own money in various UAV programs, says a Cassidian executive, thus amassing a volume of experience that is unmatched in Europe. Talarion could fly in 2014 with initial deliveries to follow in 2017, he said, and its full-scale development cost has been reset to 1.2 billion euros, or about 400 million euros per participating country.
Both programs, however, risk running into the cruel reality that, despite their ambitious plans, European countries have little spare cash with which to fund development of one MALE aircraft, let alone two.
One possible outcome is a merger of the Talarion and Telemos into a single program that would then be jointly funded by France, Germany, Spain, the UK as well as Turkey, which joined Talarion last month. Another is for the five countries to set up a straight, winner-takes-all competition between Talarion and Telemos.
Intense negotiations are taking place behind the scenes, and one source familiar with these talks says that major players are debating whether to aim for an outright win, or instead accept a merged program in which all major players would share.
Dassault’s Eric Trappier told reporters here June 8 that, “while BAE and Dassault are the locomotives” of the project, “that doesn’t mean that Italy or other partners will not be able to join the train” at some point, albeit in junior positions. “We will see what the ministries of defense will discuss and agree,” he added prudently.
Given a green light this year, Telemos deliveries could begin five years later. Telemos will have a maximum take-off weight of about 8 metric tonnes, and a wing-span of 24 meters. It will have an endurance of about 24 hours, and will be able to launch weapons such as precision-guided bombs. Its general configuration, with straight wing and two pusher turboprops, is quite similar to BAE’s Mantis demonstrator – and, indeed, to Cassidian’s Telerion, although this has opted for jet engines rather than turboprops.
A significant argument in favor of Telemos, says Trappier, is that it would be a fully independent, Anglo-French system entirely under national sovereignty – and not, by implication, under even indirect control of a third-party country. Peter Richardson, representing BAE’s military aircraft unit, adds that “you have to look at the fact that if governments felt they could meet their requirements by buying off-the-shelf, they wouldn’t have structured [their UAV cooperation] in this way.”
Trappier explained that “we are not competing with any short-term projects” that France is considering, but admitted that the problem of finding the necessary funding for both has to be solved by France’s defense ministry. He also said that, if there is a firm requirement to field a MALE before 2016, “Dassault has other options, with other partners, to respond to it.” He was referring to an offer that Dassault, together with Thales, made to the French ministry of defense last year to lease an UAV system based on the Heron TP air vehicle developed by Israel Aerospace Industries, with which Dassault concluded a teaming agreement in 2009.
Intriguingly, an earlier version of IAI’s Heron also forms the basis of the French air force’s Harfang UAV, but this time it is supplied by EADS as part of the SIDM (Système Intérimaire de Drone MALE, or Interim MALE Drone System). EADS was awarded the latest contract under this program in December 2009, for the acquisition of a fourth Harfang aircraft and a third ground station at a cost of 33.7 million euros.
EADS considers that, through Harfang and its own, company-funded projects like the Talarion and Barracuda UAVs, it has acquired such a level of expertise that it should win the French MALE contract hands-down. Company chief executive Louis Gallois has publicly stated on several occasions that only EADS has the complete know-how needed to develop such a UAV, from ground station to airframe to sensors, and argues that it makes no sense to duplicate such a capability by awarding a MALE contract to anyone else. Dassault and BAE may have sewn up UK MoD funding, but EADS’ lobbying and industrial clout should not be underestimated.
Ironically, before parting ways, Dassault and EADS had teamed with Thales to form what they described, in a joint June 2004 statement, as the “founding agreement, in the framework of the demonstrators launched by the Ministry of Defence, [that] covers all future activity in combat and strategic reconnaissance aeronautics.”
The stakes are high because whoever wins the French (or Anglo-French) MALE contract will dominate the future military aviation market in Western Europe, while the loser will, at best, become a subcontractor. The battle for the MALE is also the logical extension of the two companies’ rivalry in combat aircraft, where the Eurofighter and Rafale compete head-to-head, and are for example the only two aircraft left in the running for India’s $10+ billion MMRCA competition.
As a final twist, BAE is allied with EADS (and Italy’s Alenia Aeronautica) on the Eurofighter, while EADS holds the French government’s stake in Dassault, all of which adds extra spice to the MALE competition and its follow-up.