PARIS --- The ambitious plan announced last week by Britain and France to jointly launch cooperation on unmanned aerial vehicles is unlikely to significantly change the current landscape of Europe’s UAV sector, sources say.
While in their Feb. 17 joint statement French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron describe the initiative as a “long-term strategic partnership framework,” the lack of firm funding commitments, and its very circumspect wording, are such that they do not significantly advance plans enshrined in the two leaders’ previous joint statement of November 2010.
Little Concrete Progress Since 2010
In fact, little concrete progress seems to have been achieved in the 16 months since the two signed their “Declaration on Defence and Security Co-operation” on Nov. 2, 2010.
This document called for the two countries to ”launch a jointly funded, competitive assessment phase in 2011, with a view to new equipment delivery between 2015 and 2020” for a Medium Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) UAV.
This “competitive assessment phase” has now been downgraded to a “risk-reduction study,” while there is no longer any reference to "equipment delivery," and the target dates have disappeared completely.
In the field of Unmanned Combat Air Systems, the 2010 declaration said Britain and France ”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 joint roadmap has disappeared from the Feb. 17 statement, as have the target dates for the UCAS demonstration program.
This can hardly be considered as progress.
The downgrade also extends to the size of the planned investment by the two governments.
The risk-reduction study contract due to be awarded shortly for the Euro MALE is estimated to be worth substantially less than 100 million euros over 12 or 18 months, which falls well short of industry expectations as well as of the amount required to achieve meaningful technological progress.
In June 2011, when BAE Systems and Dassault made public their cooperation on the Euro MALE, they revealed they had made an unsolicited proposal to Britain and France in July 2010. At that time, the program’s cost was estimated at about 500 million euros for each country, to finance the development, production and operation of a small initial batch of Telemos unmanned aircraft.
The second initiative announced last week also falls short of expectations. While it calls for a joint Future Combat Air System Demonstration Program, the two countries have only committed to awarding a contract to begin the specification of this demonstrator, which again falls very short of their previous ambitions.
The statement’s emphasis that future needs be met “in a cost-effective manner,” is also interpreted by some as implying that Britain does not exclude going it alone, possibly by launching a competition to select its future UAV, although others say this is simply a sop to the Eurosceptic wing of Cameron’s Conservative Party.
But this is not to say that the Feb. 17 is totally meaningless.
It is of great political significance, for example, that Britain and France have decided to move forward on a bilateral basis which, for the time being, clearly excludes other EU partners.
The consequence of the decision to work together to develop a UCAS, albeit for the long term, is that Britain is turning its back on its Eurofighter partners, and France on its Neuron partners, to form a new partnership between two countries that have not cooperated on a major defense program since the 1960s.
The agreement also clearly identifies BAE and Dassault as the lead UAV contractors in each country, and implicitly excludes EADS, Thales and other potential players from having any meaningful role in either the Euro MALE or the UCAS programs.
This is likely to spark a more visible version of the underground lobbying campaign that has been waged in France over the past year, as it is generally admitted that since future combat aircraft will be unmanned, firms missing out on the Euro MALE and UCAS programs will be unable to continue in this lucrative market.
Battle for Survival
The battle for survival will continue to pit the BAE-Dassault partnership, which will now develop the Euro MALE, against the EADS/Cassidian group, which is keen to reverse its loss of French UAV business to Dassault, and determined to remain a major player.
As prime contractor of Eurohawk; lead company in a European risk reduction study; designer of the Talarion UAV; and provider of the Heron UAV to the German military, Cassidian has in recent months signed agreements with various European firms also eager to play keep a foot the military UAV sector. Cassidian has teamed with Italy’s Alenia Aermacchi; taken over Skycopter, a small French firm; allowed Turkey’s TAI to join its Talarion project and, most recently, taken over the UAV business of Germany’s Rheinmetall group.
However, the problem facing Cassidian is that none of these countries has any funds to invest in UAVs, and – perhaps most ominously – it has been shut out of France’s other funded UAV program: the procurement of an interim MALE vehicle, a Heron TP adapted to French military requirements, which also has been awarded to Dassault Aviation in cooperation with IAI.
The only real chance for other manufacturers to remain in play, sources say, is if the French government is voted out of office in the presidential elections due in May. The Socialist party, which according to opinion polls is most likely to win, intends to radically reform military procurement, and would probably look to an alternative, pan-European UAV program whose leadership would be more likely go to Cassidian than to Dassault, especially if, as rumored here, outgoing EADS chief executive Louis Gallois is appointed minister for industry in a possible Socialist government.
Whatever happens on the political field, the fact is that Britain and France have little to show for the last two years of “strategic cooperation.” Unless they begin to seriously invest in the field of unmanned vehicles they could well end up being distanced by more agile competitors, which would conclusively doom the future prospects of European industry in the field of unmanned aircraft.