PARIS --- Trying to head off further European purchases of US-made UAVs, three of Europe’s largest aerospace manufacturers have called on their governments to instead launch a European medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) program.
In a surprise joint statement issued June 16, EADS Cassidian, Dassault Aviation and Finmeccanica Alenia Aermacchi say they “have a common view of the current situation in Europe regarding MALE drones [and] declare their readiness to coordinate on such a program supporting the security needs of our European governments and armed forces.”
This is a rare common initiative by companies more often involved in cut-throat competition on fighters and, until now, on UAVs, and is intended to publicize the fact that European governments, while citing the lack of European options to justify buying MQ-9 Predators from the US, have so far failed to agree on a joint project.
Although Sweden's Saab AB is not a party to the trio's declaration, "we support the idea of a MALE program in Europe, as long as it's a large aircraft," Lennart Sindahl, Saab's Executive Vice-President, told defense-aerospace.com June 16.
The industry declaration is carefully worded to appeal to European politicians, and mentions all the right keywords: “pooling of research and development funding,” “European sovereignty and independence” and “sustaining key competencies and jobs within Europe,” all of which echo priorities expressed at various times by European ministers.
It also adds that a European-designed drone would be civil-certified, “allowing their safe passage and operation in European air space,” which is not feasible with off-the-shelf options, as recently demonstrated by the ill-fated EuroHawk.
European governments lean towards Predator
It is not clear, however, that European governments are prepared to wait for a new development instead of buying off-the-shelf from the United States, especially as this remains the preferred option of their militaries, especially in France and Germany, where they have ferociously lobbied to buy armed Predators.
The reality is that European governments have not drawn up national military requirements for such a system, let alone joint ones, and absent a joint, firm requirement European industry can neither begin to design a drone nor look to its financing. Again, this plays in favor of an off-the-shelf purchase from the US or Israel.
Eric Trappier, CEO of Dassault Aviation, quipped during a June 14 press conference here that “Maybe there is a ‘Buy American Act’ in Europe, which gives the idea it’s always better to buy from the US, whatever the competition offers.” Although he was referring to the European fighter market, his comments also apply to the UAV sector, where he – and other European executives– fear that further Predator buys would, in effect, shut European industry out of its own domestic market.
Trappier added that BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation last year offered to launch the definition phase for a MALE program which “could have been ready by 2020,” but that the British and French governments let it lapse.
An Italian government official, who asked not to be identified, recently told defense-aerospace.com that “the United States are doing everything in their power to prevent Europe from developing large UAVs of its own, [but] European governments simply refuse to see this. When they finally wake up, it will be too late.”
Industry has back-up options
But it is not yet clear that the three manufacturers, while united in their attempt to block Predator purchases, are prepared to compromise on work-share and program management. As late as last week, each of them was still pursuing different strategies to persuade their national governments to finance their own MALE drones.
The scenario touted by EADS, for example, was that Germany’s cancellation of the EuroHawk program has freed up the 500-600 million euros that were earmarked to buy four aircraft. And, as Germany has already developed EuroHawk’s sensor package and ground stations, it only needs to select an existing airframe, which EADS also has available, to take the project forward at reduced cost.
While Alenia Aermacchi CEO Giuseppe Giordo has previously called for a joint European program, he also hedged his bets by proposing that Italy finance continued development of his company’s Sky MALE projects.
It is ironic that, having negotiated and signed various bilateral or trilateral agreements to cooperate on UAV development, while at the same time avoiding to commit any funds, European governments are not any more advanced today than they were in 2011, at the previous Paris air show. Consequently, the four biggest European military powers already operate, or plan to buy, Reapers.
As things now stand, European governments remain uncoordinated.
The current state of play in Europe
Below is the current MALE state of play in four European countries. Together, they have the technological know-how to develop such a system, but Germany has the cash but not the ambition; Italy the need but not the cash; France the urgency but not the vision, and Britain is sitting on the sidelines, content for the time being with its two UK-based Reaper squadrons.
The French air force plans to upgrade its four Harfang (modified IAI Heron) MALE drones, and has requested EADS, the original supplier, to make an offer so as to keep them in service until at least 2016.
France also plans to buy up to 14 Reapers: the first two, probably used Block 100s taken from US Air Force stocks, will be delivered by the end of the year and will be based in Africa’s Sahel region – probably in Niger – replacing the two obsolete Harfangs currently deployed there.
They will be followed by 10 or 12 new-build Reapers which will be delivered from 2016, and which French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian hopes to adapt to French requirements by fitting French-made sensors and data-link. This would however require giving French industry access to the source codes, which could suit the Pentagon because it would help France police the region, but could also hinder Congressional approval.
