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France, U.K. Sign Deals on Watchkeeper, UCAV

Jul. 24, 2012 - 03:43PM   |  
By PIERRE TRAN   |   Comments
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PARIS — Defense procurement chiefs have signed key cooperation agreements on the Watchkeeper tactical UAV and a joint 13 million euro ($15.7 million) research study on a future unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), British and French defense ministers said July 24 in a joint statement.

However, a meeting between French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his British counterpart, Philip Hammond, failed to yield an announcement on collaboration on an Anglo-French medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV.

BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation will take the lead on the UCAV work. The next few days should also see an announcement linking Rolls-Royce and Safran in a joint study for future engine options, industry executives said.

The British and a French-led consortium already have separate UCAV technology demonstrators scheduled to fly for the first time next year. Both vehicles rely on the aging Adour engine.

Le Drian met Hammond in London on his first official visit to the British capital since the new French socialist administration was formed in June. The ministers “committed to strengthen their defense relations and particularly welcomed the signing of two important memoranda of understanding by Peter Luff, British minister for defense equipment, support and technology, and Laurent Collet-Billon, director of the Direction Générale de l’Armement, marking a new step in Anglo-French cooperation in UAVs,” a joint statement said.

On the Watchkeeper, France is acquiring one system from the U.K. to conduct tests and operational studies, expected to last to mid-2013, which may lead to a future French Army acquisition, a defense official said.

The Watchkeeper system is built by Thales UK and based on the Israeli Elbit Hermes 450.

Talks were also held on cooperation between military specialist units equipped with the same drones, the statement said.

Thales has started delivery of the Watchkeeper to the British Army but the system’s deployment to Afghanistan is being stalled by military certification and other issues.

On the UCAV, BAE and Dassault will conduct studies in a demonstration preparation program, expected to last 12 to 15 months, to identify key technologies for a future aerial weapon system intended for 2030-2040, the official said.

London and Paris will share equally the 13 million-euro cost of the UCAV study.

France is conducting a policy review on the MALE UAV segment, which is expected to take a few more weeks, the official said. That national review will have consequences for any cooperation with Britain.

French military needs and budgetary constraints are the main factors in that review, which suspended a previous decision to acquire as an intermediate solution the Heron TP from Dassault and Israel Aerospace Industries.

The national review gives time to explore ways of bringing Germany into a cooperative MALE UAV program, which would allow EADS to join the international effort. The review is understood to include the Predator B, or Reaper MQ-9, from General Atomics.

The Defense Ministry is in talks for an extension of the contract for the Harfang MALE UAV system, due to expire in October 2013, an industry executive has said.

French officials see the UAV announcements as revitalizing the Anglo-French Lancaster House treaty on bilateral defense cooperation. Beyond that cross-Channel collaboration, Le Drian’s visit to London is also part of France’s attempt to renew efforts to boost a common European defense.

Le Drian was in Warsaw July 23, in Berlin June 22, and had a visit here from his Italian counterpart on June 18, all within two months of the formation of the new administration.

French officials see those capitals and ministers as the first circle in Europe for defense partners.

The previous French administration had announced a plan to acquire the Heron TP as an intermediate solution but Le Drian suspended that decision when he took up the defense portfolio.

Hammond and Le Drian also noted the progress made in nuclear cooperation and welcomed the work done in the setting up of a combined joint expeditionary force and the Corsican Lion exercise scheduled for October, the statement said.

A next bilateral meeting will be held in France.

Andrew Chuter contributed to this report from London.

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