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Lack of European Consensus on Future Fighters, UAVs Hurts Industry

Jun. 17, 2013 - 05:40AM   |  
By TOM KINGTON   |   Comments
An Italian Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon takes off from the Uvda Air Force base in the southern Israel Negev desert during a joint Israel-Italy aviation drill.
An Italian Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon takes off from the Uvda Air Force base in the southern Israel Negev desert during a joint Israel-Italy aviation drill. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)
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ROME — Europe’s military aviation industry is staring at a dim future while the continent’s leaders haggle over solutions to save the sector’s 200,000 high-tech jobs, experts have warned.

The gloomy forecast is not new, but the inability to agree on common future UAVs is holding back what some consider a panacea for the industry after fighter jet programs run down toward the end of this decade.

“Europe has three fighter programs and no plans to replace them with a European aircraft,” said Trevor Taylor, a defense expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “Three is too many, none is too few.”

The European Defence Agency, set up by the European Union to promote common programs, put out a report in September warning of a loss of know-how and jobs in the €45 billion (US $59.5 billion) industry. But one official at the agency said he had not seen much “concrete movement since, even if this is not unusual, since decisions on new military systems can take years.

“Things don’t look too bad for the Gripen [fighter] because of the Swedish upgrade program, and [France’s] Rafale has the India deal, but Eurofighter work will end in 2017 unless there are new export orders. Over the next decade, the industry could lose tens of thousands of jobs,” said John Mattiussi, the agency’s principal officer for the defense industry.

Last year, India selected Dassault Aviation to supply 126 Rafale fighters, but 18 months later, questions remain over whether the two sides can actually agree to a deal.

At home, the French Ministry of Defense published a white paper April 29 that cut Rafale numbers destined for the Air Force, putting even more pressure on Dassault to sign an export deal.

Rafale orders stand at 180, of which 119 aircraft have been delivered. An order for a further, fifth batch is expected at some point. Air Force and Navy fast jet numbers were capped at 225 by the white paper.

To keep Dassault’s assembly line alive beyond 2020, the French Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Denis Mercier, said the company also will reduce the tempo of deliveries.

“We are slowing down deliveries in the face of an economic background that is difficult for the next two to three years,” Mercier told Defense News in an interview.

“The proposal is to slow down a little bit, with the pace of production being dependent on exports. What’s essential is that Rafale production keeps going beyond 2020,” he said.

Mercier admitted discussions are taking place on the production tempo and final numbers of A400M aircraft that France will take beyond deliveries of the first 15 airlifters. The first of a commitment for 50 of the Airbus Military cargo planes is due to be handed over in July.

Spain and Germany also are on course to reduce A400M numbers, and threaten to sell the remainder of their commitments on the export market.

Meanwhile, the Eurofighter consortium has said it aims to capture 20 to 25 percent of an estimated 800 global combat plane orders in the next 20 years.

But its partners have slowed production to keep Typhoon assembly lines running through 2017. Industry executives in the UK estimate that exports will keep the supply chain active for the Eurofighter Typhoon several years beyond that, even with Spain deciding recently to cut its Typhoon order from 87 to 73 aircraft.

But on June 5, Chris Bushell, senior vice president of electronic warfare systems at Finmeccanica Selex, which supplies systems to the Typhoon, warned that future export orders would grind to a halt until the consortium’s partners pay out for an e-scan radar, with the United Arab Emirates — a possible customer — specifically requesting it.

On the home front, nations like Italy have opted to buy F-35 joint strike fighters for ground attack missions, weakening the resolve to develop a multirole Typhoon.

Europe’s delay in developing e-scan for the twin-engine Typhoon parallels its paralysis in the development of a common UAV, which could safeguard aerospace jobs.

Almost a decade after the launch of the doomed EuroMALE program, France and the UK have proved no better at launching a bilateral UAV program under their 3-year-old defense cooperation deal.

“France and the UK have not been too clear on what they want on UAVs, and we are still at the courting phase,” Taylor said. “There are two requirements, one short term and the other long term. Long term, I still believe it will be absolutely relevant that Europe has an industry that develops unmanned air vehicles. But if we want to develop that in Europe, it is going to be after 2020.”

“With the finalization of the development phase of current military aircraft programs, the industry needs a decision for a new development program soon to keep and enhance its engineering resources and competencies,” said Dietmar Schrick, managing director of the German Aerospace Industries Association.

“The European market is most probably too small for a single-purpose UCAV [unmanned combat air vehicle]; therefore, a combination of surveillance, reconnaissance and armed UAVs is likely,” Schrick said. “In addition, civil applications for UAVs must be considered in the long term as well.”

“The risk is that the jockeying and positioning over a common program will take so much time and money that the rest of the world will have moved on,” Taylor said.

Britain and Italy have already ordered US-built Reaper UAVs to fill operational needs, and France is likely to follow suit, although a deal has not yet been sealed.

Mercier said development of a UAV in Europe remains worthwhile, but not any time soon.

“For the long term, I still believe it will be absolutely relevant that Europe has an industry that develops unmanned air vehicles,” the French Air Force chief said. “But due to the delays we have accumulated in Europe, it is going to be after 2020.”

In Italy, the head of Alenia Aermacchi, Giuseppe Giordo, warned ahead of the Paris Air Show this month that he is looking outside Europe for UAV partners to get started, due to “confusion” in Europe.

One possibility is that Europe decides to skip the development of a medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV and move straight to UCAVs.

Dassault is leading a European UCAV technology demonstrator program known as Neuron, while the British have a similar, and much delayed, project known as Taranis. But there are scant signs of a joint program to develop into a regional program.

Mattiussi at the EDA said the stalling has occurred because companies have had to await common requirements from European governments.

In the meantime, faced with the task of catering to their domestic industrial bases, European governments have been less interested in joint programs, creating a chicken-and-egg situation.

Mattiussi said one way to force the issue on UAVs is to emphasize to governments how military UAVs would spur the growth of civil UAVs.

“The FAA [US Federal Aviation Administration] believes 38 percent of all movements will be UAVs by 2050, and only a fraction of that will be military,” he said. “The market is there, and we believe military decisions made now will shape commercial opportunities, so they should be encouraged.” ■

Andrew Chuter in London and Albrecht Müller in Bonn contributed to this report.

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