PARIS --- The Anglo-French defense initiative announced last week did not mention bilateral cooperation on aircraft carriers because Britain still has to firm up its intentions in this field, according to France’s top weapons buyer.
Lauren Collet-Billon, head of the Direction Generale de l’Armement, said during a Feb. 22 press conference here that Britain still has to finalize its aircraft carrier plans, including major technical options such as the kind of catapults it wants to fit to its new aircraft carriers, and what kind of aircraft these ships will finally operate. Initially, Britain wanted to buy the F-35B STOV/L variant to replace its Harriers, but subsequently shifted to the F-35C carrier variant which, like the entire program, has run into substantial technical difficulties.
The F-35 “is an ambitious program, and like all ambitious programs it faces a number of challenges,” Collet-Billon said, adding that bilateral cooperation in the field of aircraft carriers will depend on how British programs.
“If one day we have to lend Rafale Ms to the Royal Navy, why not? Personally, I’d find that very pleasing,” Collet-Billon said.
Speaking during and after DGA’s annual results press conference, Collet-Billon and other DGA officials provided details on ongoing armament programs.
-- Britain and France have nearly completed negotiations on their joint Anti-Navires Léger (ANL) lightweight anti-ship missile program, and expect a development contract to be awarded to MBDA this year, and possibly in a matter of months.
-- The French army fully intends to buy the Watchkeeper UAV developed by Thales UK for the British Army, but this will be preceded by an in-depth evaluation. French army crews will train in Britain this year to operate the system, and will then evaluate Watchkeeper on French territory next year, with a view to awarding a procurement contract by late 2013.
-- A French order is imminent for minirobots and drones for combat engineer units, which will use them for itinerary reconnaissance and clearing.
-- Two contracts will be awarded as part of Anglo-French cooperation on UAVs. The first, worth about 50 million euros, will cover the assessment phase of the MALE drone, whose service introduction is planned around 2020. This contract will be awarded by France’s DGA on behalf of both countries, and will be overseen by a joint project office based at MoD’s procurement wing in Bristol. The goal is to firm up the project’s specifications, the industrial framework – including subcontractors and suppliers - and the development and production plans so the manufacturers will submit an offer for a fixed-price development contract by the end of 2012 or early 2013.
-- The second contract, worth about 10 million euros, will fund the initial specifications of the UCAS combat drone. It will define an unmanned combat aircraft that will follow on to the Neuron demonstrator project managed by Dassault Aviation.
-- Although it may buy tanker capacity from the Royal Air Force “if the flight hour price is affordable,” France intends to buy its own fleet of A330 tankers which are required to support the French air force’s sovereign nuclear strike mission. These will be ordered in 2013.
-- Collet-Billon was dismissive of a future role for EADS in French UAV programs. When asked if the company and DGA were still talking on the subject, he noted that EADS had provided French forces with the Harfang UAV, “and we are in constant dialogue at least on this subject.”