Tehnology from BAE Systems' Taranis UCAV could contribute to a planned BAE-Dassault unmanned aircraft. (BAE Systems)
ROME and PARIS — Aerospace industry officials in Italy and Germany have cautiously welcomed French moves to let them in on the French-U.K. alliance to build two new UAVs, boosting the chances that Europe will develop a common, in-house platform.
But, German and Italian officials argue, the next step is to move talks to a multilateral, roundtable basis.
The response from Italy and Germany was the latest move in a European chess game played out against a background of shifting political and industrial alliances, as well as shrinking budgets, that will help define the continent’s defense aviation industry for decades as it shifts to unmanned systems.
France and the U.K. got the game underway in 2010, when they signed a broad treaty on defense cooperation to include work on a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV and an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). The agreement provoked the wrath of Germany and Italy, who want a slice of any program that promises to become Europe’s common UAV. The two countries promptly signed their own cooperation deal.
But the new socialist government in France, elected in May, appears inclined to expand its cooperation beyond the U.K.
“We want to unite our efforts to relaunch European defense,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said during a June 18 joint press conference alongside his Italian counterpart, Giampaolo di Paola.
Di Paola said he saw the original France-U.K. deal “in a non-exclusive light. That’s the key point,” prompting Le Drian to reply, “I completely agree with this point of view. That’s what I told the British minister when I saw him at the Chicago [NATO] summit.”
Britain and France have maintained since 2010 that they are open to working with other countries, but it was believed by many to be more lip service than anything else.
There is, however, a view that London and Paris form the core of defense cooperation, reflecting the two countries’ military spending, which contributes to about half of the European total.
In that Anglo-French leadership arrangement, BAE Systems and Dassault are the key partners for the planned joint UAV program, with other players joining later, a diplomatic official close to the issue said.
Having two countries at the start of the game avoids complexity and cost overruns, whereas many players could translate to moves to secure work and competing specifications, the official said.
On June 8, a delegation of Italian defense industrialists, led by procurement chief Gen. Claudio Debertolis, accepted an invitation to a conference held by their counterparts in Paris to discuss tie-ups and improve on a track record of joint programs that often founder on disagreements.
Six days later, France then signed a letter of intent with Germany to increase cooperation in several fields, including satellites, missile defense and arms procurement.
The declaration also stated that Germany will work with France on the development of a European UAV, helicopters, and naval and land systems.
Playing Multiple Fronts?
At his June 18 press conference with Di Paola, Le Drian said France and Italy would work together on a “common platform” on defense industrial cooperation, to be presented at a bilateral summit in October.
“It is another sign of openness,” said a senior Italian industrial source. “We have 20,000 people employed in the aeronautical sector, and we cannot afford to be excluded by France, something which would encourage us to look for non-European partners on UAVs.”
But the Italian source was suspicious of France’s deal with Germany. “Are the French playing multiple fronts to keep themselves in the center of things? If we want to be truly open, why not use the letter of intent set-up, rather than bilaterals?”
He was referring to the so-called LoI (letter of intent) treaty to coordinate the European defense industry, which was signed in 2000 by Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden. It functions as a multilateral forum for discussions and agreements.
At the Franco-Italian news conference, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain were referred to as the key countries in renewing efforts toward European defense.
On the subject of a European UAV, a senior German industry source said: “For me, the ideal forum for discussion is the LoI. There is an LoI meeting in Paris in June to which national industry associations have been invited, and the point could be raised there.”
The German source is wary of France’s embrace. “Now they say the Anglo-French deal is open, but I am not sure yet,” he said.
“But can France and the U.K. financially support the program?” he added. “I think it will be opened to those who have resources and technology. And German industry must be an equal partner and will not accept a supplier role.”
The View from London
For Britain’s part, the mood there is becoming more pragmatic on multilateral cooperation. The preference has been for bilateral programs, but economic reality and other issues have forced the U.K. to soften its stance.
France’s declared openness with Italy and Germany contrasts somewhat with the recent announcement that BAE Systems and Dassault could sign contracts worth up to $63 million next month at the Farnborough Airshow to begin jointly developing UCAVs and MALE UAVs. BAE is expected to bring a mockup of a UCAV to the show.
The Anglo-French deals are expected to involve a risk-reduction phase for the proposed Telemos MALE UAV system and a demonstration preparation phase for the UCAV, according to Tom Fillingham, the director of future combat air systems at the British company’s Military Air & Information business.
The work on both programs is expected to last 18 months.
The early UCAV phase will allow the two sides to jointly prepare for future combat air system development, Fillingham said.
Meanwhile, the Italian source said Neuron, a joint UCAV technology demonstrator program involving France, Greece, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland, is “stalling.”
In addition, the maiden flight of BAE’s Taranis has been delayed again until next year. Taranis was originally due to fly in 2011, but it was delayed until late this year for technical and other issues.
Part of the reason for the delay is that the U.K. Ministry of Defence has asked for further radar cross-section tests to corroborate what Fillingham described as the “very promising” data being analyzed by government scientists.
In the meantime, an Italian-German defense industry cooperation deal signed last year, partly as a reaction to the Anglo-French deal, has spawned deals between Alenia Aermacchi and EADS to work on UAVs; Avio and MTU to work on MALE and UCAV propulsion; and Oto Melara and Diehl to team on guided and conventional munitions.
Meanwhile, one multinational MALE UAV program — EADS’ Talarion — has been shelved for lack of interest by France or Germany.
“EADS spent around 450 million euros [$570 million] developing Talarion only for Dassault, which has no experience on MALE programs, being handed the lead,” a France-based industrial source said. “The logical solution would have been for EADS to lead the MALE program and Dassault to lead on UCAVs.”
Andrew Chuter in London contributed to this report.