The Watchkeeper UAV, developed by the British military. (U.K. Ministry of Defence)
The future of an Anglo-French program to develop a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV remains unclear, even though defense ministers from both nations signed agreements July 24 to push ahead with cooperation in other key areas of UAV technology.
When British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond met French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian in London last week, the possible MALE UAV tie-up didn’t rate a single mention in the public statements released following the meeting.
Not surprisingly, the two ministers and their officials focused on the Watchkeeper UAV and combat UAV (UCAV) decisions they made progress on, rather than those in the pending tray, while France conducts a policy review of its MALE UAV requirements.
The meeting also saw the two sides edge closer on the potentially damaging issue of whether to expand their defense equipment cooperation to include other European countries interested in broader UAV development.
The MALE UAV policy review is expected to emerge in the next few weeks, French government officials said.
The review, driven by operations and budget, prompted the suspension of a decision to acquire as an intermediate solution the Heron TP UAV from France’s Dassault Aviation and Israel Aerospace Industries.
A possible purchase of the U.S.-built General Atomics Reaper or Predator B is among the options under consideration in Paris.
The two defense heads instead focused on the possible French purchase of the Watchkeeper tactical UAV — already adopted by the British Army and the first small step toward development of a UCAV demonstrator. This was enough to boost the 2010 Anglo-French defense treaty that had been showing signs of drift in recent months.
Thales UK is the potential beneficiary of the Watchkeeper collaboration, while a joint BAE Systems-Dassault effort is tasked with a 12-to-15 month plan to identify key UCAV technologies for a future system intended for fielding in the 2030-2040 time frame.
Britain and France have separate UCAV demonstrators due to fly in the next few months. A tie-up between Britain’s Rolls-Royce and France’s Safran group, looking at possible engine development options for the UCAV, also could emerge in the next few weeks, industry executives said.
Cooling on Collaboration
In public, at least, industry and the two governments remain confident a MALE UAV program will emerge.
Privately, though, some British senior executives and government officials warn that the tide might be running against a MALE UAV development project, and that even if a decision is made to move ahead, it might be little more than a political fig leaf.
BAE and Dassault were hopeful a 30 million pound ($46.7 million) MALE UAV deal to study technology maturity issues would be signed at the recent Farnborough International Airshow.
It didn’t happen. Instead, British government officials were quietly warning that the two sides were cooling on the UAV collaboration, and if they had to focus their limited financial resources on one program, it would be the UCAV.
Doug Barrie, the senior air analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, reckons that if the two sides have to make a choice, it will likely be in favor of UCAV investment.
“If resources are the issue, they may take the view that a MALE development is rather like reinventing the wheel, while the UCAV is of strategic importance industrially and operationally,” he said.
A BAE spokeswoman said her company and Dassault “expect [MALE UAV] contracts to be signed shortly.”
The British MoD said in a statement, “We have made significant progress to pave the way for cooperation on a joint MALE capability.”
Charles Edelstenne, Dassault’s executive chairman, said the MALE UAV project is a key part of the company’s effort to retain integration skills in the military aerospace sector beyond the Rafale fighter jet.
“The importance is the maintenance of skills,” he said. “Any program that allows me to maintain military capacity is important.
Britain and France have had diverging views on the issue of allowing other nations to join key programs like the MALE UAV.
The new Socialist government in Paris recently signed a defense cooperation pact with Germany, which included possible collaboration in the UAV sector.
Tomas Valasek, the defense and foreign affairs director at the Centre for European Reform, wrote in a recent article that while the British government and the previous French administration saw it as an exclusively bilateral affair, the new administration views UAV cooperation as the core of a wider European effort.
The statement released after the meeting last week talked about opening specific programs to wider European collaboration. The U.K. MoD declined to say what those programs were.