Le Drian, who discussed the sale during his recent visit to Washington, hopes France will be able to control these aircraft from French territory, and not from Creech AFB in Nevada, and to arm them as well, but this required Congressional approval. France, which is waiting for the US to issue a Letter of Approval for the sale of the first two aircraft, estimates the cost of its Reaper force at 670 million euros, spread out over five or six years.
Le Drian speaks of developing a pan-European MALE UAV for the 2030s, and says there could be a market for 30 to 40 such systems. However, many European industry officials doubt that their companies could afford to wait that long, especially as there are already too many companies fighting for a slice of this comparatively small MALE UAV business.
The EuroHawk cancellation has freed up 500 million euros that had been earmarked for buying four operational aircraft, and that cash can be shifted to other, similar programs if the Bundestag approves.
Germany has already spent €508 million to develop the Euro Hawk prototype and its sensor and datalink package, dubbed ISIS, which is also now available for fitting to a new airframe.
EADS sees this as a golden opportunity to return to the MALE segment it abandoned last year, when Britain and France announced with great fanfare the launch of a bilateral MALE program which has since petered out, as Dassault Aviation CEO Eric Trappier has publicly confirmed.
EADS has two options, both based on its ISIS proprietary package: one is GEMALE (for GErman MALE), which would use its own unmanned airframes (Talarion turboprop or Barracuda jet). Alternatively, it is also happy to offer ISIS as its contribution to a hypothetical – and rather unfortunately named – Future European MALE (FEMALE), if other partners can be found prepared to contribute technology (possibly stealth and optical sensors) and funding. Cassidian said June 13 that it will unveil its FEMALE project at the Paris air show.
However, as AFP reported May 29, Berlin is so far sticking with its planned buy of up to 16 armed Predators from the US. No decision will be made before the September general elections, German defense ministry spokesman Stefan Paris told reporters in Berlin, but the goal is to have them in service beginning in 2016. Germany is also talking with Israel about the possible acquisition of larger Heron TPs, but these are unarmed.
Germany has operated three Israeli-made Heron 1 drones in Afghanistan since 2009. They were acquired through a lease that expires in the autumn of 2014, so the lease must be extended, and the drones upgraded, if Germany is to retain a MALE capability until 2016.
Italy is are seething at the continuing US refusal to arm the Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft that the Italian air force has procured and deployed to Afghanistan, and which fly alongside armed Predators operated by the US Air Force and Royal Air Force.
Italy is now discussing with Israel the joint development, with Elbit Systems, of a new, large unmanned aircraft which would carry both existing Italian sensors and datalink, and Israeli weapons. This would allow Italy to obtain an armed drone capability while escaping from the smothering operational constraints, and the huge financial cost, that come with operating US drones.
Variously dubbed Black Hermes or Hermes 2000, this aircraft would weigh well over 2,000 kilos, and would be jointly developed by Alenia Aermacchi and Selex ES, both units of state-controlled Finmeccanica. It would solve two problems facing the Italian defense ministry: provide offsets for Israel’s purchase of 30 Aermacchi M346 jet trainers, and provide an alternate project on which both Alenia Aermacchi and Selex ES would apply the technologies they have already developed. As a bonus, it would also allow the Italian government to cut its funding for various experimental UAV programs (notably Alenia’s Sky-X and Sky-Y) that it can no longer afford to support.
Alenia, however, takes a different view, and would prefer developing a MALE aircraft from its own Sky designs, while keeping foreign content to a minimum, but as Italy's MoD has little available funding this remains a moot point.
An Alenia Aermacchi spokesman declined to comment on the subject, while Elbit Systems and the Italian ministry of defense’s procurement agency did not respond to e-mail and telephone queries.
Italian authorities are trying to interest other European countries, notably Poland and France, in this project, but the workshare Italy can offer is disproportionately small compared to the size of the financial contributions it is seeking.
- United Kingdom:
Along with the US, the UK is the only country to operate armed UAVs. The Royal Air Force has been operating five Reapers, which it bought in 2007 under an Urgent Operational Requirement; the aircraft are based in Afghanistan, but they are controlled by RAF “pilots” based at Creech AFB, in Nevada.
When it bought a second batch of Reapers, the UK obtained the right to bring its ground stations and operators home, and by the end of the year its two UAV squadrons will be based at RAF Waddington, in Lincolnshire.
The Reapers meet current operational requirements, and having obtained the right to operate them from the UK the RAF has no immediate need for a new system. There is still an unmet requirement for a maritime patrol UAV to escort Royal Navy nuclear submarines to and from their bases, but the current government considers that this mission, previously carried out by Nimrod aircraft it scrapped to save money, can be farmed out to helicopters or transport aircraft without compromising operational security.
Consequently, Britain is sitting on the sidelines of the European MALE game, while BAE is happy to coast as long as there is no clearly identifiable budget to justify powering up its capabilities.
- added comment from Saab on June 16 p.m.
- edited for style.