PARIS --- France’s imminent decisions on UAV procurement will have a disproportionate influence on future European unmanned aircraft programs, and will likely determine whether Europe can catch up with Israel and the United States, whose industries currently dominate the sector.
France’s leading role is coincidental, and is not justified by any special pre-eminence in the industry, and is essentially due to its timing. However, its decision will influence whether European spending on UAVs goes to a new generation of European Medium Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) aircraft or, by leap-frogging the MALE phase, whether to fund a credible competitor in the future market for Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles, or UCAVs.
“The MALE segment has the highest growth rate of UAV market,” Giampiero Lorandi, Group Marketing Director for Selex Galileo, told Defense-Aerospace.com. “However, little money is available…I think it likely that existing UAVs will be upgraded with new sensors, and that governments will put their money into UCAVs to enter service around 2030,” when replacement of current front-line combat aircraft will begin.
French decision is imminent
Incoming French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian promised shortly after taking office that he would decide a course of action by July 14, the national holiday. Nominally, his decisions will only affect national programs: whether to confirm a contract to Dassault Aviation for the development of the Voltigeur interim MALE UAV; whether to proceed with the joint UAV programs with the UK, thus confirming the leadership of BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation, or whether to switch contractors and instead award the work to EADS’ Cassidian unit.
A hint of where the future lies may have been given by BAE, which canceled a July 9 briefing at the Farnborough air show on joint Anglo-French UAV initiatives. On the face of it, this doesn't inspire much confidence in the future of cross-Channel cooperation on drones.
Opening the Anglo-French projects to other European participants is a possible compromise. The main thing, says Eric Trappier, Dassault’s international director, is that industry needs to maintain and develop its technological know-how to prepare the next generation of UAVs, and this requires government-funded programs of some scope.
Europe is now at a crossroads for unmanned aircraft. “There are two directions for Europe: large MALE drones for strategic sovereignty missions, and UCAVs,” Nicolas Chamussy, Cassidian VP for unmanned programs, told Defense-Aeropace.com. “The real issue is whether Europe can agree to launch a major, long-term UAV project; once that is agreed, then we can look at what to do in the meantime.”
European unmanned programs lag
Current European UAV programs are lagging. While France’s previous government announced in 2010 an ambitious bilateral program with the United Kingdom to jointly develop a MALE UAV, and in parallel prepare the ground for follow-on development of a UCAV, nothing had come of these plans by the time it was voted out of office in May.
Britain also dragged its feet, mostly because of a decided lack of enthusiasm for the project by Defence Equipment and Support, the former Defence Procurement Agency, so the project made little progress despite its modest cost, initially about 20 million euros for each country for an 18-month technology maturation and risk-reduction study.
In parallel, both the German and Italian governments, and to a lesser extent Spain’s, have expressed interest in a broader, pan-European initiative to develop a UAV industry and launch joint programs. However, none of these countries has any funds available to ease the project along, and industry is unwilling to commit any funds of its own without government guidance.
Rivals Cassidian and Dassault estimate that development of a MALE UAV would cost about 1 billion euros, a considerable amount given Europe’s current financial straits.
But, almost as much as funding, “Europe needs to agree on a joint staff requirement” to coalesce initiatives, says Cassidian’s Chamussy. “There is a convergence of requirements that is slowly emerging on the back of lessons learned in Afghanistan and Libya” which should be built upon.
Further complicating the issue is that Europe’s four largest nations have opted to buy MALE drones from the US or Israel to support their troops in Afghanistan: Predators for Britain and Italy, and distinct variants of Israel Aerospace Industries’ Heron for France and Germany.
Industry jockeying for funds and leadership
France also must decide whether to award a contract for an interim MALE UAV to replace the Harfang drones it currently deploys in Afghanistan. The previous government selected Dassault Aviation to develop the Voltigeur variant of IAI’s Heron TP, but the contract had not been awarded before it was voted out of office. The requirement also appears much less urgent now that President François Hollande has decided to pull French troops out of Afghanistan by year-end.
Another factor that should inform European decisions on UAVs is national sovereignty. Several European militaries – French and German, to name but two - favor buying combat-proven, armed UAVs like the US-made Predator and Reaper, instead of locally-developed models that might not be armed, and that will take a decade or so to develop. But this would give the United States a degree of control that some European governments see as unacceptable, which reinforces the push for the autonomous European systems also favored by European industry.
“There is a temptation to go the American way,” says a senior industry official, “but that comes with a heavy price in terms of loss of operational sovereignty. Is this acceptable for intelligence-gathering assets? Or on foreign deployments?”
It is against this complex background that French and European industry is jockeying to position itself for whatever unmanned aircraft contracts are finally awarded. Industry officials interviewed for this article generally deplore the indecisiveness and dithering by European governments, which they say fail to grasp that today’s decisions will determine the future of Europe’s military aviation, and thus the long-term fortunes of individual companies.
While they wait for governments to make up their minds, and to earmark the necessary funding, manufacturers have been hedging their positions by signing agreements, alliances and mergers with as many partners as possible.
For example, EADS’ Cassidian unit and Rheinmetall announced in January they were merging their UAV businesses, while in May 2011 Turkish Aerospace Industries joined the Talarion MALE UAV project developed by EADS. Cassidian also acquired SurveyCopter, a French maker of vertical take-off drones.
BAE Systems and Dassault are setting up a joint venture to manage their cooperation on the Anglo-French drone projects, while Dassault has also signed teaming agreements with Israel Aerospace Industries to develop an interim MALE UAV for the French army.
Overpopulated market segment needs shaking out
Furthermore, each major European aerospace manufacturer has developed its own MALE UAVs: BAE System has the Mantis and Taranis; EADS has the Talarion and Barracuda; Italy’s Selex Galileo has the smaller Falco, while several firms are cooperating in the Dassault-led Neuron UCAV technology demonstrator, which is due to fly in September.
Many other UAVs have been designed or developed in Europe in the large tactical to strategic segments. These range from the EADS jet-powered Barracuda to the Eurohawk, a German variant of the Global Hawk developed by Cassidian and ordered by the German military.
An even greater number of tactical UAVs is produced in Europe, running the gamut from Sagem’s Sperwer to Schiebel’s Camcopter and Saab’s Skeldar; the latter two are small helicopters.
And that is just for airframes, which are a relatively minor part of a UAV. “Sensors and the mission equipment package alone can account for up to 40% of the cost of a UAV,” says Selex Galileo’s Lorandi, and the system also requires ground stations and a secure, high-capacity datalink, which are complex and expensive to develop. “Very few companies worldwide master the full range of technologies needed for UAVs,” he added, so there is a need to nurture and develop technological building blocks while avoiding unnecessary duplication of capabilities.