By ANDREW CHUTER and PIERRE TRAN
Published: 14 June 2010.
Britain and France have moved a step closer to collaborating on thedevelopment of a next-generation medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE)UAV.
The potential partners are about halfway through a three-month studyinto whether a collaborative approach is possible, a British Ministryof Defence (MoD) spokeswoman said.
"The work will assess the twonations' requirements, arrive at a top-level system concept andidentify a way to manage future work," she said.
The proposed collaboration is one way Britain might fulfill therequirements of its Scavenger effort to find future MALE capabilities.Industry sources say potential candidate UAVs include the EADSTalarion, a development of BAE Systems' Mantis, and future versions ofthe General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper MALE aircraft operated by the Britishmilitary. Mantis and Talarion could form the basis for Britain'scollaboration with France and possibly other European nations.
"Theresults of the study will inform the Scavenger initialgate businesscase, which is due to go forward later this year, particularly withregard to the feasibility of collaboration on a candidate solution tothe Scavenger capability requirement," the MoD spokeswoman said.
France, for its part, intends to choose a MALE UAV as a short-term gapfiller this summer, a French government official said.
Reporterswere tipped to the joint study by Eric Trappier, international directorof Dassault Aviation, who called a June 9 press conference to argueagainst France's consideration of the Predator B, also known as Reaper,for the short-term fix.
"The British and French authorities arefinancing feasibility studies" following a decision by the high-levelworking group that coordinates the two countries' common defenseresearch and technology projects, Trappier told reporters.
Dassaultis one of the companies vying for a leading role in future French orcooperative UAV development work. Dassault and Thales have pitched theSystème de Drone MALE (SDM) for the French purchase.
Trappiersaid Britain and France, both of which have military forces deployed inAfghanistan, are natural partners to pursue a European MALE UAV program.
Moreover, Trappier said, "The political climate is rather good," with London and Paris apparently willing to work together.
"Cooperation is political," he said. "One chooses a strategic partner."
Indeed,Europe's two biggest defense spenders are moving closer together acrossa range of equipment and military requirements. The two sides alreadyhave agreed upon a joint research and technology road map for UAVs,part of a 100 million euro ($121 million) pot earmarked for variousprojects. The French authorities are seriously exploring thepossibility of purchasing the Reaper as a short-term buy to meetoperational requirements. But the prospect of buying off-the-shelfAmerican has raised deep concern over the sovereignty of Europeancapabilities in drones.
At the June 9 press conference, Trappierand Pierre-Eric Pommelet, Thales senior vice president for defensemission systems, argued against a Predator purchase. They said thateven the proposed short-term acquisition of the Reaper would have gravelong-term consequences for French and European industry.
Trappiersaid the purchase of an American drone "would be astonishing," as itwould go against the French government's white paper on defense andnational security.
"Industrial issues are at stake. Strategic issues at stake," he said.
YetFrance continues to call Predator an excellent candidate for anear-term purchase. French procurement head Laurent Collet-Billon is tomeet General Atomics executives during a June 15 visit to Washington,where he will meet his Pentagon counterpart, Ashton Carter.
Asked why Predator apparently leads the pack of candidates, a French Air Force official said, "I have requirements."
ButDassault and Thales argue that those near-term needs could be met bythe SDM, which the French companies teamed up with Indra of Spain andIsrael Aerospace Industries (IAI) to offer to France and Spain in May2008. They say a package of three control stations and nine UAVs wouldcost less than 1 billion euros and could be delivered in 2015 if adecision is made next year.
Pommelet said the SDM, which is basedin IAI's Heron TP UAV, would carry a European payload, including asynthetic aperture radar with a range of more than 100 kilometers, amoving target indicator radar, a secure data link for communicationswith ground troops, and a satellite uplink for remote pilot control.The SDM could handle communications, electronic and signalsintelligence missions, he said.
The Heron TP has been offered under lease to the French government as part of a map to long-term procurement, Trappier said.
Meanwhile,EADS, which has long advocated an autonomous European strategy forUAVs, said it will stop funding studies of its Talarion Advanced UAVthis summer unless France, Germany and Spain offer a developmentcontract.
Dassault and Thales would not put in company money tofund development of the European UAV. If the American government fundsmilitary research, then European governments should do the same,Trappier said.
"We want a level playing field," he said.
Itwould end the European defense industry if companies are expected tofinance their own R&D, leading to the purchase of American productsand the local assembly of parts, Trappier explained.
"It's a political choice," he said.
Trappiersaid Britain had been willing to buy off the shelf from the UnitedStates, but London is looking to recover some of its defense industrialcapability. That makes for a more promising outlook for cooperationwith France on a MALE drone.
If the two governments launch ajoint UAV program, BAE Systems and Dassault would be natural partners,while Thales France and Thales UK would be well-placed to take part inthat collaboration, Trappier said.
Other partners could join, butthere would have to be a clear prime contractor. Depending on where thefunding comes from, Dassault or BAE would lead the program. The choiceof industry leader would flow from the political decision on financing.
Frenchand European industry need a decision, Trappier said. Morale is afactor in industry, as the design engineers are anxious to know whatthe future has in store.
"We need a decision, whatever it is," he said.
TheDGA estimates that Talarion could be delivered around 2018 or 2020 for1.4 billion euros, according to a December 2008 parliamentary report.EADS France would work on the Talarion payload, EADS Germany on the airvehicle.
But the French Air Force wants a MALE UAV in service as soon as possible, ideally from 2012 to 2015.
EADSoffered another option on May 7, proposing to sell France four upgradedHarfang drones, a source familiar with the program said. The servicealready operates two EADS Harfang MALE UAVs in Afghanistan, a third isused for training in France, and the fourth is being repaired by IAI inIsrael and expected to return to service this summer.
Meanwhile, Thales is on track to deliver the Watchkeeper tactical UAV to the British Army next year, on time, Pommelet said.