Dassault Aviation's Rafale. (Manjunath Kiran/AFP)
CAZAUX AIR BASE, FRANCE — The French defense industry — facing a global marketplace where major spenders are confronting budget uncertainty and emerging markets are swarmed by companies aggressively competing for any growth opportunity — appears to be turning to an old environmental adage: reduce, reuse, recycle.
The reduction comes in the form of low-cost weapon development that leans on simulation to cut the number of field tests needed to certify weapons. Many systems are designed to reuse equipment in their overall architecture, allowing upgrades without wholesale acquisition. And in the case of the air-to-ground modular weapons or “Hammer” program, the new pre■cision-guided munitions recycle unspent dumb bombs by adding a booster and guidance system.
“Customization of established technology and systems is not just a prudent approach, it’s the key to innovation and competitive advantage for most product markets in defense,” said Steve Grundman, principal at Grundman Advisory. “In the 21st century, there probably are a handful of military product markets that are nascent enough that competitive advantage requires cutting edge, but most of what militaries need are not ‘higher-faster-farther,’ but ‘better-quicker-cheaper.’ “
On a recent tour here organized by the French Defense Ministry and sponsored by a number of French defense companies ahead of the Paris Air Show this month, both government testers and industry representatives emphasized the efforts to keep costs down.
Take the Hammer system. The new laser version of the weapon was tested and approved in April after only three live firings, two on stationary targets and one on a moving target truck. Instead of dropping the bomb to verify the laser system was working during early-stage testing, an aircraft was flown with the bomb still attached through much of what would be the weapon’s flight path as the instrumentation and target tracking were tested.
And the weapon itself takes advantage of existing stocks of 250-kilogram bombs by adding a booster to the back of the bomb and several different guidance options as a module on the front.
The system has been specifically designed for the Dassault Rafale fighter jet, but could be made to work with any aircraft, said Helene Romagnan, program manager for Direction Generale de l’Armement, the French military’s procurement agency.
“It isn’t planned, but it could be done fast if the need arises,” Romagnan said.
However, DGA prefers that countries buy Rafales and use the Hammer as a closely integrated weapon, she said.
Another weapon on display here was the 1-meter precision rocket, part of the larger Meter Precision Munitions (MPM) program designed to take traditional munitions systems such as artillery and mortars and convert them for use as precise munitions delivery systems.
The common warhead intended to be used for the different systems developed by the MPM program would deliver high-energy munitions to a concentrated area. By design, the explosion would be limited to an effective radius of 20 meters, allowing for precise strikes with minimal collateral damage.
The development of the MPM program is set to cost the French government €20 million euros (US $ 25.7 million), with industry picking up the tab for the development of each individual system.
The rocket version, developed by the Thales company TDA Armements, again used new development techniques to avoid a large number of live firings. The rocket was put on a five-axis simulator to test the guidance system without having to put the rocket on a helicopter.
The new rocket can be fired using the existing rocket tubes on the Eurocopter Tiger, and actually creates less wear and tear on the system by using induction connections to the helicopter systems instead of the wires traditionally attached to rockets.
“It’s really a more intelligent solution,” said TDA engineer Aurelie Buisson. “It’s much safer and more reliable.”
Although the emphasis during the tour here was on cost measures, that doesn’t mean the French defense industry isn’t still pushing the envelope. The surface-to-air missile platform/terrain system, designed as a competitor to the US Patriot missile defense system, uses an Aster missile that has a novel means of course correction. Instead of pushing the nose of the missile using thrusters, essentially changing the direction the weapon is headed, boosters are used to jump the entire body of the missile in one direction.
But the emphasis of nearly every program on display was the methods used to keep costs down and make the product affordable for global customers.
It’s a technique that most global competitors are turning to, Grundman said. “If the French have good examples of this approach, kudos to them, but they would not be alone.” ■